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Julie Felix: Singer, star-gazer and child of the universe

By Keith Lyons

There’s some wise advice that you should never meet your heroes in person, for fear of destroying their aura of invincibility. But what happens when you meet a childhood hero, the singer of a song which is still on rotate in the back-catalogue jukebox of your mind? This is a tribute to the great, late Julie Felix, a legend in her lifetime, who was more than just a bohemian folk singer who knew no borders.

Julie Felix

It is not easy to classify Julie Felix, who died the week before last, aged 81. Most of the labels don’t fit. Sure, you could tag her as a folk singer, as she had one of the longest careers in folk music, spanning more than half-a-century. The singer-songwriter was also a humanitarian and human rights activist, having been politicised in the 1960s and was active in peace and environmental movements. But to dismiss her just as a protest singer of yesteryear would be to ignore her much larger contribution.

Californian-born and raised Catholic (as a child she wanted to become a nun), Julie started singing at beach parties and coffee bars, then tripped around Europe, where she had a fateful meeting with Leonard Cohen on a Greek island in 1962. Arriving in the UK with just her guitar and duffel bag, the woman in her mid-twenties known for her strong voice and long black hair rose to prominence in 1960s beatnik England as folk music gained in popularity. She ended up spending much of her time on that side of the Atlantic, including a stint in Norway, dying peacefully in her sleep in a village north of London once rated the happiest places to live in the UK.

With Mexican, Welsh and Native American ancestry and heritage, the American, British-based recording artist was very much a global citizen who defied being placed in a box. Her passion for music was instilled by her father, a Mexican mariachi ensemble musician who played guitar and accordion, while her Welsh American mother liked the mournful ballads of Burl Ives — both her parents had Native American blood.

In 1964, even the British record label Decca Records didn’t know whether to place her debut album in the classical category for folk music or take the risk in marketing her music as ‘pop’ and mainstream. It was eventually decided she was a pop singer. That decision was a key moment in her career. She became a household name, TV star and Top Twenty recording artist. In the late sixties, perhaps oblivious to her Californian origins, The Times newspaper described the musician as ‘Britain’s First Lady of Folk’. She had an engaging voice and a charming manner, but never learned to read music. She put it down to being at the right place at the right time. “Fate whisked me along,” she said in an interview last year. And it was fate that led to me meeting Julie almost 30 years ago.

There’s a wise saying that you should never meet your heroes in person. Obviously, I chose to ignore that advice when I met Julie, my childhood hero of sorts.

I knew of her because she sang a song popular at primary school and on the radio, particularly on the New Zealand Sunday morning children’s hour show Small World where ‘Going to the Zoo’ was a popular request along with Spike Milligan’s fairytale ‘Badjelly the Witch’. ‘Daddy’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow . . . And we can stay all day!’ starts out with the catchy chorus: We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo, How about you, you, you? You can come too, too, too, We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo.’

The action song, complete with onomatopoeic animal noises, was a big hit at Nayland primary school, and it was a soundtrack on constant loop when we made a school trip to the nearby Tahunanui Zoo (now known as Natureland Wildlife Trust and more into wildlife conservation than a petting zoo), back before zoos became places to avoid because of their treatment and captivity of animals.

So, in 1992 I met up with Julie in the South Island of New Zealand and travelled around the Catlins area near Dunedin for almost a week with the legendary folk singer, hosted by Fergus and Mary Sutherland of Catlins Wildlife Trackers. At the time I was a budding writer, fresh out of post-graduate journalism school. As well as tagging along to write some stories for newspapers and magazines, I was quickly identified as the unofficial local guide, the fixer, and the fetcher. I was tasked with taking photos, opening wine bottles, and carrying her prized guitar. We hiked trails to spectacular waterfalls in the lush forest, visited panoramic coastal viewpoints, ventured into limestone cathedral arches, combed beaches looking for petrified tree fossils, and watched dolphins play in the surf.

At night, with no street lights, if the skies were clear, we’d go outside to admire the Southern Hemisphere stars with the Milky Way and its just-visible breakaway of large Magellanic cloud, and the constellations unfamiliar to Julie, such as the Southern Cross, or ones easily recognisable, such as Orion, which were differently oriented compared to night skies in Europe and North America. “This is where I belong,” she declared after a long session of awed gazing, “I am a child of this wonderful universe.”

