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O. C. LIVE

A 'Forgotten' Christmas Tradition Has Been Born

November 28, 1996|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At first glance, veteran folk singer Glenn Yarbrough seems the perfect Christmastime performer: long white beard, roly-poly dimensions, cherubic countenance, proverbial twinkle in his eye. Yarbrough looks so much like Santa Claus that children probably flock to him even in the midst of August to proffer wish lists.

But Yarbrough, who performs "The Forgotten Carols" on Friday at Orange Coast College, is not usually the type to get sentimental over the season.

In fact, when Michael McLean, author of the book and music for "The Forgotten Carols," initially approached him to record and perform a reading of McLean's works, Yarbrough acted more like Ebenezer Scrooge than St. Nick.

"At first I said, 'No, no, no. I'm not going to do one of those dumb Christmas albums,' " Yarbrough said, chuckling, in a recent phone interview. "I hate Christmas music, I always go to the South Pacific around Christmastime to avoid having to hear it. Why doesn't somebody write something new for Christmas, something different?"

But once Yarbrough sat down and read McLean's emotional fable, which focuses on the mostly overlooked or forgotten characters of the Nativity story, it was as if he'd been visited by the same ghosts of Christmas who made old Scrooge turn over a new leaf.

"I was fascinated with the story," Yarbrough said. "It was wonderful, beautiful. It had me in tears. I told him I loved this thing so much I'd come out and record this for free. 'I'll just do it, I don't even want royalties.' "

That was in 1993. Since then, Yarbrough's performance of "The Forgotten Carols" has become an annual yuletide tradition, with more shows added each year. Twenty-two performances are scheduled for this season, all over the country.

"I look out at the audience and see a sea of white handkerchiefs. The first time I did this, I was breaking myself up! It was like, holy cow! I can't even walk out onstage and do this without blubbering."

Yarbrough, 67, is best known for his 1964 folk-pop hit "Baby the Rain Must Fall" and his late-'50s through early-'60s tenure with the folk trio the Limelighters. There's much more to the tale, however.

Yarbrough got his first taste of folk music attending St. John's College in Annapolis, Md. In 1951, Woody Guthrie played a concert at the school, forever changing Yarbrough's life.

"I never liked the pop songs of the day," he said. "I always thought it was real stupid stuff--moon, June, spoon type of crap. So I went to this Woody Guthrie concert, and I was just overwhelmed--everything he sang was real. I was just a shy kid, but I walked up to him afterward with tears in my eyes and told him how much I loved what he had done. The very next day I went out and bought a guitar, and that was that."

That same year, Yarbrough's roommate, Jac Holzman, launched the still-going-strong Elektra Records with a 78 rpm single of the neophyte folk singer's performing the traditional "Reaper's Ghost" with "Follow the Drinking Gourd" on the flip side.

Yarbrough's recording career halted while he served in the Korean War. After his discharge, he hitchhiked around the country, settling for a time in San Francisco's North Beach district, where stirrings of the Beat movement were beginning. He continued his recording career while hanging out with poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, little realizing he was part of a major counterculture movement.

"It was a great time," Yarbrough recalled. "You'd go into the clubs and they'd read poetry and scripts and I'd sing a couple of songs. We were just trying to eat, that's all. When you're a part of it as it's happening, you don't think about it. I didn't know it was anything special until much later when it became legendary, you know?"

In 1959, Yarbrough hooked up with Lou Gottlieb and Alex Hassilev to form the Limelighters, sort of a second-string Kingston Trio that toured the world on the crest of the era's folk-revival wave. It was around this time he first saw the performers who would shape the '60s--among them a young Bob Dylan.

"Al Grossman [Yarbrough's then-manager and Dylan's future manager] came up to me and said, 'I want you to come and listen to this new singer I'm thinking of signing,' " Yarbrough recalled. "So I went and listened to him, and Al said, 'So? What do you think?' And I said, 'He sounds to me like a very bad Woody Guthrie!' And he was at that time; he hadn't lived any of those songs. Later on, when he did his own songs and mixed it with rock 'n' roll, then it became something meaningful."

Older and more cautious than the new wave of young folk singers at the time, Yarbrough found his more traditional muse increasingly at odds at what was transpiring all around him.

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