Listen to this track by Los Angeles-based folk-rock trio featuring ingenue singer Linda Ronstadt. It’s “Different Drum”, a 1967 single as taken from their second album, Evergreen, Vol. 2, which would turn out to be their most successful release.
The song was penned by Michael Nesmith, a member of the Monkees of course, but written in 1965 before his profile was raised by the weekly TV show that made him famous. Even before Stone Poneys got a hold of it, it had been recorded by bluegrass outfit The Greenbriar Boys. Nesmith himself would record his own version of the song on his And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ album in 1972.
In the summer of 1967, this proved to be the first hit single (#13 on the Billboard Hot 100) that singer Linda Ronstadt would enjoy in a solo career that would yield several as the sixties turned into the seventies, and even beyond. Maybe the song’s subject matter inadvertently pointed to the fate of the group; that each member was ultimately headed in different directions to the others before the end of the decade.
Yet I think more interestingly, this take on Nesmith’s tune as re-interpreted by Ronstadt says a lot about its current era of the sixties and how things were changing especially when it came to the roles of men and women.
There were plenty of examples of strong women leading the charge when it came to pushing music of all kinds forward. But, a lot of the time by this point in history, women musicians were viewed as decoration, not really as creative leaders. All the while, women in society were still viewed as a part of an old structure full of stereotypes; trying to pin a man down, keeping him from his hero’s quest. At this point, a woman was still told to stay home by the culture, and condemned for doing so at the same time as a force to fence men in to keep him there, too.
This song, as interpreted by Stone Poneys and through Linda Ronstadt’s lead vocal, turns all of that on its head. Here on this song, it’s her narrator who doesn’t want to be pinned down by the demands of home life, who knows what she wants and what she doesn’t. She’s on a heroine’s quest, leaving home behind to explore the world and be tested.
In this, this version of the song is important to the way that women were positioned as leaders of narratives in songs, revolutionary even. But, it’s not didactic. It’s subtle. And above all, it’s a bright tune that hides an ocean of regret and sadness, which provides an important tension and contrast. For this, we have Nesmith to thank. Because even in his male-led version of the song, the narrator is no less in love with the person he’s singing to, even if he’s saying goodbye. In fact, he loves her enough to say goodbye at all because he knows he must be honest with her about what he wants. There’s a certain sophistication in that idea which is also pretty revolutionary coming out the “boy loves girl” era of songwriting, when love was always gloriously happy, and break-ups always wholly sad or angry.
Yet, with Ronstadt singing it, the song becomes about something greater still. It can be viewed as a feminist anthem in her hands, especially during an era when women were culturally emerging as independent thinkers, leaders, artists, authors, theorists, and beyond, with callings to follow beyond their traditional roles. By the end of the sixties, women stradded two paradigms in the age between father knows best and bra burnings. That resentment of women in a man’s world continues today, from pay inequity, to gamergate. Women taking their own paths at the (very oddly) perceived expense of men is still threatening to many, even if a woman president isn’t out of the range of possibility, and even if (in my country’s case) a gender-balanced parliamentary cabinet became a no-brainer by 2015. Yet, you should have read the comments on that one.
Linda Ronstadt went on to immense solo success, seeming to know no bounds as far as musical genre, from rock, to torch songs, to music hall tunes, to country, to Mariachi music, and more. She followed her own path, collecting armfuls of Grammys while she was at it.
Today, Linda Ronstadt is retired, and currently struggling with Parkinson’s Disease. Yet, even in this she follows her own path, being very candid about her struggles and her positive attitude despite such a debilitating condition.
You can read about Ronstadt’s life and work at this page on biography.com.