It isn't easy to classify or categorise American-born Julie Felix, who recently died peacefully in her sleep in a village north of London once rated the happiest place to live in the UK.
She was one of the leading lights in the folk music boom of the 1960s, with her career spanning more than half a century embracing more than 20 albums and a number of chart-topping hits. She was a contemporary and exponent of the work of Bob Dylan, she is credited with helping Leonard Cohen turn his poems into songs (and later, singing his songs), and she was briefly the girlfriend of Beatles vocalist Paul McCartney.
But for all her music and her role in making folk music popular, the singer-songwriter is perhaps best remembered for her endeavours as a humanitarian and activist, dating back to her involvement in the peace movement singing protest songs.
For Julie, the personal was political. However, looking back on her life and career, she admitted that she was in the right place at the right time. “Fate whisked me along,” she said in an interview last year.
Born on June 14th, 1938 in Santa Barbara, she gained her love of music and connection to the land from her parents, who both had Native American blood. Her mother, an American with Welsh heritage, often sang the ballads of Burl Ives, while her father Lorenzo was a Mexican mariachi ensemble musician who played guitar and accordion - sometimes singing into the early hours of the morning. By age seven she had written her first song, about pixies.
Being brought up in a devout Catholic household, Julie considered a vocation as a nun, and then in her teens wanted to be a sword fighter. After initially learning to play the four-string ukulele, her father taught her to upgrade to the six-string guitar, and she starting singing at beach parties and coffee houses, though she was more interested in acting on stage. Julie studied drama and speech at UC Santa Barbara, on the side singing in clubs around town. She recalls a student fan a few years younger than her pestering her about guitar chords. It was David Crosby, who went on to form the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
By her mid-twenties, the theatre major realised she had limited prospects in the American entertainment industry. In 1962 with $1,000 in savings and Beat Generation’s Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ in her duffel bag, she travelled with the guitar her father had given her and a friend across to Europe. On the bohemian Greek island of Hydra she met Canadian Leonard Cohen, where he was living with his muse, Marianne. They became friends, he would borrow her guitar, and she helped him turn his poems into songs.
She spent two years hitchhiking across Europe, backpacking to Venice, Rome, Marseilles, Barcelona, Paris, and Berlin, hanging out with musicians, and playing in bars. When she eventually arrived in the UK, Julie was ‘discovered’ by David Frost. After featuring on his satirical show (she sang ‘That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ with Cohen when he made his TV debut, she got her own primetime show on BBC ‘Once More With Felix’, the first broadcast in colour on TV, which included guests Josh White, Tim Buckley, Bill Preston and Donovan. At one of her live performances, the opening act was a then-unknown Cat Stevens.
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 become 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’. 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 had an engaging voice and a charming manner, but never learned to read music.
Despite her Californian accent, and even though she sang the songs of Americans Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Paul Simon, she was claimed as ‘Britain’s answer to Joan Baez’, a fellow American she was sometimes mistaken for. She quickly became a household name, TV star and Top 20 recording artist. She performed at the Isle of Wight Festival with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the crowd. She also enjoyed fame across Europe, appearing on the German TV show Beat-Club in 1967, and at the International Essen Song Days in 1968.
Julie had a secret affair with Dusty Springfield, and was one of Paul McCartney’s girlfriends briefly - it is said he sang ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ to her before it was first performed publicly. She was arrested in 1968 at Heathrow airport for possession of cannabis, on her way to Amsterdam. She hung out with Bob Dylan, later recording two albums of his songs. Some of her albums mixed traditional and contemporary material. She played with other folk musicians, including Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, Dave Swarbrick and John Renbourn (who taught her clawhammer technique). For generations of children, she is the voice behind the ‘Going to the Zoo’ song.
The performer with dark, long hair falling over her face, high cheekbones, a strong, engaging voice and charming manner is best known for her versions of ‘Deportee’ and Paul Simon’s ‘If I Could’, and she recorded a double album of Bob Dylan’s songs, but she wasn’t just a singer of protest songs. She had a deep concern for the world, the environment, and its people, and was involved in many humanitarian causes for women’s rights, refugees, and victims of oppression, including projects to end the military use of landmines in Third World countries, working with Freedom From Hunger in Kenya and Uganda, and as an ambassador in the Middle East and Africa for Christian Aid.
She regarded Europe as saner than the US, having spent much of her later years based near London. In the late 70s she lived in Norway, finding northern Europe a better place to live and work. She returned to California for a few years, exploring the ‘Aquarian arts’ and becoming more involved in environmental, Latin America and feminist causes. Then in the late 80s she started performing again, continuing to tour, record and perform, even teaming up with musicians she’d performed with 50 years before, right until her death on 22nd March 2020 in England.
She once said that music is like breathing to her, and she was grateful at being able to make music and share it with others.
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. She has been likened to other political singers, such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. 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 (keithlyons.net) is a writer and author. He first met Julie Felix in New Zealand in the 1990s.
Photo Credits: (1ff) Julie Felix (unknown/website).