Jottings from a pop culture junkie

I always told people I wanted to grow up to be Pete Seeger. That was a lie. I wanted to be Chad Mitchell.

Chad had a great tenor that rode over the often acerbic and histrionic harmonies that were the Chad Mitchell Trio’s signature on Woody Guthrie’s “Great Historical Bum” and Michael Brown’s takedown of “The John Birch Society.”

Michael Brown re-worked “The John Birch Society,” and the Trio performed it at their reunions as “The George Bush Society.”

Then there would be three-part gentleness with Chad and Mike Kobluk singing harmony behind Joe Frazier’s beautiful version of Tom Paxton’s “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound.” Or Chad would be alternately excitable and tender on the Trio’s mashup of “Johnny I Hardly Knew ‘Ya” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”

More than that, there was a mystery to Chad’s stage presence that already as a preteen I desperately wanted to emulate — intense, charged, a little removed from the audience even on the group’s most dramatically staged songs. And the Chad Mitchell Trio was nothing if not well staged and scripted.

Why not Pete? Most people had no idea who Chad was. Many of my parents’ lefty friends in1960s Rockaway Park, NY knew of Seeger and the Weavers, and they were my likely “what do you want to be when you grow up?” inquisitors. But they didn’t know Chad or the Trio.

And while I spent countless hours in my bedroom with Seeger’s “How to Play the 5-string Banjo” instruction book (still have it, though no banjo), and had perfect pitch, it was clear I would never get the hang of frailing and using that fifth string on the banjo deftly. Meanwhile, my pitch disappeared when my voice changed at 12, just in time for my bar mitzvah at 13. Plus, I would never get my Adam’s apple to bob the way Seeger’s did.

As a pre-teen, I was already a Chad Mitchell Trio groupie before that term was coined. If the Chad Mitchell Trio was appearing anywhere in the New York City vicinity, my parents or my cousin would take me — at least until I was old enough to get around by bus and subway on my own.

The group went through several incarnations after Chad left in 1965, replaced by the then-unknown John Denver. By the summer I got my license, Denver was a soloist and I drove to see him at the 1969 Philadelphia Folk Festival.

Blame my infatuation with the Trio on my sister, Joan, who was in college as I was finishing junior high. One summer she came home with the album “The Best of the Chad Mitchell Trio.” I played it out and eventually bought a second copy out of a used record bin. Joan also turned me on to “Hootenanny,” a 1963 show on ABC-TV that had blacklisted Pete Seeger; Peter, Paul & Mary — arguably the Chad Mitchell Trio’s biggest “competition” — refused to play on the show in deference to Pete, as did many others. The Chad Mitchell Trio continued to appear, singing at least some songs from its topical repertoire.

That topical repertoire was appealing to a budding liberal, and reading the fine print in the liner notes to the Chad Mitchell Trio’s albums led me to the best songwriters of the day — Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Ewan McCall, Ed McCurdy, Shel Silverstein, Bob Dylan, of course — and many from before then, including Kurt Weill and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg.

I spent years searching for the book (that didn’t yet exist) from which the Harburg poems on the Trio’s 1965 “Slightly Irreverent” album were drawn. I still quote them often: “No matter how high or great the throne, what sits on it is the same as your own.” And “When nuclear dust has extinguished their betters, will the turtles surviving wear people-neck sweaters?”

About 10 years later, having found and treasured E.Y. Harburg’s book, “Rhymes for the Irreverent,” I interviewed Harburg but was too embarrassed to ask him to autograph it. I still regret that decision.

I’ve been unable to track down the exact date I first saw the Trio live. I’m convinced it was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House in 1963, though the archivist there has no record of the concert. Maybe it was the ’64 Carnegie date?

Either way, I sat on the left pretty close to the front. With my parents. Who had escaped Germany just before World War II. When the Trio launched into the “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” a highly dramatic satire (hardly the right word) in which a group of “ex-Nazis” sing of the presents they want for Christmas, I got very nervous about whether my parents would find it hurtful in some way. I frankly didn’t understand the song — I was 11 or 12. I don’t know if mom and dad laughed — I couldn’t bring myself to look — but it didn’t seem to offend and they loved the concert. In retrospect, “Twelve Days” was intended to make listeners uncomfortable, any laughter notwithstanding.

