MEL LYMAN: Biography

 

Mel Lyman was a folk musician, filmmaker, and cult leader in the '60s and '70s. Born in Northern California, he drifted across the country in the early '60s before ending up in the hills of North Carolina, where he discovered country blues. By the time he had drifted into the folk music communities of Greenwich Village and Cambridge, MA, Lyman had developed his own style on the blues harp (holding a series of long, lingering, vibrato-heavy notes in the upper register) and he was proficient on "rhythm banjo." In 1963, Lyman joined the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and was a featured player on a handful of the group's earliest recordings for Vanguard. Shortly after the group appeared on the nationally-televised Steve Allen Show -- on March 4, 1964 -- Lyman left the group (he was replaced by banjoist Bill Keith, who had just left Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys). Lyman focused, for a time, on his filmmaking and writing interests, authoring a rambling, incoherent book called -The Autobiography of a World Savior.

At age 27, Lyman made an impromptu appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where he performed an unaccompanied ten-minute version of "Rock of Ages" for the audience (most of whom had already angrily left for their cars after Bob Dylan's famous electric set). After Newport, Lyman's Wednesday-night sessions at a Boston coffeehouse called The Orleans soon found him taking on the role of leading a commune-like cult who apparently hung on his every word. Lyman -- some say he was an "East Coast Charles Manson" -- and his "family" of 30 or 40 artists lived in three Victorian houses in the Fort Hill section of South Roxbury, in Boston's mostly black ghetto community. Rock scribe Paul Williams, of Crawdaddy magazine, lived with them for a time. In his writings for the Avatar (a controversial underground bi-weekly newspaper distributed on the streets by Boston's hippie youth), Lyman claimed that folk music was a gift from God that had to be preserved and nurtured. Lyman eventually cut out the middleman and claimed that he himself was God.

In 1969, Kweskin and Lyman came together in San Francisco to record American Avatar (full title: Richard D. Herbruck Presents Jim Kweskin's American Avatar Featuring the Lyman Family With Lisa Kindred). When it was released on Reprisein January 1970, Lyman had used the name Richard Herbruck for his producer's credit. American Avatar reportedly only sold 1,764 copies (1,000 of which were reportedly bought by Kweskin). Lyman apparently never recorded as a solo artist, but one of his musical highlights is his excruciatingly slow version of "Old Black Joe," featuring cello accompaniment, which appears on 1971's Jim Kweskin's America (Featuring Mel Lyman). Lyman lived in California for the remainder of his life, and even disappeared for awhile. In 1978, it was reported that Lyman had passed away at age 40, though his followers claim that he is, in fact, still "orbiting the earth."

~ Bryan Thomas, All Music Guide, ca. 2002

This article also appeared on the Artist Direct website in 2003.