Jesse Colin Young: Song for Juli

As the Youngbloods were gliding towards an end, Jesse Colin Young finished building his recording studio near the home that so inspired him, and he began to write and record music about the deep inspiration and sense of fulfillment that he drew from living on his somewhat secluded property.

by Marshall Bowden

Between October 3-16, 1995, the Vision Fire burned 12,354 acres near Mount Vision in the Point Reyes National Seashore, scorching the scenic and sparsely populated land between Tomales Bay and the Drakes Bay along the Pacific Ocean. Winds of up to 45 mph turned the smoldering remains of an illegal campfire on Mount Vision into a firestorm. Ravaging private property, California State Parks land and federal land, the fire destroyed 45 structures in Inverness Park within the first hours of the blaze and forced the evacuation of 422 people, mostly residents in the hills above Inverness, Olema and Point Reyes Station. There were no fatalities or major injuries. https://www.marincounty.org/main/county-press-releases/press-releases/2015/vision-fire-anniv-092815

Among the homes destroyed was that of singer/songwriter Jesse Colin Young. “It was a crushing blow for me. I had fallen in love with that area, I made music about it, had been inspired by it.” Young was so devastated that he decided to move, along with his family, to a small coffee farm in Hawaii.

 

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Jesse Colin Young first came to light during the folk music boom in New York City. While nominally a student at New York University he played the coffee houses where, he says, “tourists were already paying 3 or 4 dollars for a cup of coffee and our music which the owners got for free.”  Through a series of connections he met Bobby Scott, a musician and songwriter who worked for TM Music, a publishing company that was owned by Bobby Darin. Scott recorded Young and the result was the folk album The Soul of a City Boy.

After a second solo record Young met up with Jerry Corbitt, who was part of the folk scene in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The two formed the group The Youngbloods, recruiting Lowell ‘Banana’ Levinger and Joe Bauer, a young jazz drummer. The Youngbloods recorded three albums, perhaps the best of which is their last, Elephant Mountain, but they are forever remembered for the single “Get Together,” a piece of hippie folk pop reminiscent of the sound of The Byrds and The Lovin’ Spoonful. 

Young moved to Point Reyes, California, in 1967 as the Youngbloods were hitting their stride on the national scene. As a native New Yorker, Young was entranced and thoroughly besotted with the rugged, outdoorsy life he and his family led on the ridge top overlooking Point Reyes Station. “Hiking in those woods and riding my motorcycle out to the beach…coming from the lower east side of New York, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven” he said in a 2016 interview

As the Youngbloods were gliding towards an end, Jesse Colin Young finished building his recording studio near the home that so inspired him, and he began to write and record music about the deep inspiration and sense of fulfillment that he drew from living on his somewhat secluded property. Those songs became the album Song For Juli, which is now seen as Young’s definitive solo masterpiece, although he made a series of records of nearly equal brilliance. 

“The recording of Song For Juli was a time of major musical transition for me. I took a summer off from The Youngbloods circa 1970?, bought a big Dodge van and hit the road with the musicians that would become the co-creators of the new music… Scott Lawrence on piano, Jeff Meyer on drums and David Hayes playing bass… A great rhythm section. We soon added the multi talented Jim Rothermel to play flute and saxophone and spent the next year recording in my newly built studio next to my Ridgetop home in Marin County, California. This was the fulfilment of a dream of mine… To write and record, produce and engineer an album of new music in the woods.”   https://www.psychedelicbabymag.com/2016/05/jesse-colin-young-interview.html

The band was definitely integral to Song For Juli, with Meyer and Hayes creating a number of comfortable grooves that are seasoned perfectly by Lawrence’s piano and Young’s guitar. Rothermel is the finishing touch to the record, though, providing saxophone and flute solos that give the songs an open, airy feel comparable to Carole King’s Tapestry, Van Morrison/s Moondance, or Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon, with the jazzy inspiration of Laura Nyro’s Smile. The record also has a similar juxtaposition of lighter and darker moods to CSNY/Deja Vu.

Most of the songs use imagery of the beauty of the California coast where Young was living among 100 foot tall pines, hiking deep into the woods, and living with a front lawn made of pine needles. “I can almost smell the coastline’s rainy weather/Watch the tide as it rolls in/See the smoke rise in the wind/When the evenin’ comes” he sings on “Evenin,'” a track about missing the joys of home while on the road.

“The songs for Song For Juli were all inspired by the grand adventure of living on a ridgetop in West Marin and being a father to my daughter Juli and my newly born son Cheyenne,” says Young. “Before this we had spent 6 years on the Lower East Side of New York until we played the Avalon Ballroom for the first time and discovered the San Francisco music scene. It was a bold move for us to make our new West Coast base in the rural countryside of Marin and one that opened up a whole new life for me and my band mates.” 

No song is more evocative of this California loner/Mother Nature’s son vibe than “Ridgetop,” the song Young named after his home in the mountains. Young revels in the isolated nature of his home:

Yes, the hill that I live on is steep
And the road's full of ruts
And the people who live in the flatlands
Think we folks are nuts
But the ruts in my road and the curves
Keep the tourists at bay
And it's lonesome and peaceful
And you know I like it that way

Elsewhere in the song he tell us that “As long as I’m here/I’ll make sure people leave us all alone” referring to the squirrels and other creatures that make their home in the forest of pines, but just as equally referring to Young and his family. 

The song is set in a minor key, giving it a slightly ominous tone, with Lawrence’s open voicings underlining the song’s modal structure. Jim Rothermel’s alto sax has a bright tone, reminiscent once again of the sound of some of Van Morrison’s more sell-known recordings. In fact, Song For Juli has a similar energy to Morrison albums such as MoondanceHis Band and Street Choir, and A Period of Transition

There are a few Jesse Colin Young live performances from this period available on Wolfgang’s but you can always take the evidence available on the official release On The Road (1976), where “Ridgetop” is treated to a nearly thirteen minute performance due in large part to Rothermel’s three minute opening sax cadenza. When the song kicks into tempo, it’s a tad faster than the studio version and Young takes a lot of rhythmic and melodic liberties that sound completely natural and unforced. The live album and performances just confirm what the careful listener will have divined from Song For Juli and the progression of studio albums that followed: Light Shine (1974), Songbird (1975), and Love On the Wing (1977). These records showed Young developing as a songwriter with a band that was more a set of collaborators than merely musicians playing their part. 

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After the Mount Vision fire, Young was very stressed, mentally and physically. He and his family moved to Hawaii, where he would once again find himself surrounded by intensive natural beauty. However, he soon began to suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, and weird physical symptoms, all of which were put down to psychosomatic illness in the wake of the massive loss he had suffered.  Eventually it was found that he had undiagnosed Lyme disease which he had probably carried, dormant, for many years. In his time on Ridge Top, Young had often removed ticks from his skin while hiking or biking in the Marin County countryside and never thought anything of it.

He retired from recording and performing for a time, but he recently recorded with his son’s band, a group of musicians from Berklee College of Music and returned to live performances. Jesse Colin Young released albums in the 1980s and 90s that feature some great music, but he’ll likely always be remembered for this string of 1970s albums, all of which he has reissued via his own Kani Kapila Music. 

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