by Terry Roland     FOLKWORKS January 2008

            John York is not a typical veteran of the 60s LA music scene. Number one, he's still alive. This may put him in a very small percentage of the veterans from those days. Number two, he's not holding on to the musical style and songs of the past. Rather, York has remained passionate about his musical growth and pilgrimage in world music, Native American styles and a diversity of international instruments. Along with the twelve and six-string guitars, fretted and fretless bass, the instruments he has studied include pipa (the Chinese lute), gu zheng (the Chinese table harp), violin, Native American flute, Chinese jade screen flute, dong xiao (Chinese bamboo flute), oud (Arabic lute), Mexican five-string guitar, and Irish harp. His musical path has taken him through Arabic, Native American, Chinese and Japanese influences. Probably most important of all these accomplishments is the spirituality energizing his music with a fresh and original integration of eastern and western influences.

            How did he find his way to such musical riches? His path began when York, a native New Yorker, listened to his mother and grandmother play organ and direct choir in the Lutheran church. This began a mentorship into the music of J.S. Bach. By the age of six he could sing the alto parts for the choir. York’s love for music then developed into a passion for vocal groups like Dion and The Belmonts and rock & roll guitar stylists like Duane Eddy. In his early teens, he began playing in local bands. He also wanted to be a Shakespearean actor. This led him to a choice between attending London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts or go into LA’s burgeoning rock scene. The year was 1965. He chose LA.

            York's musical associations on the West Coast reads like a Who's Who of 60s rock history. He was a member of The Sir Douglas Quintet, toured as bass player for The Mamas and the Papas and Johnny Rivers, and did studio work with Steppenwolf, Dorsy Burnette and Malvina Reynolds. While playing for Gene Clark at the Whisky A Go Go, he was asked to replace Chris Hillman in The Byrds in the summer of 1968. A new incarnation of the legendary band was evolving which included Roger McGuinn, Clarence White, and Gene Parsons with whom he recorded Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde and The Ballad of Easy Rider. The latter album included the title hit song and a second hit, I Wasn't Born To Follow,” was used in Peter Fonda's         

In 1969, York left The Byrds and continued on a less famous, but infinitely richer journey adding to his musical abilities through the study of international instruments. Pete Frame's The Complete Rock Family Tree states that York “disappeared into thin air.” If disappearing means leaving the sometimes fruitless and frustrating world of rock fame to go on a journey of musical and spiritual growth then, indeed, York disappeared and for all the right reasons. Not many in rock history have had the integrity to walk away from the rock limelight in order to pursue maturity as a musician. Indeed, York has said leaving The Byrds was a matter of integrity. One would suspect his leaving was both about his values and nurturing his growing talent.

            Since that time, York has pursued studies in Middle Eastern music absorbing himself in the Arabic oud for two years. True to the uniqueness of his journey he became an apprentice for Odell Organ Company where he learned how to build pipe organs. And he even found time to remain true to his roots by appearing in various tribute tours with The Byrds which involved working with Gene Clark, Roger McGuin, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel of The Band.During the 90s, York grew weary of the road. He left in order to compose music and th pend more time with his family. He moved to Claremont, CA, where his ability with a variety of instruments put him in demand as a session musician for other artists. He has also released collaborative independent CDs like Sacred Path, Native American music which accompanies the bestselling book, Sacred Path Cards by Jamie Sands. Over the last ten years, York appeared at The Claremont Folk Festival with Patrick Brayer and Ben Harper. He also found distinctive ways to use his talents by playing in bands with unique blends of styles like Californios, a Middle Eastern Flamenco Blues group, with his friend Chris Darrow of Kaleidoscope and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band fame.

In 2000, York released his first solo CD, Claremont Dragon. This was the first time he could focus on his own compositions and musical vision. This classic CD uses international/world music instrumentation as well as an original electric 12-string guitar style from his early Byrds days. He has continued to explore world music expressions as well as his roots in folk, country and rock styles.

            Most recently, York has been developing a performance art exhibit combining visual art and music with artist Sumi who has created her visual art form from a unique medium of old kimonos and other abandoned fabrics. Sumi Foley, York's wife, has a strong artistic vision calling to mind her own traditions from Japan and modern expressionistic-abstract art from the west. York has recently released a CD of roots music entitled, Arigatou Baby, after a recent tour in Japan. This CD concentrates on his beginnings in country rock and less on his love for world music. He has also been collaborating with LA rock legend, Kim Fowely, on songwriting and recording with a project of stories and song through Internet downloads called West Coast Revelations.

            Today, John York is a living treasury of story, song and instruments collected throughout his life. When talking with him, it’s hard not to miss the musical odyssey that shines through his eyes.He is an authentic example of how one musician can carry a legacy of spirit, truth, compassion and wisdom that continues to grow through his musical expressions. Not only has he survived the perilous rock & roll days of the 60s, he has thrived and transcended them.


For more information on John York and Sumi Foley please go to:
John York will be appearing January 19
th at 8:00 pm at Gelencser House Concerts at 3855 Requa Ave., Claremont, CA

For more information call 909-596-1266.


Terry Roland is an English teacher, freelance writer, occasional poet, songwriter and folk and country enthusiast. The music has been in his blood since being raised in Texas. He came to California where he was taught to say 'dude' at an early age.

Promoting acoustic music in the Inland Valley


Rounded Rectangle: Gelencser House Concerts in Claremont