I’m proud that I remember so many good songs—but memory doesn’t take orders, and I also remember some lousy ones. I had “Martian Love Song” firmly filed in that category, as an example of the kind of dreck I learned as a kid and will be stuck with till I die—but when I got into this project I went over all the songs I could remember, culling the dreck, and culled this one, and then woke up one night with it going through my head, and a wave of affection swept over me. It was kind of like meeting a peculiar, socially inept old acquaintance whom no one else liked, and I had to take it by the hand and reassure it that it was just fine and I was happy to be its friend.
So then I went back to the booklet for Pete Seeger’s Gazette LP, which I assumed was the only place it ever appeared, to see what he said about it, and found to my amazement that the words are by Lee Hays of the Weavers and the melody by Earl Robinson, who wrote “Ballad for Americans,” “The House I Live In” and “Free and Equal Blues” — at which point I did a little more investigating and found that Robinson recorded it for Folkways as well, under the title “My True Love,” with the note, “it is an old folk song that we composed next week.” Pete’s notes add that it was composed “in preparation for that possible future time when venturesome space pilots from the Earth will go joy-riding with winsome Martian lassies—and, undoubtedly, run out of fuel in the neighborhood of some deserted asteroid.”
To add a serious historical note: some writers who date the beginning of the singer-songwriter movement to Bob Dylan’s arrival in Greenwich Village have invented a mythical pre-Dylan folk scene in which no one was writing new songs, or, if they were, they were only writing agit-prop protest lyrics. This is a good example of what’s wrong with that idea—the Seeger-Weavers generation was full of songwriters, writing about all sorts of things. Nor were they stolid folk purists — Pete started out playing banjo in his high school jazz band and harmonizing on pop tunes, and there had been regular cross-fertilization between pop and folk, back to Stephen Foster and beyond.
What is true is that by the turn of the 1960s a clique of younger singers and musicians who Dave Van Ronk (an enthusiastic member) dubbed the “neo-ethnics” was dismissing that stuff as horrible pseudo-folk and insisting that real folk music was what they were learning off old rural recordings from the 1920s. (The old rural artists had also sung a lot of pop tunes, but they didn’t know that.)
Then Dylan came along, sounding like a neo-ethnic and hanging out with the neo-ethnics, and started writing, and became a rock star, and it was a major changing of the guard. There was still a lot of overlap, like Phil Ochs’s style, which comes straight out of Bob Gibson and has not the slightest whiff of neo-ethnicity about it, or Joni Mitchell, or Judy Collins, or all sorts of people who grew up on the Weavers and singer-songwriter compositions like Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” not to mention “Scarlet Ribbons” and “South Coast,” and “Scotch and Soda.” But Dylan became the defining figure for the historical transition, celebrated for cutting his ties with the older generation of folkies, and the continuity was largely obscured.
Which goes some way to explaining why I might be the only person alive who remembers “Martian Love Song.”