Close to the stage I watched Chad intently, and that’s when I decided who I wanted to be when I grew up.

Of the other members, Mike Kobluk was the grounded, calming, steadfast force, while Joe Frazier, often with his neck craned (another great Adam’s apple!), was both more political and more expressive. Joe seemed desperate to connect with the audience — the counterpoint to Chad’s remove.

I loved the Trio and its music, the way they balanced the political with the “secular,” the blend of their voices, the wider musical world they introduced me to. But I wanted to be Chad.

The quote my 14 Jewish Day School classmates chose to include for me in our 1966 8th grade yearbook was, “I have a song about that.” And for the class “Last Will and Testament” I was bequeathed “a lifetime supply of Chad Mitchell Trio records.” The Trio is who I invariably cited when we discussed civil rights (5th and 6th grade with Mrs. Fink, who chided all of us for not insisting our parents take us to the 1963 March on Washington), the anti-war movement (I brought the school record player into our classroom so I could play the Trio’s rendition of Phil Ochs’s “Draft Dodger Rag” for everyone), or any other social issue, inside the classroom or out. The song “Which Hat Shall I Wear,” written by former Weaver Fred Hellerman — I didn’t really know how my parents would take that, either, sweet harmony or not:

Oh dear, I must hurry and be on my way
There’s never a time for relaxing
Mary, the windows need washing today
The hall and the foyer need waxing

I’ve left some dresses piled up on a chair
The cleaner is coming at two
Don’t let him take the green silk with a tear
That one, my dear, is for you

Which hat shall I wear, the red one or blue one?
Which hat shall I wear to the PTA?
The red hat’s becoming, the blue one’s a new one
Mary, come here, tell me which do you say?

We were a middle class Jewish household with a Black housekeeper (Negro was the proper word at the time — a word whose pronunciation by a certain U.S. president the Trio satirized in the John Denver itieration of the group; listen to the first 30 seconds here). Our housekeeper, too, was often given the “green silk[s] with a tear.” I wasn’t sure what to do with that, either.

The “Slightly Irreverent” album, its followup “Typical American Boys” and next concert ads referenced “The Mitchell Trio.” I didn’t get why Chad’s first name disappeared, but I was loyal.

A March 1967 Mitchell Trio concert was at Brooklyn College, which campus had served as the cover of their 1961 “Mighty Days On Campus” album. By now the highly animated Denver — no remove here — was fully integrated into the group and stunned on 12-string guitar. They’d done two albums together by then, and when Denver went off on his own…well, that will be another story.

A few years after leaving the trio that bore his name (or part of it, now) Chad had a run-in with the authorities in the mid-’70s. Something to do with 400 pounds of marijuana transported between Mexico and Texas. He spent about six months in various “country club federal prisons,” he told me in response to the first draft of this article. The sentence had been five years, and Chad assumed he would be incarcerated for at least three. The decision was overturned by an appeals panel on technical grounds, and he returned to performing solo in between stints as an entertainment director on Delta Queen cruise ships out of New Orleans, as a real estate agent in Spokane, and other assorted jobs.

In New York, as mentioned, he played The Ballroom, Greg Dawson’s Soho restaurant and nightclub before Soho was SOHO. The gig was December 1976 through January 1977. I was reviewing for a trade magazine, Record World, and went to see my idol several times. I have an audiocassette of one of the shows that I’m afraid to play because it might disintegrate. I recall the shows as expectedly dramatic, showcasing some of the best contemporary songwriters in a way that was much more effective — which is largely to say dramatic — than the CDs he released. The highlight for me was that I got to sit down with Chad between sets. I asked about that “remove” from the audience at the height of the Trio’s career.

One of the reasons he left the Trio, he said, was that he couldn’t accept the audience’s adulation. So he had this shield that came down between him and the audience. It wasn’t an intentional theatrical effect, he insisted, though it clearly played out as one (I say). And maybe not always wanting to be “the good boy” had something to do with getting caught in some nefarious scheme. Maybe I related to not always wanting to be the “good boy” too.

