Carolyn Hester is one of the originals--one of a small but determined gang of ragtag, early '60s folk singers who cruised the coffee shops and campuses, from Harvard Yard to Bleeker Street, convinced that their music could help change the world.
The political and musical offspring of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and the Weavers, performers such as Hester, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Richard Farina (to name only a very few) were among the vanguard of the new music of the '60s, the first surging energy of a wave that would eventually engulf a generation of American youth.
Hester, who will perform at the Shade Tree in Laguna Niguel tonight, arrived in New York in the late '50s, a fresh-faced 18-year-old from Austin, Tex., who was determined to "become a folk singer."
It didn't take her long to become a player in a highly invigorating musical scene. "I made my first record," she recalled earlier this week, "for Coral, and I got it through the good graces of Buddy Holly. The next was on Tradition, and Tom Clancy, one of the Clancy Brothers, was my producer.
"But the big breakthrough came when John Hammond of Columbia Records began to turn toward folk music. He had signed Pete Seeger, and there was a bunch of Pete's musical babies around--me among them--all in our early 20s. Al Grossman (who later became Janis Joplin's manager) took me to meet him, and Hammond signed me to make a record for Columbia."
It was during the rehearsals for that first major label outing that Hester made a decision with implications that reached far beyond her own career. "I'd had my dad play harmonica on my first record, and I liked the sound. Richard Farina--my husband at the time--and I had run into Dylan at the Club 47 in Boston, and he was asking about places to play. So I thought, 'Why not use him to play harmonica on my album?' "
Dylan was generally viewed by the folk-scene observers of the period as a Guthrie-influenced performer who was good, but hardly unusual. Hester heard something else. "It was magnetism," she said. "He hadn't written 'Blowin' in the Wind' or much of anything yet, but he was filled with magnetism."
Hammond apparently had the same reaction. After attending a rehearsal for Hester's album, he quickly signed Dylan to his own recording contract. "One of the things I'm most proud of in my career," said Hester, with characteristic unselfishness, "is that I may have had something--however small it was--to do with his career getting started."
Hester's own path led in another direction, however. By the late '60s, she was having record company problems and, unlike Dylan, felt uncomfortable with the increasing emphasis on electric music.
Equally important, she did not feel content just to sing about the disturbing events that she saw happening in the world. Holding hands in a recording studio to join in a chorus of praise for world peace was not, and is not, her idea of activism.
"I felt," she said, "that I had to do something. For example, I went to Mississippi for the civil rights marches, not because I could help, but because I felt I should at least be a witness, even if I couldn't do anything to directly change things. That was what my conscience told me to do, and I didn't feel I could live in this country if I did otherwise.
"When Pete Seeger was banned from performing on television and Martin Luther King was killed--I really think it had a lot to do with shattering our nerves, maybe even with disillusioning us about what we were doing. Eventually, we were replaced by performers who were either apolitical or were a little younger and a little more willing to focus on their own inner problems."
Hester was largely retired from performing from the mid-'70s to the early '80s, her life centered on raising two young daughters. But attendance at the songwriter-oriented Kerrville Music Festival in Austin helped bring her back to making music in public again.
"It's interesting," she said, "how much things have changed, and yet how much they're still the same. When I go out now, I still meet the same gentle people I did before--people who want acoustic music about subjects with a message.
"My own perspective has changed over the years to a strong interest in ecological concerns. I've been looking a lot at what the native Americans have to say--like the Hopi legend that the Indians are tending to Mother Earth, and if they get moved off the land so that people can have the mining rights, and so on, there'll be trouble for all of us.
"Well, that's a message that certainly interests me. I tend to take that very seriously. And some of those concerns have begun to appear in my music.
"I've got a song called 'Warriors of the Rainbow,' " she continued, "in which I say that 'starvation's end would be complete, if the President, like an Indian chief, was always the last to eat.' I like that idea. The chief doesn't get to eat until the tribe's finished. Maybe we should try it--don't let the President eat until all the hungry are fed."
Hester's current programs are filled with similarly feisty points of view.
"There comes a point when you look at the career you've had," she said with a smile, "and you say, 'Well, maybe that's all there's going to be.' So that's why it seems to be such a miracle that I've had the chance to get out and revitalize my music again.
"Some of us older performers get criticized for coming back to perform. But Dylan's still out there, and I know it means a lot to him to let the songs come out. Some people are just born musical-lifers. He seems to be--and I guess maybe I am, too."
Carolyn Hester performs at 8 p.m. at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments, 28062 Forbes Road, Laguna Niguel. Admission: $7. Information: (714) 364-5270.