On that adventure was the glamorous American health and beauty author, Leslie Kenton, daughter of jazz musician Stan Kenton. There was a little bit of tension on our sightseeing trip, as Leslie, former health and beauty editor at Harpers and Queen, and author of Raw Energy and The X Factor Diet was into raw food for vitality and longevity, while Julie was more into living in moment rather than her appearance, the future or order. She didn’t wear make-up, she dressed in comfortable clothes, and she enjoyed the occasional puff on hand rolled cigarettes. It wasn’t quite a reckless rock n’ roll lifestyle, more of a down-to-earth, unpretentious, good-hearted existence.

Julie’s habits were met with a disapproving look from radiant Leslie, who was three years younger — though it was health freak Leslie who died earlier, in 2016, aged 75, near Christchurch, having been charmed enough by New Zealand from that first visit to decide to move permanently.

The slight clash of personalities, Julie later confided to me, was mainly astrological. Fortunately, we got on well, possibly because I didn’t want to change her in any way, had no expectations, and I also shared Julie’s skepticism, about the virtues of coffee enemas. Though I must admit, I did hope that at some stage she would sing THAT song.

Julie would roll her eyes after another plea from Leslie to try a new-fangled supplement, recently-discovered treatment or life-changing product. “Where are we going to tomorrow?” she once asked me to divert Leslie’s attention, so she could go out for some fresh air and a smoke. “To the zoo,” I replied, hoping to subtly remind her of the song I wanted to hear her sing.

During the trip, Julie didn’t feel the need to impress, even though she had an impressive CV and contact list. She had become the first solo folk performer to sign with a major British record label, and in 1965 she was the first folk singer to fill the Royal Albert Hall – that same year she was the first ‘popular’ singer to perform at Westminster Abbey. She even had her own primetime BBC TV programme (the first colour series produced by the BBC), after being a member of David Frost’s satirical ‘Report’ team.

Her own series ‘Once More With Felix’ included guests The Bee Gees, The Kinks, Fleetwood Mac, The Hollies and Spike Milligan. Julie, with her dark, long hair, was often compared to (and sometimes mistaken for) fellow American and Californian resident Joan Baez. Even though she still had an exotic West Coast accent, a US passport, and sang songs penned by American’s Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Paul Simon, she was once dubbed ‘Britain’s answer to Joan Baez’.

Among her contemporaries and friends were Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie (‘This Land is Your Land’), Dusty Springfield, Paul McCartney, Cat Stevens, Jimmy Page, and Leonard Cohen. She once opened for Dylan at the Isle of Wright Festival, later did a cover of his peace song ‘Masters of War’, and so liked the fellow Gemini’s music, she recorded a double-album of his songs. Julie was one of McCartney’s girlfriends, and it is said he sang ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ to her before it was first performed publicly. She is credited with being the person who taught Cohen how to turn his poems into songs. If you get the chance, there’s a Youtube clip of her singing with Cohen ‘That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1EJ-ITAcEU). It was Cohen’s British TV debut.

Julie was born in Santa Barbara, but couldn’t get her musical career off the ground in the US, so with savings of US$1000 in her pocket, and inspired by Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’, she hitchhiked across Europe (meeting Cohen in Greece on the bohemian island of Hydra and lending him her guitar), and then found a bigger audience in the UK, where she stayed for decades.

She once got arrested at Heathrow airport for possession of cannabis and carrying more than the allowable amount of cash — that was more than 50 years ago.

She first came to New Zealand in 1971, singing to a record-breaking crowd of 27,000 at Western Springs in Auckland, urging Kiwis to reject conscription for the Vietnam War. But she wasn’t just a singer of protest songs, she had a deep concern for the world, the environment, and its people, particularly those less well off. As well as being a singer, social justice, human rights and peace were important to her, and she was involved in many initiatives, charities and humanitarian causes for women’s rights, refugees, and victims of oppression, including projects to end the military use of landmines in Third World countries, and as an ambassador in the Middle East and Africa for Christian Aid.

