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Len Chandler, an Early Fixture of the Folk Revival, Dies at 88

Len Chandler, who was an early fixture of the folk music revival that swept through Greenwich Village in the late 1950s and ’60s and who sang alongside Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and other higher-profile stars at civil rights marches and Vietnam War protests, died on Aug. 28 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 88.

Lew Irwin, a longtime friend who in the late 1960s brought Mr. Chandler to Los Angeles to provide music for an unusual new radio show he was creating, confirmed the death. He said Mr. Chandler had recently had several strokes.

Mr. Chandler was a classically trained oboist when he arrived in New York from Ohio, where he had graduated from the University of Akron in 1957, and met the singer Dave Van Ronk at the Folklore Center, a Greenwich Village shop that sold records, books and sheet music and was a gathering point for folk musicians.

Mr. Van Ronk “introduced me to the Washington Square Park folk scene,” Mr. Chandler said in an essay included in the book “Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival,” by Stephen Petrus and Ronald D. Cohen (2015). “Every Sunday it was filled with folk singers. I remember learning to play on borrowed guitars in the park until someone said, ‘Buy your own damn guitar.’ I said, ‘OK’ and bought his for 40 bucks.”

Soon he was playing regularly at the Gaslight Cafe, which opened in 1958 and was later famous as a proving ground for Mr. Dylan and others.

“It was mainly a scene for poets,” Mr. Chandler said in an interview for the book “Folk Music: More Than a Song,” by Kristin Baggelaar and Donald Milton (1976), “and there wasn’t much happening for singers, except for me.”

An executive from the Detroit television station WXYZ saw him there and in 1959 hired him to be the featured musician on “The After Hours Club,” a late-night variety show. By the time Mr. Chandler returned to New York about six months later, the folk music scene was in full swing at the Gaslight, Folk City and other clubs.

That scene that included, among others, Mr. Dylan, Mr. Van Ronk, Tom Paxton, Richie Havens and Noel Paul Stookey, later of Peter, Paul and Mary. In “Chronicles: Volume One,” his 2004 memoir, Mr. Dylan wrote of the back-room poker game at the Gaslight where musicians would pass the time waiting their turn to perform.

“Chandler told me once, ‘You gotta learn how to bluff,’” Mr. Dylan wrote. “‘You’ll never make it in this game if you don’t. Sometimes you even have to get caught bluffing.’”

Mr. Chandler, as John Christy of The Atlanta Journal once put it, “possesses a sharply honed guitar-vocal arsenal of ‘message’ songs, blues songs, jazz songs, country songs, and just songs.” But he was especially known for songs he wrote inspired by the news of the day. The first, Mr. Chandler said, was written in 1962 about a disastrous school bus accident the year before in Greeley, Colo.

“Then I started writing many songs about the Freedom Riders and sit-ins,” he was quoted as saying in the “Folk Music” book. At the March on Washington in 1963, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech, Mr. Chandler sang the traditional song “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize (Hold On)” with some updated lyrics. Ms. Baez and Mr. Dylan were among the backing singers.

The next year he toured with Dick Gregory, the comedian known for sharp-edged material involving race. In the summer of 1969 Mr. Chandler was on the maiden voyage of the Clearwater, the sloop Mr. Seeger used to raise awareness of Hudson River pollution and other environmental causes, sailing from Maine to New York and staging concerts at stops along the way.

In 1970 and 1971 he was part of a troupe led by Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland that brought an antiwar revue known as “F.T.A.” (which stood for Free Theater Associates, or Free the Army, or something else involving the Army that is unprintable) to military towns and bases at the height of the Vietnam War.

If Mr. Chandler never achieved the name recognition of some of those with whom he shared stages and causes, he did write at least one song with lasting appeal: “Beans in My Ears,” which the Serendipity Singers turned into a Top 30 hit in 1964. Aimed at adults but simple and repetitive like a children’s song, it was about people’s tendency not to listen to others. “I think that all grown-ups have beans in their ears,” the final verse went, with “beans in their ears” repeated again and again.

Perhaps the song would have climbed higher on the charts had medical professionals in some cities not denounced it. “‘Beans in Ears’ Alarms Doctors Who Fear Children Will Try It,” a 1964 headline in The Indianapolis Star read over an article that said WIRE in Indiana had stopped playing the song. That step was taken by other radio stations as well.

Len Hunt Chandler Jr. was born on May 27, 1935, in Summit County, Ohio. He started learning the piano at 9, but once he reached high school he wanted to join the school band, and the only instrument available was the oboe, so he began playing that.

He continued to study music at the University of Akron, where he also showed the beginnings of the activism that would characterize his singing career. In a sharply worded letter to the editor published in The Akron Beacon Journal in 1954, he told of being barred from a public pool because he was Black.

“When will we, the people of the United States, learn to practice the principles of democracy that we preach?” he wrote.

After he earned his undergraduate degree, a $500 scholarship helped take him to New York to continue his music studies. He would eventually earn a master’s degree in music education at Columbia University, but by then he was immersed in the folk scene.

By the mid-1960s Mr. Chandler was a familiar presence at coffee houses in the United States and Canada, and in 1968 his dexterity with topical songs landed him a seemingly impossible job at KRLA radio in Pasadena, Calif. Mr. Irwin was creating a current-events show there called “The Credibility Gap,” and Mr. Chandler was to write and sing three songs a day for the show, based on the news. The first song was due by 9 a.m., the second by noon and the third by 3 p.m.

“Sometimes I start writing a half-hour, 20 minutes before the show,” he told The Los Angeles Times in November 1968, when he’d been doing the job for about five months, “so I rip it out of the typewriter and run upstairs without ever having played it on the guitar, decide what key I want to sing it in and put my capo in place. The engineer says, ‘Go,’ and I sing it.”

In a Facebook post, Mr. Irwin estimated that Mr. Chandler wrote 1,000 songs from 1968 to 1970.

“Reporters speak to the mind; Len aimed at the gut,” he wrote. “And always with gentleness to make his words land with the fullest impact.”

Mr. Chandler was on the job at KRLA in June 1968 when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. A song he wrote for that occasion included these lyrics:

Long line of mourners,
Long lines of the slain,
Long lines of teletype
Spelling out the pain.
Long lines at the ballot box
Casting votes in vain.
Long lines line the long, long track
Of another lonesome train.

Mr. Chandler released two albums in the late 1960s, “To Be a Man” (1966) and “The Lovin’ People” (1967), though neither made much impact. He settled in Los Angeles, and in 1971 he and John Braheny founded the Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase, where songwriters performed new material for music publishers and recording executives. They ran it for 25 years, providing exposure for up-and-coming artists including Stephen Bishop, Stevie Nicks and Karla Bonoff.

Mr. Chandler’s survivors include his wife, Olga Adderley Chandler, who acted under her maiden name, Olga James, and was the widow of the saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, who died in 1975. They also include a son, Michael Fox.

“One thing about Chandler was that he was fearless,” Mr. Dylan recalled in “Chronicles.” “He didn’t suffer fools, and no one could get in his way.”

“Len was brilliant and full of good will,” he added, “one of those guys who believed that all of society could be affected by one solitary life.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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