The esteemed reissue label Light In The Attic and Lou Reed’s widow Laurie Anderson have been rolling out unreleased Reed material from the forthcoming Words & Music, May 1965, the first in a series of planned albums from Reed’s archives. The album is culled from a tape Reed made with John Cale in 1965 and mailed to himself, which contains the earliest recordings of several Velvet Underground songs and remained sealed in an envelope for more than 50 years. We’ve already heard the tape’s versions of “I’m Waiting For The Man” and “Heroin,” and today we get “Men Of Good Fortune.”
Reed fans know “Men Of Good Fortune” as the second track on his 1973 solo album Berlin. But as Reed archivists Jason Stern and Don Fleming point out in a statement, this early recording is an entirely different song, one influenced by some of the same folk music that was inspiring the leading folk-rock artists of that mid-1960s moment:
“Men Of Good Fortune” has every trademark of one of the traditional Child Ballads from England and Scotland dating back for centuries and passed on from person to person. They had rarely been documented in print but were finally compiled in Francis James Child’s landmark book, The English And Scottish Popular Ballads, published between 1882 and 1898. The Child Ballads were a great source of inspiration for folk artists in the early 1960s, with Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Fairport Convention borrowing heavily from the book. Child Ballad #2, “The Elfin Knight,” through a series of other singers, informed Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” and Bob Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country.” Child Ballad #2 and many others include a “maiden” or “maid,” as Reed portrays himself in the song. It’s notable how the words to this version of “Men Of Good Fortune” could seemingly fit right in as a variant of a Child Ballad, but it doesn’t appear to borrow lines from the book or other songs, traditional or popular. Reed sings and plays the song alone.
Words & Music, May 1965 is out 9/16 on Light In The Attic.