One of her most requested songs is ‘Deportee (Plane Wreck at Lost Gatos)’, about the mistreatment of migrant farmers, while her top hit was ‘If I Could’, best known as the Simon & Garfunkel version ‘El Condor Pasa’ which starts off with the ‘I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail . . .’ And of course, among a younger audience, she was the voice behind the ‘Going to the Zoo’ song, which featured in her second album released in 1966 (that song was also sung by Peter, Paul & Mary).

At the end of the week, with Julie rejuvenated from the New Zealand natural scenery and serenity, (and with better access to tobacco, alcohol and spicy, ‘well-cooked’ food), she had a concert in Dunedin, and I got to be her temporary road manager, carrying her guitar, the treasured one from her father. After the soundcheck, one of her devoted fans, who had met her two decades earlier during the anti-Vietnam War era, snuck into the green room, and pressed upon her a tinfoil containing marijuana that he’d especially prepared just for her.

There was a surprisingly large turnout, with an older audience of loyal followers eager to hear her voice again, which had gone a little dusky over the years (she was then in her mid-50s), similar to the vocal trajectory of Joni Mitchell, thanks to the nicotine habit. On some of her songs, everyone sang along. After helping her out (‘Keith, where can I get . . . ‘ she would ask), I thought perhaps she’d do ‘Going to the Zoo’ as one of the encore pieces.

So if you haven’t heard it before, or if you did a long, long time ago, you can still hear Julie sing ‘Going to the Zoo’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WgCiE_tiyQo). It is quite a good song if you currently are in coronavirus lockdown with children to entertain or care for. It ends with this:

Well we stayed all day and I’m gettin’ sleepy, Sittin’ in the car gettin’ sleep sleep sleepy, Home already gettin’ sleep sleep sleepy, ’Cause we have stayed all day.

Listening to her sing, as I stood backstage, I realised why I liked her, and it was because her voice reminded me of a simpler time, when I was young, when things seemed more black-and-white. “This world goes round and round, green leaves must turn to brown, what goes up must come down, It all comes back to you,” she sang out Tom Paxton’s ‘World Goes Round and Round’. “People knocking at the golden door, they got plenty but they still want more, don’t know what they’re looking for, the world goes round and round.” She has also sung Paxton’s ‘The Last Thing on My Mind’. It was Paxton who wrote ‘Going to the Zoo’. But did I get to hear her sing that zany song? Nope.

The next day, before Julie headed off on her travels (she wanted to go bungy jumping over the Shotover River in Queenstown), she confided that she did sometimes sing ‘Going to the Zoo’, but the performance was usually reserved for a much younger audience. “Keith, I’ve been singing that damn song for more years than you’ve been on this precious earth.”

She took away a few pebbles and shells we’d found on our shore and estuary ramblings, and I made her a booklet of photos from the trip. After our time together, we kept in touch.

A few years ago, she said that when she sings live, she taps into a great energy, and it was her way of praying. “Music is like breathing to me,” she declared. In one of her most recent interviews, she said she missed her youth and the energy she once had but was grateful at being able to make music and share it with others.

She was still touring, recording and performing into this year, with an album released in 2018 of her own songs, and a schedule of concerts planned for 2020. She had even teamed up Mike D’Abo from Manfred Mann to do songs they’d performed together more than half a century ago, including Bob Dylan’s ‘Fare Thee Well’ with the lines ‘So it’s fare-thee-well, my own true love, We’ll meet an-other day, an-other time’ (see this from 1967 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BsH0xPFbV0g).

She died on Sunday 22nd March, a couple of days after another 81-year old who had made a contribution in expanding the audience for a music style and making it more mainstream, Kenny Rogers, and on the weekend when the UK went into lockdown.

Julie leaves a deep legacy not just musically, but in her ideals, and how she strived to make a difference. She was both a product of her time, and ahead of her time, in wanting to make the world a better place, and being prepared to speak up, particularly for those without a voice. In a divided world, she saw no divisions, only an unrealised global consciousness, that we are all one, all children of the universe.

Keith Lyons is an award-winning writer and creative writing mentor, originally from New Zealand, who has lived in Asia for more than a dozen years. His creative non-fiction, short stories, and poetry have been published in journals, magazines and anthologies around the world, and his work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He edited and co-authored ‘Opening up Hidden Burma: journeys with – and without – author Dr Bob Perival’ (2018, Duwon Books), and is currently working on a book about finding Asia’s last island paradise, the Mergui Archipelago.

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