Folk is at best a liminal term to describe what’s happening musically. It captures everything from Nick Drake to bourgeois-Jack Johnson fans strumming away at a frat party - which is to say that it means nothing. Pointing to 60s psychedelia doesn’t get to the root of it either, since “folk” has already been dated back to the 19th century as unattributed music passed through tradition instead of physical recording. A more apt term for the genre might be “community” music, relating to something reflective of the time in which it was composed, but eerily pungent nearly fifty years later. Regardless, humbly arranged music with an earnest lyric is far from out of style in 2017.
FJ McMahon didn’t record Spirit of the Golden Juice because he knew it could be timeless. He was just a guy who could paint a moving picture of America in 1969, and that’s the reason why the record is getting its fourth reissue since inception. Here are nine songs whose prescience extends beyond the Vietnam War. For anyone who’s ever felt like throwing rocks at their TV in response to current events, ‘Five Year Kansas Blues’ and ‘Enough It Is Done’ have McMahon standing in solidarity no matter what the year.
McMahon doesn’t use fire and brimstone to convey his ideas. He’s got rough drum takes, glaring equalization problems in the guitars, and a tired-sounding voice. These are all he needs. If it weren’t for the loose production, the record would lose much of its charm; and if McMahon was screaming his rhetoric from the pulpit, Golden Juice wouldn’t be as relatable and moving. Any element you could perceive as negative is also a strength.
Golden Juice shares many qualities with other loner songwriters of its time. The defeatism on ‘Sister, Brother’ is straight out of Michael Yonkers’ proto-Sabbath meanderings, the jail-over-war stomp on ‘Five Year Kansas Blues’ could have come from Johnny Cash, and the sad tale of a GI’s infidelity on ‘Black Night Woman’ is fodder for a stronger psychedelic medium like Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs or The Byrds. However, each song here is McMahon’s own, mostly acting as conversations between guitar and vocals. Almost every track plays up this relationship. The call and response discussion on 'Enough It Is Done' could blanket anything from Neil Young to Bill Callahan. It’s not that McMahon rips off any of these contemporaries, it’s just that the timelessness of the tunes is hard to explain without pointing to music we already love. In essence, Golden Juice is a record that, as soon as you listen, you’ll wonder why it isn’t in your 60s psych-folk collection already.
’The Road Back Home’ is a tale of losing old friends that’s relevant in any age. “You can’t walk the highways in the country/ how can anyone feel proud?/ I can’t feel proud,” McMahon laments. He can’t help but tie his political woes into his personal ones. As we struggle to find clarity in these divisive times, it’s a shame that these problems aren’t anomalous; that people haven’t stopped cursing the lies of government since McMahon’s time. Fortunately, it’s this realization that has us still listening to a record that all but disappeared in the seventies. To boot, modern psych rockers Quilt performed Golden Juice in full alongside McMahon just last month. We’re getting yet another chance to put this record up near our cherished Spider John Koerner and Dylan collections, and we’d be wise to take it, and to consider FJ McMahon in our discussion about community folk music, whatever it may mean.