Whatever Happened to Debbie Green?

This is Joni Mitchell talking about a friend of hers:

Debbie Green and I have become really good friends over the years. She was from Detroit, a friend of Chuck Mitchell [where I get my Mitchell moniker]. Debbie Green was a folk singer. In Berkley she taught Joan Baez how to sing and play the guitar. So Joan Baez, when she sings, she plays Debbie Green. She’s not herself onstage.She has taken Debbie’s persona. Debbie in her passive way gave up and let Joan have it. Joan kind of stole her soul and impersonated it.

This is not the only place this charge surfaces. I’m re-reading the wonderful Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, by Jim Rooney and Eric Von Schmidt, and there’s a great deal of Debbie Green talking about Baez appropriating her identify in that book. When they met as freshmen at Boston University, as the folk boom was getting underway, Green says Baez knew “two chords.”

Debbie Green, in her folk years. She never recorded an album, despite some claims that she was a better singer than Joan Baez.

Debbie Green, in her folk years. She never recorded an album, despite some claims that she was a better singer than Joan Baez.

There’s a picture in the book of the two of them on the beach (with Baez’ sister Mimi, who later married Richard Farina) and Baez is intensely following Green’s hands. The way the book tells it, Baez was ambitious and Green wasn’t. One took of into stardom, and the other watched her repertoire and her arrangements get hijacked.

“Joanie had taken my whole trip,” Green says in the book, “and by her second record I was a Joan Baez imitator. I hadn’t naturally evolved to a place that was more distinctive than that.”

According to the Green Man, “Green had the misfortune to be sick for a couple of months and when she reappeared in the Boston folk clubs, she found that Joan had copied her repertoire down to the last nuance. Baez, when confronted, said, ‘I didn’t hurt her. I only helped myself.'”

Don’t that beat all? Green then married folksinger Eric Andersen, and that proved disastrous for her career, too, because he was jealous and “didn’t like it when I played guitar.” The only recorded evidence that Debbie Green even exists as a musician is a few tunes on Andersen’s early albums in which she plays second guitar. Her name is frequently misspelled, and there’s not much of a trail on the Internet (though she reportedly lives in California now).

This story maybe says something about pre-feminist America. I’m still amazed that the Geoff and Maria Muldaur (to name two other Cambridge folk graduates) record Sweet Potatoes has only two vocals from Maria, one of the finest singers on the planet. But the sexist assumptions of the era didn’t seem to slow Baez down much.

Maybe it says more about ambition or the lack of it. Green may have been overshadowed anyway; as Mitchell notes, she’s a “passive” person. Bob Dylan got his material from everybody and everywhere, including Eric Von Schmidt (the aforementioned “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down”).  Some people are tough, and others aren’t. Can you imagine anyone stealing Joni Mitchell’s identity?

I for one would love to hear a Debbie Green (Andersen) record. Why doesn’t she make one now?

For more on the whole Cambridge folk years, check out another ace book, David Hadju’s Positively Fourth Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina, published in 2001. The Rooney/Von Schmidt book is harder to find these days, but you can get it on Amazon.

26 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to Debbie Green?

  1. Debbie lives in LA in the Culver City area. Among other things, she played bass with both Tim Hardin and Hoyt Axton at various times. I briefly played in a band with her when I was living in LA; I’d known her from my own Cambridge days. She’s a wonderful musician, happily married, and she has a nice home studio. Haven’t talked to her in years, though.

  2. I took guitar lessons from Debbie in Berkeley during the time she was hanging with Rolf Cahn and the Cabal folks. I can still play a G chord… It was a weird time, late Beat/proto-hippie. Debbie was beautiful, and I can still remember her voice. I hope she’s well, wherever she is.

