The singer Glenn Yarbrough died in August at the age of eighty-six after suffering from dementia for years. His voice and his songs were such a pivotal influence on my adolescence, I can’t imagine how I missed the news of his death, but miss it I did.
When I think back now, it amazes me that a group of teenaged guys sitting around late at night so avidly embraced his songs. While everyone else favored groups such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Mamas and the Papas, we listened to Glenn singing songs like “Stanyan Street Revisited,” “The Warm and Gentle Girls,” “The World I Used to Know,” “Rose,” “Lonesome,” and his only top-twenty hit, “Baby the Rain Must Fall” (from the Steve McQueen-Lee Remick movie).
A high tenor voice infused with angst and longing, a gentle poet singing of loves that slipped away, ambitions that went unrealized, illusions shattered, wanderers constantly moving on, and loneliness. We would later encounter all those things in our lives, but at the time we really hadn’t had to deal with any of it, except maybe the loneliness.
Perhaps that was the essence of his appeal for us. I certainly felt alone and cut off back then, locked away in a small town along the St. Lawrence River. I’m not sure any of us realized it, but in a way those songs prepped us for the future, sending out signals, warning of what was to come in life, the messages embedded in a bittersweet romanticism that I soaked up.
His voice echoed constantly through our apartment over the bank my father managed on King Street West, so much so that even my brother Ric, not ordinarily obsessed with thoughts of love and loneliness, became addicted.
Recently my niece Lindsay married. Ric arranged a surprise dance with his daughter as Glenn sang “Rose,” a somewhat soppy ballad, I must admit, that my poor niece and nephew grew up listening to. It contains the refrain: “That’s okay, Rose would say, don’t you worry none. We’ll have good times, by and by, next fall when the work’s all done.”
The Bases sang along lustily, memories and tears flowing. Everyone else thought we were nuts. And we were. Just a little.
Born in Milwaukee but raised in New York City, Glenn first gained notoriety as a member of the Limelighters folk group (a college appearance by Woody Guthrie was an inspiration). He never strayed far from his folk roots after he left the group and struck out on his own. He was particularly adept at interpreting the songs and poetry of Rod McKuen with whom he collaborated often over the years.
I met Glenn when he came to Ottawa to do a concert. I persuaded the entertainment editor at the now defunct Ottawa Journal to let me do a story on him. I doubt the editor knew who I was talking about, but nonetheless he agreed to run an interview.
I hurried over to where Glenn was performing on a double bill with the Everly Brothers. Don and Phil came on first. Most of the crowd was there to see them. Unfortunately, they were not there to see Glenn.
The audience remained polite enough through the first few songs in his set, but as it became apparent Glenn Yarbrough was a long way from the Everlys, the booing started. I couldn’t believe it. Those songs meant a lot to an eighteen-year-old kid, how could these people not be swept away? But they weren’t.
To his credit, when I saw him backstage, Glenn took the hostility more or less in stride. “They came to see Don and Phil,” he said. “It probably wasn’t a good idea to put me on the same bill with them.”
A small, stocky man with short-cropped hair and a round, boyish face, Glenn stood for most of our time together, moving his arms restlessly around, snapping his fingers, courteous enough, but a bit remote—or maybe he was more shaken by his encounter with the Ottawa crowd than he was willing to admit.
That night also marked one of the first times I heard anyone angrily criticize the war in Vietnam. This seems extraordinarily naïve today, but in 1967 the anti-war sentiment that soon roiled the United States had yet to take hold. At least it had not gotten through to me. Until I met Glenn, I pretty much bought the Time magazine view that the war was necessary in order to stop the communists from taking over the world.
After that, I went on with my life, experiencing firsthand many of the things I previously had only heard Glenn sing about: loves and losses, disappointments and disillusion, all those beautiful strangers who came along and then were gone.
Glenn faded into the background.
I went over and introduced myself. He shook my hand, friendly, but as he was the first time we met, somewhat remote. He said he had become a lot more interested in sailing around the world and helping others than he was in performing. Now he only sang on occasion so he could pay the bills.
I accompanied him to the photo studio where he was getting his picture taken for something or other. Later, as he came back through the newsroom, he waved and I went over and walked him out. As we said goodbye, I tried to tell him how I admired him, and how much his music had helped me get through lonely adolescent nights.
Then he was gone and the next thing I heard about him was the belated news of his death. So as I sit writing this, I am listening to that warm tenor voice reciting the words that have stuck with me for a lifetime:
“Alas the nights so blue and bright, have wandered into dawn, and all the warm and gentle girls have come along and gone. . .”
Ah, but one of them stayed Glenn, the warmest and gentlest. You got it just about right.