Songwriter Interviews

Jesse Colin Young of The Youngbloods

by Carl Wiser

Share this post

On "Get Together," his Vietnam-inspired "Darkness, Darkness," and his return to music amid turbulent times.

With The Youngbloods, Jesse Colin Young had the hit version of "Get Together," the brotherhood anthem of the '60s that still resonates good vibes and positive energy. Written by Dino Valenti, Young heard it at Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, where The Youngbloods were regulars. Included on their 1967 debut, "Get Together" was just a minor hit until it was re-released in 1969, the year Richie Havens played it in his opening set at Woodstock.

In 1972, The Youngbloods disbanded and Young launched a successful solo career. A bout with undiagnosed lyme disease waylaid him after his 2006 album Celtic Mambo, but he's back with a set called Dreamers, inspired by the political and social climate of the day. Tracks include "Shape Shifters," which confronts the culture of lies, and "For My Sisters," where he stands in solidarity with women fighting for change.

As a songwriter who not only lived through the Nixon administration but wrote songs about it, Young has a rare perspective on events of the day and how music plays into it. We start by asking how the "Get Together" generation got us to where we are today.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): With Dreamers it's very clear that you're not pleased with the political landscape. You're part of the generation that brought us "Get Together," but that generation is now in charge. So, what happened?

Jesse Colin Young: I don't know. Beautiful things happened in that generation that are still with us, like the women's movement and organic food. A lot of good things came out of the '60s. Do you mean why didn't the nirvana stick or why couldn't we learn to love each other?

Songfacts: Yes. That's what I'm getting at.

Young: I'm not sure. I heard that song at an open mic at the Cafe Au Go Go and I rushed backstage and said, "I need the lyrics. I'm in love." And I will love it till the day I die. I always sing it live because my favorite part of the show is to listen to the people sing, and to feel their energy.

It's interesting, for a while I was not playing. Lyme disease took me out for eight or nine years, and then when I started to get better my son was graduating music school. I went to his senior recital and I heard these young people play and I said, "I'm being called again. These things need to be talked about."

Songfacts: Which of the songs on Dreamers gives you that feeling you get from playing "Get Together" when the crowd is coming alive.

Young: "For My Sisters." I wanted the album out before the election, but that just didn't happen, so we released "Sisters" and made a video for the song. Women were hooting and hollering at the end of that song having just heard it for the first time, along with a lot of men like myself who feel it's way past time for them to take their place in every way as equals.

There's also a song called "One More Time" that's about singing for the people. "Sacred space for joy and grace, hear the people sing." That's the last line in the song and it gets repeated a couple times. Here I am with a bunch of 20-year-olds in my band and we are coming together as peers and making this cross-generational music. There's no ugliness like this stuff people are screaming about on the internet - that incredible divisiveness is not visible. It's pretty much like the America I grew up in where people were polite, kind to each other, helpful. And of course the audiences are ecstatic to hear these young people play with me and bring "Get Together" forward. But all this new music speaks about love and coming together or points where we have really gone astray.

Songfacts: Why didn't The Youngbloods play Woodstock?

Young: Our manager just screwed up. He was one of our friends and we had this little thing going in the country. We were all living in this little teeny town about 40 miles north of San Francisco. It was a very low-key outfit, and I don't know if we even had an answering machine. We were playing one of Bill Graham's places at the time - not the Fillmore - and we missed the call. What a shame to miss it. Maybe I'll make it this year.

Songfacts: What did you think when you heard Richie Havens doing "Get Together"?

Young: Well, that song was in the Village before I ever got there. Dino Valenti wrote that, and he had already left for the West Coast when The Youngbloods had arrived. Buzzy Linhart, a singer from Cleveland, was singing it and I asked him to write the lyrics out for me. I said, "I've got to sing it."

So, all the singers in the Village knew it. The Kingston Trio recorded it two or three years before that, but nobody found the soul of "Get Together." Somehow that song struck me in a deep and spiritual way and I knew that it would be with me for the rest of my life.

Songfacts: Did you ever cross paths with Dino Valenti?

Young: Yeah, I met him years later at a festival, maybe Seattle Pop, and then we ran into each other at the motorcycle dealer in Marin. He had a bike and so did I.

I was kind of surprised to learn he was a New Yorker and kind of a tough guy. I thought it was a strange and wonderful thing that he came up with this beautiful, angelic song. He was no angel at all, but that song came to him, and boy are we are lucky to have it.