  3. I lived with Debbie.Eric and my then boyfriend Andy Johnson. I was a naive 16 yr old kid. I never heard Debbie sing. I admired her beauty and kindness. She was a free spirit. I recieved a letter from her many many years ago when she had her daughter Sarahthings in her life. I hope she was and is blessed with happiness in her life. She deserves it . Susan Parker Graf

  4. I had asthma when I was an infant and I smoked in late teens. The reason I stopped singing and didn’t make an album was scarring of the lungs. I didn’t have enough breath to hold pitch. That was it. I had plenty of inspiration from music itself and wouldn’t have been phased by the Baez thing. I have said this many times in interivews but people seem drawn to the idea that someone stole my soul because I was passive. It was a matter of breath. Sometimes the lungs would clear and I could sing again….in LA at Arnoldi parties. Then I’d have to stop again. I do have a recording studio. Just produced an album of Bruce Langhorne which is fabulous. (It’s available on Amazon.) Our daughter Sari is a gifted songwriter and has an album in the works.
    Anyway, that is why I was “passive” but thanks for all the kind words. Paths take us where life happens…a silly, “deep” cliche but it’s the truth. Xoxox

    (In the recent film, For the Love of the Music, Betsy Siggins chimes in on the passive thing too, even though I talked about the asthma etc in the interview. No one seems to get it, but at least I’ve said it here and it won’t be edited.)

    • Debbie, back in the 60s, after you and Eric met me at the Tete’ Tete in Providence R.I., you were nice enough to let me stay at your place a few times when I would go to Cambridge to play the hoot nights at the Club 47…I would love to hear from you… There are some pics of me from 1965 at my music page if you don’t recall my name off hand… http://www.facebook.com/pages/Tom-Ghent/ 112629275460471 ….I’m glad to hear you’re well, happy, and still involved in music….

    • Bernie Taupin just went on about your invisibility. They played Whose gonna be my man (live)? The Loft is wonderful and I now know your voice and talent. Thanks for the positive spin on your career path, much nicer.

    • About ten years ago I was talking with my old friend Spider John Koerner in my old home in Mpls. I was trying to talk him into coming up here to Maine on one of his Cambridge trips. For some reason, your name came up, and he just said “I wonder what happened to her. She was really great. I guess she found something else to do. “

      • Jimmy, I was Debbie’s partner at the Cabale and am devastated to learn about her death. I write a lot about her in my memoir #TakeYourShameAndShoveIt. If you get this please reply

    • Debbie:

      when i came upon eric andersen’s music in the late 1960’s, i found myself drawn to “violets of dawn”. as a music student, i loved what your “second, high guitar” added to the harmonic tapestry. to this day, i consider that second guitar necessary to the proper presentation of “folk” music. all the gossip aside, i am glad you are happy and healthy. i would consider it an honor to make music with you. best regards,

      joe graif

  5. Hiya, Debbie!

    Who is one of my favorite musicians… Debbie has an incredible ear for melody and harmony, and she knows which notes not to play as well as the other ones! And, yes, I can attest from many a music party in Santa Monica at Paul Arnoldi’s old place.

  6. Debbie- The Langhorne CD is exquisite (though the cover fails to list the songs). I was speaking to Dave Surkamp (Pavlov’s Dog) yesterday who said he knew you in the sixties and that you are “a monster” (in the most positive sense). Please, please make/issue a CD of yourself!

    Elsewhere on the internet I find someone making a film about Eric Andersen who says they plan to interview you. Also, I can’t find anything on the internet about your daughter. When is her CD coming?

    And thank you for your gracious take on the Baez issue.

  7. Hi, The only guitar lessons I ever took were back in 1964 or so (??) in Cambridge with Debbie. Can’t remember maybe 12 or more finger picking lessons. Alternating bass lines, treble patterns. Freight Train, Railroad Bill, Key to the Highway, Sugar Babe, Louis Collins etc. Of course I was knocked out by her beauty, talent and teaching skills like everyone else.. I still tell the story of watching Mance Libscomb playing bottle neck guitar in her kitchen where he was staying while playing in Cambridge. Guitars have been an integral part of my life and the technique I learned from Debbie has been the mainstay of my style. At the time I was playing an 1920 oval hole Gibson L-4 having traded in my new D-28 for a proper old guitar..Debbie thanks a bunch!!!

