BROOKLYN, NY; JULY 19, 2019—Len Chandler — folk singer, songwriter, actor, activist — walked on stage at the Newport Folk Festival late Saturday night July 20, 1969 with a piece of paper in hand. Chandler fumbled with the paper, trying to find a way to attach the lyrics on that sheet to the microphone stand. If memory serves, Pete Seeger came out, took some chewing gum out of his mouth, and pasted the sheet to the microphone stand and left the stage. Chandler laughs when I tell him my recollection of the night over the phone this week.
Ripped from the headlines topical songs weren’t as common in 1969 as they had been earlier in the ‘60s but Chandler was known for being a songwriting demon. That song, 50 years old this weekend, was about the moon landing, which he had just watched on TV backstage at the Festival.
“I wrote that in Newport but not backstage,” Chandler, now 84, told me from his home in Los Angeles. “CBS News asked me to write a song for a show on the moon shot. It never got much coverage, though, because Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge in Chappaquiddick with a woman [Mary Jo Kopechne] in the car.” Kopechne was killed in the accident, which happened the night before the moon landing.
CBS filmed him singing the song on a beach in Newport. “I made a mistake in the lyric and asked if they could record it again. They said no because they were already packing their gear to get to Chappaquiddick!”
Chandler doesn’t remember singing the song at the Festival, or exactly what its title is, but told that there are several references to his performing it the night of the moon landing (not to mention my very distinct memory of it), and to its title as “Moon Men,” he acknowledges it could well be that he sang it that night.
There is a brief silence on the phone and Len, whose voice sounds instantly familiar, starts to recite one of the verses.
Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria
Sailing o’er dark silent oceans
Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins follow fleeting new horizons
Moon men sailing dark sky silent oceans
Step first foot on heaven’s nearest shore
Say ‘In peace we come and in peace we should remain’
And our horizons will expand in light years more.
As reported widely in recent days, Richard Nixon’s speechwriter William Safire had prepared two speeches for the then-president — the one Nixon was ultimately able to give congratulating the astronauts, and another in case the Apollo moon mission failed. Had there been a disaster, Nixon would have said, “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace,” according to a copy in the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum. But Chandler could not have known of Safire’s speech and Safire would not have known the song.
Some of Chandlers best known songs include “To Be A Man,” “Roll, Turn, Spin” and “Beans In My Ears,” the latter a hit for the Serendipity Singers and remembered by many for the anti-Vietnam war lyrics Pete Seeger added to it.
Chandler doesn’t remember the rest of the lyrics of “Moon Men,” but says he has a recording of him performing it a few years after the moon landing. Asked if he might post it, he said he didn’t know how to do that, but maybe an assistant could find it and figure it out.
Chandler had a radio show in LA for about a year many years ago, writing new topical songs three times a day based on the news. Even he, who ran the Songwriters Showcase in LA for many years, seems surprised today that he kept up that pace. That was a lot even for a songwriting demon who contemplated the moon men in light years.