Unreleased, Archival Recordings of Legendary Folk Artist Fred Neil Available Digitally on ’38 MacDougal’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

This past Black Friday’s Record Store Day saw a limited-edition clear vinyl of the archival recording of legendary folk singer Fred Neil, entitled 38 McDougal which is now available in CD and digital formats. These sessions with just Neil and his longtime accompanist Peter Childs, took place during the same period as Neil’s legendary seminal Bleecker & MacDougal and six of the eight songs here did appear on that record with fuller instrumentation. These Apex reels to reel tapes have been lying dormant for 50 years.  The story goes like this – Amidst mounting friction with producer Paul Rothchild, Fred Neil walks out on the unfinished sessions for what was to be his debut album, “Bleecker & MacDougal”. Fearing he wouldn’t return to the studio, his friend and guitar player, Peter Childs, invited him down to the Greenwich Village apartment he shared with John Sebastian, at 38 MacDougal. According to Childs, “the best chance to get Freddie back wouldn’t be to try to persuade him verbally, but to get him over to the apartment for a bit of music-making.

Neil and Childs perform these songs that would later wind up on the issued album (“Travellin’ Shoes”, “Country Boy”, “Gone Again”, “Candy Man”, “Little Bit Of Rain”), a definitive “Sweet Cocaine”, and two public domain songs that don’t appear on any other Fred Neil album; the traditional folk song, “Once I Had A Sweetheart”, and the African-American spiritual, “Blind Man Standing By The Road And Crying”. Although the biography (which we refer to below) mentions the song cutting off before it ends, this tape includes the complete performance. Neil takes the song on a personal and deep journey, and Childs adds the most perfect musical touches. It’s also the first appearance on a Fred Neil record of one of the many spiritual songs that were often a part of his live repertoire. The sound quality improves significantly once past the opening “Little Bit of Rain.”

The session is detailed in Peter Lee Neff’s 2019 Fred Neil biography, That’s The Bag I’m In – The Life, Music, and Mystery of Fred Neil. The relevant chapter opens with the author detailing the friction between Neil and producer Rothchild, a toxic relationship that continued to worsen, climaxing in this passage – “Artistic temperament, personality conflicts, ego, and frustrations fueled the anger between producer and artist, until it blew up right there in the studio. “Freddie walked out on that record two or three times,” Childs recalled. “I don’t want to toot my own horn too much, but that last time I really don’t think he would’ve come back.” Two thirds of the album was in the can, and Peter wasn’t about to let Bleecker & MacDougal fall by the wayside. 

Neff’s documentation continues – “With Childs on electric and acoustic guitar and Neil on twelve-string guitar, the two eased into Fred’s elegiac ballad “Little Bit of Rain,” followed by “Country Boy,” Fred’s autobiographical Bo Diddley inspired rocker. Peter switched to dobro for “Gone Again,” and for “Candy Man” went back to the electric guitar. Before jumping into “Candy Man,” Fred, being silly, shouts, “Take one, Dick Clark.” Next was “Travelin’ Shoes,” another offbeat, riff-based, up-tempo tune, and like all the previous selections, a Neil original. From out of nowhere, Fred pulled out the traditional Appalachian folk ballad, “Once I Had a Sweetheart.” It’s a rare, unique performance by Fred who sings the song straight without any lyric or melodic alteration. The last two songs were flawless: “Sweet Cocaine,” and, because the tape ran out, a truncated “Blind Man Standin’ by the Road and Cryin’,” a biblical story refashioned as a spiritual and more commonly known as “Blind Man Stood by the Road and Cried.” Fred rarely performed “Blind Man”; his is a leaner, less hopeful, less faith-based, and seemingly more personalized version. It’s the story of a man so spiritually torn, his confidence and emotions so shattered, that he’s rendered inert. He wants desperately to believe that God will answer him but fears he won’t. What the tape caught of Fred’s performance is riveting.”  The author is spot on; this one has Neil’s most passionate vocal, punctuated with interesting phrasing, of the eight songs.

So, what we effectively have is the jam session that saved Bleecker & MacDougal. It’s clear that without Childs’ intervention that classic album may have gone unfinished. And, yes, these performances have been restored in high quality audio, full of the passion and unbridled approach (captured here) one might expect when the artist is freed from studio constraints.  Or by Neil’s son, in the liners, recounting a jam session between the two in California – “In the cold, and warmed by the alcohol, they played the sun down. I sat and watched, trying to catch their chords and progressions. I was just beginning to play guitar and I lost myself in the alchemy they produced. To this day, I couldn’t tell you what they played, because one thing flowed into another, and as I tried to see and understand what they were doing, one thing pushed out another and left me grasping for what they had just played while trying to absorb what they were playing now. They didn’t play any song you could name. They just played. After making music for almost 30 years now, I can say in retrospect that there is a different breed of music that comes from “jamming” as opposed to playing an already written and arranged piece. Its form is made infinitely better when the musicians know each other intimately – a dance where all involved know where the other is about to step, even though each step is somehow new. Who is leading changes with each set of beats or rhythms? The eternal chase after that one high, never quite reached, but chased after nonetheless.

Thankfully, that same magic is preserved for us here.

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One Response

  1. Thank you Jim Hynes for mentioning my book and giving it a plug, I appreciate it. In 2015, I brought that wonderful recording to Mark Linn at Delmore after considering other companies: Sundazed and Omnivore. (Peter Childs had played the recording for me after our 2012 on-camera interview. Before I left, he gave me a copy.) Mark and I had planned to release our projects together, but it just didn’t work out. By the summer of 2019, I was ready to begin production and after a decade of travel, research, and writing, I couldn’t wait another year. In one respect, Mark had a harder row to hoe since he wanted Fred’s children to sign on, which he ultimately accomplished—no easy task. All in all, Mark did an outstanding job. Once again, thank you.
    Peter L. Neff
    608 S. Wilson Blvd
    Nashville, TN 37215
    [email protected]
    THAT’S THE BAG I’M I’N: The Life, Music and Mystery of FRED NEIL – Facebook page

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