      • Hi, Yeh, Now that you mention it maybe I remember a second one as well over in the corner that belonged to Eric I figured. Long time ago… Been dealing vintage instruments for years but have never come by early J-200s. It’s great she still has it!! I still have the handwritten tab. fingerpicking lessons somewhere.!! I hate taking lessons from anyone but sitting in that middle room (second floor??) with debbie as the guitar teaching was very memorable.

      • Yes, Eric had one as well, but Debbie’s was by far the better of the two guitars, and Eric was jealous! I worked on both of them…action, frets, etc. in 1964 in the apartment in Cambridge that I shared with Lowell “Banana” Levinger and Michael Kane. I was working at Briggs and Briggs in Harvard Square at the time after we’d spent the summer of ’64 on the Vineyard where we had a small music store behind the Mooncusser Coffee House.

  8. Debbie,
    I took guitar lessons from you in Berkeley! I remember you lived on Prince Street, with Rolf Cahn. I was only 10 years old when I began learning guitar from you, so it must have been in 1959. You were a wonderful teacher, and taught me many English ballads and folk songs I still remember. You also found me my Gibson LG-1, which I still have, and taught me to fingerpick- a talent I’ve passed on to my son. So much fun!
    You were really a mentor and role model for me in those days. You were so beautiful, warm, and sweet to me. The coolest! I remember going to the Cabale to hear you play. I think I remember that you let me get up on stage and play “Walk Right In”; what a thrill!
    My love of folk music has stayed with me all these years, and although I’ve never played professionally, music has continually had a strong influence on my life.
    I’ve never forgotten you, and am so pleased to have found this thread. You were a significant person in my life, and I thank you for all you taught me, and the doors you opened.
    Debbie Mann (now Deborah Hoffman)

  9. Debbie,
    We went to Putney together and I will never, as long as I live, forget your voice. After graduation in 1958, we all whirl-winded around The Village for a few days. About ten years ago, John gave me a print of the photo of you and Mimi, kicking with the Golden Gate Bridge in the b.g. It hangs in my hallway in NYC, If you’re ever in the mood, shoot me an email at: dsmith@gettysburg.edu
    Glad to hear you’re thriving!
    Dusty

  10. I was Debbie’s partner at the Cabale in Berkeley and am devistated to learn about her death. I was in the process of finding a contact for her so I could send her a copy of my memoir #TakeYourShameAndShoveIt so I could send her a copy. She was a big part of my life. Please respond if you get this

  11. Sorry everyone. I may have been confused by the internet report about Debbie’s death. I’m trying to clarify the info. The obit showed a picture of her but also showed pictures of other women

  12. Very late to the party here. I took guitar lessons from Rolf Cahn back in the late 50’s- early 60’s in Berkeley. (I also took lessons from Jorma Kaukonen but that’s another story) My father was also taking lessons, flamenco I believe. I was very young about 10 yrs old…but my dad kept touch with Rolf through the years. Debbie as well as Barbara (Dane) would often be in and out of the apartment while the lessons were going on.

    After Rolf passed in 1994, my Dad was given a two CD set of Rolf Cahn’s Musical wake and on it are various artists, friends and family: Debbie Green did several songs, Jo Mapes, Barbara. Pablo Menendez, Jesse Rolf. Etc. Rolf participated in the music in the early part of the cd but faded to the last.

    It is really a great compilation of spontaneous music by some giants in the folk music field. I hadn’t heard Debbie Green before, but based on the descriptions of her life and music, I am quite certain which tracks are hers. They are lovely
    I hope she is well and knows how much she is valued.

    What a wonderful time for all of us to have been alive and been able to participate in the music scene…..if only on the edges for some of us (me…:-)

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