Two decades later I saw two of the original Trio reunions, which took place sporadically beginning in the mid-1980s. A bit of history was made at the 92nd Street “Y” in Manhattan on May 23, 1994: For the first time since the “Hootenanny” TV show more than 30 years earlier, the Chad Mitchell Trio appeared on the same stage as Peter, Paul & Mary. At least that was the talk in the audience that night and at a reception following the concert; Chad tells me this is “news to me. I always assumed because PP&M had such big hits they didn’t want to be on TV. But I was hanging around with Mary — we were both living in New York. There was no animosity at all…we were on such different levels. They’d play a big university show, and we’d have to do four shows to make the same amount of money.” Peter Yarrow also sent a note that was read at the trio’s farewell concert yet another 20 years later.

Hoping to pass my infatuation forward, my wife Riva and I took our kids, then 10 and 7, to Symphony Space on September 28, 1996 to see the Chad Mitchell Trio headline Robert Sherman’s annual live edition of his “Woody’s Children” radio show.

I never could sing once my voice changed, so I was never going to be Chad. Apart from a one-show Peter, Paul & Mary cover band in high school (Winky, Ira & Marian — we weren’t going to call ourselves Weinberg, Mayer & Cohen), my “performing” beginning in the 1990s had morphed into public speaking. As marketing consultant Robert Passikoff once told me, “So you did grow up to be Pete Seeger, just without the banjo.”

In my teens the Byrds became my next infatuation, and now I was practicing on my electric 12-string guitar, trying to play “Mr. Tambourine Man” (which I first learned from the Mitchell Trio rendition) and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I didn’t make the connection at the time that the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, whose 12-string was what I wanted mine to sound like, was the same Jim McGuinn who had been the Chad Mitchell Trio’s accompanist on its earliest albums. There’s a great video of Chad, Mike, Joe and Jim on NBC-TV’s Bell Telephone Hour, a three-song set on a show that also featured Rudolf Nureyev, Andre Segovia, and Jane Powell, among others!

Still, I managed to pass on my admiration for the Chad Mitchell Trio, if not necessarily with Chad specifically: In grade school our daughter Julia built a Chad Mitchell Trio tribute diorama. And in November 2014, at 28, our DC-based son Jesse attended the Chad Mitchell Trio’s 55th anniversary/farewell concert in Bethesda, MD.

A man sitting next to Jesse looked at him, then scanned everyone else in the audience, and told Jesse, “In 55 years, you’ll be the only one who remembers being here.”

NOTE 1: I was delighted to have Chad reach out when the initial version of this article was posted, and to set the record straight on his prison time and the non-existent “rift” between the Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary. It was like speaking with a long-lost friend, only we’d only “known” each other previously across footlights.

NOTE 2: Many of the links here are audio only. There is quite a bit of video of both the early years and the reunions, and the era with John Denver in between. “Chad Mitchell Trio Then & Now” is an excellent 3-DVD set that is out of print, but there are periodically used copies for sale. Youtube also has more clips from the “Hootenanny” show. Full album audio is on Youtube for many of the LPs, and there have been several CD collections; some of that material is available on streaming services, as well.

4 thoughts on “Why I Lied About Wanting to Be Pete Seeger When I Grew Up (Spoiler: I Really Wanted to Be Chad Mitchell)

  1. Paul Lubetkin says:

    Had the Chad Mitchel Trio albums as a boy and teenager, loved them. But life in Des Moines didn’t present the chance for live shows (that I remember). Also had LPs of Pete Seeger, PP&M, Leadbelly, and many others — started fiddling with guitars and banjos from an early age, too — and played along at local folk singing/protest song sessions (sometimes just pounding a wash basin or bongo, strumming a washboard, or even occasionally buzzing a kazoo.) Kept the guitar gig going for a long time, until a kitchen accident (almost severed the tip of my left little finger) forced a long layoff, after which I just didn’t think I wanted to return… (Sometimes I daydream about a lazy way back, taking up the uke.). Great post!

  2. Naomi says:

    Weinberg, Mayer & Cohen – great name for a law firm.

  3. nourishcom says:

    I still have my original copies of all their records. The Trio played my school—a full-time military college—in 1966 (with John), and it was quite an experience.

  4. Martin Porter says:

    So there was a folkie rivalry between Chad and Pete? Just like you had to choose between the Beatles or the Stones, Michael Jackson or Prince? Sorta like musical WWE, huh?

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