Harmonicas, Harps, and Heavy Breathers
Kim Field
New York, Fireside Book/Simon and Schuster, 1993
pp 104-106

Mel Lyman (? - ?)

In the early 1960s the folk boom was surging all over America, and many of the most fervent fans of this genre congregated at Boston's fabled folkspot, the Club 47. One of the most successful acts to come out of the Boston scene was the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, which recorded four albums for Vanguard between 1963 and 1967 and later recorded for Reprise. One of the founding members was a banjoist and harmonica player named Mel Lyman.

Lyman had a mystique about him from the beginning. He made vague references to having hoboed around the country and about learning much of his music during a stay in the hills of North Carolina, but most of his past was a mystery to his bandmates. Lyman rented a room in Jim Kweskin's house, a highly social headquarters for endless parties and trips to the Club 47 to listen to music, but Lyman preferred to closet himself in his room and play Ray Charles records for hours on end. "I asked him once why he never listened to any other kind of music," Kweskin told writer Jim Rooney. "He said, 'Ray Charles contains all music.'" Washtub bass player Fritz Richmond recalls that Lyman was a little out of place in the lively jug band setting, that he was much more at home with slow country blues than with up-tempo jazz numbers. Onstage, Lyman could become so involved in the music that the Jug Band felt the need to structure their sets so that the slower, more emotional tunes that he was partial to were not followed by jump numbers that would break his mood. "When I play, I am a mouth harp," he told Tony Glover. "People who play the harmonica are hung up."

Lyman was establishing himself as a moral and artistic presence within the Jug Band, and his bandmates began paying more attention to his preachings about the power of astrology and the benefits of a macrobiotic diet. One memorable day Lyman announced that he had gotten "a flash" that his wife and four children — who were in Eureka, California — were in danger, and the and Geoff Muldaur drove a van across the country and brought his family back to Cambridge. Within days the newspapers were full of articles about how Eureka had been badly damaged by a tsunami caused by an Alaskan earthquake, and word began to spread around Boston about Lyman's quiet but profound personal aura.

Maria Muldaur has recalled her experiences with Lyman in Jim Rooney and Eric Von Schmidt's excellent book on the Boston folk scene, Baby Let Me Follow You Down: "Me and Geoff and Mel Lyman went across the country together. We had lots of adventures. Mel kept a hundred-pound sack of brown rice in his VW bus. He was already on a macrobiotic diet, into astrology, had taken acid, morning glory seeds, and a lot of pot... Mel was getting a reputation as a guru — someone who knew something. Today you can go to the local Rexall and get 'I Ching' books and Tarot cards, but he was one of the first guys to be putting all that together. He was on one of the first 'if-if' experiments — Leary and Alpert's first acid experiments. So people were starting to come to Mel.... He was our spiritual leader, while Jim was our show business leader."

Lyman left the Kweskin band after their first appearance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. Maria Muldaur: "I had only been with the Jug Band for a couple of months.... So how was I to know in my basic tremulous condition of facing seventeen thousand people that Mel Lyman was so into his harp solo that he wanted to blow at least one, if not two, more choruses. I was not musically and cosmically and sensitively aware of this. So after he did a very lovely solo, I came back in and sang the last verse.... That so crimped his musical soul, and I guess he felt we were really going show biz to the point where he quit the band at the end of that weekend."

When Bob Dylan arrived backstage at the 1965 Newport Festival just prior to his first performance in public with an amplified backing group, several people, including Lyman, tried to lecture the unruly troubadour about his responsibility to folk music. As the last notes of Dylan's high-volume set died out, Lyman took it upon himself to soothe the emotions that were running hig among the audience as well as backstage, bringing the festival to a close with a solo harmonica rendition of "Rock of Ages." By the following year, even Lyman had made at least a qualified peace with commercialism; the program from the 1966 festival included an ad featuring Mel's endorsement of the Hohner Blues Harp.

Lyman had become involved with Jesse Benton, a talented singer and the daughter of the painter Thomas Hart Benton. They bought some property in the Fort Hill section of Boston with a commanding view of the city, and as others joined them, a community began taking shape. The Fort Hill group helped to found Boston's first underground newspaper, Avatar, which spread Lyman's teachings — including the notion that folk music was a gift from God that had to be preserved and nurtured — within the counterculture.

"We'd go visit," says Maria Muldaur, "because Mel really had taught us a lot and we loved him.... But the poeple who started surrounding Mel were too rigid and just on too many trips.... They invited Geoff to play on a session... and at a certain point he said, 'Hey, I love Mel because he's a great guy, not because he's God.' I wasn't there, but apparently a deadly hush fell over the thing, and the next thing he knew he was 'out.' ... I think that Mel started out as a guy who was truly looking for the truth and though he had found some answers ... but the trip of him being worshiped corrupted his best intentions.... It started being the 'inner circle' and the 'outer peons,' and you couldn't get in to see Mel, and things got more and more mysterious, and there were more and more slaves on the periphery actually drilling with arms and so on."

Mel eventually moved to California. He seems to have died there sometime in the 1970s, but his followers — who continue to flourish cooperatively as The Lyman Family — have been know to answer queries about his demise with the assertion that Lyman is currently busy orbiting the earth.


Mel Lyman