The news came in last evening: Glenn Yarbrough, folk singer, member of the folk trio the Limeliters, and featured performer on the turntable in the rec room of my youth, passed on yesterday in Nashville, Tennessee, at the age of 86.
Yarbrough was never a superstar in the world of music. He was, though, a bright light in the folk universe. With the Limeliters from 1959 to 1963 and then on his own, he was a folk singer who became a gentle interpreter of music ranging from Rod McKuen’s sentimental poetry to songs from some of the great popular songwriters of the rock era.
And the glow of Yarbrough’s light mattered to me. As I’ve noted a few times over the years, Yarbrough entered my life when my sister’s Vietnam-bound boyfriend left her two of Yarbrough’s albums in 1968: The Lonely Things, a 1966 collection of McKuen’s sad (and sometimes manipulative) songs, and For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her, a 1967 album on which Yarbrough interpreted songs by Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Stephen Stills, and Phil Ochs, among others. I likely listened to them more than she did, and the two albums became part of who I am to this day; they remain a central portion of my musical universe, a universe that nearly fifty years ago had very little congruence with the musical universes of those with whom I went to school and shared my day-to-day life.
It’s hard to be different, of course, and when I was fifteen, I felt utterly out of place in the world of high school games (not realizing for many years, of course, that nearly every one of the others who crowded the halls of St. Cloud Tech High School felt utterly out of place as well). One of the balms for me in those years was the music on those two Yarbrough albums; as their music filled the basement rec room, it filled as well some of the empty space inside me. From early 1968 to mid-1972 (when my sister got married and moved to the Twin Cities, taking her records with her), those two albums were never far from what these days we would call my playlist.
When I was lovelorn, there was “The Lonely Things,” the title tune of the album of McKuen’s work; the same record at those moments offered sad solace with “People Change” and “So Long, San Francisco.” When I was hopeful, the For Emily . . . album supported my dreams of a special someone with “Gently Here Beside Me” (written by the duo of Marc Fontenoy and Anne Saray), mixed with the romantic but hard-edged realism of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Until It’s Time For You To Go.” Those left me with a view of romance that was certainly less sappy and also less cynical than McKuen’s view, even with that latter view filtered through Yarbrough’s clear, sweet tenor voice.
After my sister left with her records, it took me some time to find good copies of those two albums (and the rest of her relatively small collection, as well), but fairly clean copies of the two Yarbrough albums of my youth now sit in the LP stacks, joined by about ten more of the singer’s albums (and they will all survive the winnowing process currently underway), and I have CDs of those first two as well.
Individual tracks from those CDs – or from several other Yarbrough albums – pop up occasionally when I have the RealPlayer on random, and all of For Emily . . . and The Lonely Things are among the mix on the iPod, as is Yarbrough’s only Top 40 hit, “Baby The Rain Must Fall,” which went to No. 12 in 1965 (and went to No. 2 on the Billboard chart now called Adult Contemporary). When the tracks slide in at random, they’re a sometimes bittersweet reminder of a time and place that had a great deal to do with forming the person I see in the mirror each morning.
And when on occasion, I put one of the two CDs – For Emily . . . or The Lonely Things – into the bedside player as I retire, I’m almost always transported back nearly fifty years to the times when an uncertain teen found comfort and some counsel in the work of a gentle man who ended a portion of his journey through time yesterday. In those late-night moments, I’m grateful to Yarbrough as I have been for decades, grateful for that comfort and counsel. I’m sure I was not alone in finding those things in Yarbrough’s music over the years, just as I’m sure that many – maybe even millions – share my sorrow this morning.
“All my world, somehow changing,” Yarbrough sang on “Comes and Goes” from For Emily . . . “Could it be all things pass into time?” He knew, of course, the answer to that rhetorical question, for the song (written by Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley) ends, “Helpless but thankful am I, for I know that it’s just one more change when I die.”
To mark, to celebrate, and to grieve that “one more change,” Glenn Yarbrough’s “Comes and Goes” – found on the 1967 album For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her – is today’s Saturday Single.