Jesse's birth name is Perry Miller, which doesn't sound so bad, but the crooner Perry Como was big at the time and a bad association for a folk singer. Inspired by the outlaws Jesse James and Cole Younger, and the race car driver Colin Chapman, Perry Miller became Jesse Colin Young. The Youngbloods were named after him.
Songfacts: I don't believe you were ever in Vietnam, but you wrote a song that really captured the experience quite well, which is "Darkness, Darkness." Can you talk about how you got into a place to write that song?

Young: First it was a an acid trip that had a frightening end to it, and that started me thinking about terror. And then I went, My God, what about my friends in Vietnam? Talk about terror. That's how I connected with it.

One of my friends had just died that year. He was in the Coast Guard and they blew up his boat. He was the first one I knew who died, and that brought it closer to me. I sat in the kitchen and put myself there because I wanted them to know: I'm listening, I'm with you, I'm so thankful to not be there and I'm sorry you guys are. I'm thinking of you and I'm praying that you get home in one piece. And "Darkness" came.

It's very Celtic in its construction, and it's right on time.

Songfacts: I think about that Celtic construction when I hear "Cast A Stone" on Dreamers, which is a fantastic album opener. You had Charlie Daniels working on the album with "Darkness, Darkness." Can you talk about what you learned from him and how the fiddle in the Celtic sound progressed in your music?

Young: That was actually David Lindley on "Darkness." We didn't even know Charlie could play. Charlie was still wearing three-piece Polyester suits and he had short hair with great-big milk-bottle-bottom glasses. He was a marvelous man. Just the kind of guy we needed, because three songs into the Elephant Mountain album, Corbitt [guitarist Jerry Corbitt] quit the band. It was wonderful to have Charlie while we figured out what the hell to do and adjusted to being a trio.

Celtic music was part of what I studied when I was in college and I realized I really should get to know the blues. I always thought that rock and roll was a collision of Celtic music from the Appalachians with the blues, and those forms just collided and gave us what we think of as rock and roll. So I spent a lot of time listening to Appalachian music and I discovered that there were all these rare and wonderful field recordings both of blues and mountain music that started to come out in the early '60s on Folkways. So you'd have 18 cuts and they'd be all different artists. It was a wonderful experience for me and I fell in love. I have both Irish and Scottish in me, and I think I was drawn to Appalachian music as much as I was to the blues. It feels good to me. It feels right.

My wife Connie and I wrote "Cast A Stone" together, and it really began the whole record. We were asked by a fan who was involved in the movie that became Boston Strong to provide a song for the movie. The next morning, I woke up and there was a page of lyrics. Connie had gotten up at four o'clock.

I took it and said, "OK, Boston." My family's from Boston and there's a lot of Irish and Scottish in there from my mother's side. I thought, This is Celtic - that's the way to go here, and it just flew out of me. I play it in an open tuning, the same tuning I used on "Darkness, Darkness."

That song came so fast and so strong. I had been suffering with Lyme disease, trying to get better for years, not touring, and all of a sudden I realized I was getting well.

Songfacts: How did you manage to stay out of Vietnam?

Young: Well, I had a couple of different deferrals. I had children young, then I was in college. I think I was 25 and in The Youngbloods when I was finally drafted. I had childhood asthma, and I don't know why, but I had gout at the age of 20. Those two things must have kept me out, because a lot of those guys didn't walk out of that door.

I just think I had other work to do. I was in The Youngbloods. I was on the verge of finding an anthem for my generation, and I was just not supposed to go to Vietnam.

Songfacts: Was there a real person behind the song "Sunlight"?

Young: Kind of. Yeah. [long pause]

Songfacts: You were a songwriter-musician during the Nixon administration. Can you shed some light on how that time compares to now for a songwriter with your specific views?

Young: We were very much divided over the war and over civil rights - a lot like today. Social media complicates things and amplifies things, but I find them very similar.

"Get Together" was a voice for healing toward the end of the war. It came out in '67 and was only a hit in San Francisco and Seattle. Then two years later the country had turned against the war and we were less divided. More people were saying we ought to bring our soldiers home.

So, that's why "Get Together" wasn't a hit until 1969, and it was up to Augie Bloom, the head of promotion at RCA, who made that company re-release it by threatening to quit. Record companies don't often release records again, especially an identical version, but the country was ready for it.

And somehow I feel called at this time and healthy enough to do this again. As soon as I started playing in the winter of 2017, the audiences were so hungry. We sold out the first 12 or 14 shows and the audiences were so hungry for music of peace, music of family and love of the natural world.

This is the most political album I've ever done, although there's always been that thread through my records, whether it's a song like "Before You Came" about Native Americans, or "Peace Song." But Dreamers is a loving look at the truth, which I feel binds us together. And as always, there are lies that threaten to tear the fabric of our society apart, and we need to look at it hard, and then we need to do something about it. If we do, we can love each other, forgive each other and be friends with people who have the wrong bumper stickers.

