In 1954, a 15-year old Johnny Herald saw Pete Seeger in concert at Camp Woodland, outside Phoenicia, NY. He was so inspired that he vowed he would be a musician, too. Herald, of Armenian-American background, was born and raised in Greenwich Village. His poet father used to take him around to parties where Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie performed live. On the liner notes to Roll on John, Herald recalls “and here I was, somebody that was in on another sort of bohemian revolution in the sense of the folk part of art; folk craft, folk culture and so on.”
Herald began listening to Don Larkin’s New Jersey radio program on bluegrass music (Larkin Barkin’). Soon he was jamming with Bob Dylan, Rory Block and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. In 1959 he joined the Greenbriar Boys with John Yellin and Eric Weissberg. The latter was a fellow alum of Camp Woodland, although they actually met (according to Weissberg) at a freshman mixer at the University of Wisconsin. Things started to heat up after Ralph Rinzler replaced Weissberg in the group. He urged the trio to practice more, and they won first prize for bluegrass in a North Carolina competition. Soon they landed a contract with Maynard Solomon’s Vanguard record label.
According to Roots of the 1969 Woodstock Festival: The Backstory to “Woodstock,” John met his wife Kim in 1965 at the Café Espresso’s family table in Woodstock, NY. In those days everybody mixed—fans, musicians and artists alike. There was an easy camaraderie. Kim says that even then her future husband was conflicted about his life’s direction. His music career was on fire, but he loved nature and might easily have been a biologist for the state instead of a famous bluegrass musician. He wanted to be in nature and be true to himself. John, Kim says, didn’t understand that he couldn’t have success on his own terms. He had an inability to sacrifice everything for his art.
Nonetheless he recorded four albums with the Greenbriar Boys: The Greenbriar Boys (1962), Ragged But Right! (1964), Dian and the Greenbriar Boys (1965) and Better Late Than Never (1966). In addition, he was kept busy with session work and in 1972 he recorded his first solo album for Paramount. A string of other albums followed. One of his best loved tunes is “Jon the Generator.” Unfortunately, over the years his conflicted feelings about his life’s path caused old friends like Dylan to pull away. He found it harder and harder to pay his bills and in 2005 he committed suicide.
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