Songfacts: You mentioned "Song For Juli," which you wrote for your daughter. What does she think of it?

Young: She loves it. We wrote it for her, my ex and I, at a time when she really felt bumped out of the limelight by her little brother and she needed a song that made her feel special. She turned 50 a few years ago. We played at a restaurant she was working in at Point Reyes, and of course, I played it for her and she loved it.

Around 1967, The Youngbloods left New York for California. Jesse bought a house in Inverness Park and wrote a song about it: "Ridgetop," which appears on his 1973 album, Song For Juli. In 1995, the house was destroyed by the Mount Vision fire; he and his wife Connie moved to Hawaii and bought an organic coffee farm, which they still operate. They now reside in South Carolina.
Songfacts: What's it like performing the song "Ridgetop" now that you have lost the place you wrote it about?

Young: It was difficult when it first happened. It was hell. I had to go out on the road right after the house burned down. We were in papers all over the country when that happened, so maybe audiences wanted to reminisce about it too. I still have the property and my recording studio, one of them, is there. It was built down in a gully and that fire was so hot and the trees so tall - big, 100-foot pines - that the firemen said it just sucked all the oxygen out from down low, and way down there in the gully was the recording studio.

There were five scorched boards on the deck and our four-story house was burnt down to like a foot of ash. So, what a blessing that was to save the studio. I guess as time goes on you let pain go and concentrate on the blessings.

Songfacts: You have a number of songs you can play live and one of the ones you choose very often is "Sugar Babe." Can you talk about that song and why it has stuck?

Young: I love it. When I wrote it, I was studying a book that John Lomax wrote when he was being set up by the government to make field recordings. Even though I don't read music I was always looking through these wonderful songs and "Sugar Babe" came to me right then when I was listening to Pete Seeger. I was trying to get some of that open sound that a banjo gets by playing in open tunings on the guitar.

Yes, "Sugar Babe" just hits the spot. It's fun for me to play, especially solo. Those lyrics are from the book. They are someone's lyrics from Appalachia or from the Delta, but they opened the world of the South to me. Being born in New York and growing up on Long Island I had no idea why I was loving Southern music. A song like "Sugar Babe," the story is so beautiful and humorous and totally different from what I heard growing up on Long Island. You know, we didn't shoot dice behind the high school, we were busy trying to earn letters and let our girlfriends wear them. It's a different upbringing that it talks about in those wonderful lyrics.

Songfacts: What is the best part of your job, and has that changed over time?

Young: I love being with a live audience, although I'm awful nervous before I play. It just gets the adrenaline going - I've learned to make peace with that and actually use it. And I love to record.

For me, it's about reaching the place - whether it's playing in the studio or live - where your incisive mind goes to sleep and you're realizing from afar that the music is just coming out of you. As long as you don't look too closely, sometimes you don't stumble and it just pours out, and it's magic. I know how to get there, but I cannot always get there. And if I pay too much attention to it when I notice it's happening, it goes away.

January 19, 2019
Get Dreamers and tour dates at jessecolinyoung.com
photos: Brent Cline

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 3

  • AnonymousI saw Jessie Colin Young in maybe 1984? At a club in Homer, Alaska, called Alice’s Chanpagne Palace. The equipment van was rolled and the show started late. It was unforgettable!
  • Skip Schlitzkus from Wrightsville Beach Nc A fan for 46 years n counting. Waiting for Dreamers on CD. So happy Jesse recovered from lyme, visited his son n got reignited to tour. Just the sweetest concerts now.
  • John A Shavel from Bronx NyLove Mr. Young.I truly wish that you mentioned his first album "The soul of a city boy".It was a showing of white man's blues,great
see more comments

Goodbye, Hello: Ten Farewell Tour Fake-OutsSong Writing

The 10 biggest "retirement tours" that didn't take.

Michael Glabicki of Rusted RootSongwriter Interviews

Michael tells the story of "Send Me On My Way," and explains why some of the words in the song don't have a literal meaning.

Harold Brown of WarSongwriter Interviews

A founding member of the band War, Harold gives a first-person account of one of the most important periods in music history.

Eric BurdonSongwriter Interviews

The renown rock singer talks about "The House of the Rising Sun" and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood."

Who's Johnny, And Why Does He Show Up In So Many SongsSong Writing

For songwriters, Johnny represents the American man. He has been angry, cool, magic, a rebel and, of course, marching home.

Mike Rutherford (Genesis, Mike + The Mechanics)Songwriter Interviews

Mike talks about the "Silent Running" storyline and "Land Of Confusion" in the age of Trump.