DULUTH- David Kerr Morton was a step back in time, a back-to-the-lander who moved to the beat of his own kazoo. A longtime resident of Angora and Cook, ‘Mort’ died April 20 of diabetic …
DULUTH- David Kerr Morton was a step back in time, a back-to-the-lander who moved to the beat of his own kazoo. A longtime resident of Angora and Cook, ‘Mort’ died April 20 of diabetic complications at his home at Aftenro, in Duluth. He was 80 years old.
Mort was an anarchist, activist, poet, artist, jeweler and musician. He was an agitator who protested nuclear weapons, segregation and social repression.
“He was a true American original mystic and possibly the most gentle man I ever met,” said friend and fellow Iron Range musician Paul Metsa.
Founding member of The New Improved Jook Savages, David Morton brought weird to Angora in 1971. A band formed in the early 1960s, The Jook Savages were “an extremely loose jugband congregation of poets/film-makers/poster artists/musicians/hipsters/and general all round weirdness,” writes the SF Scene. Their biggest song, written by David Morton, was “Smokin’ My Dope.”
Morton lived without television, blew his nose into his hand, and stood tall. Born in 1939 in Salt Lake City, Utah, he grew up with Unitarian parents in Berkeley, Calif. and St. Paul, Minn. In 1958 he attended U-High with friends John Palmer and Dave Ray. He was a central figure in the Minneapolis Dinkytown scene, a regular at the 10 O’Clock Scholar, an incubator of Minnesota ‘60s music. Often interviewed about his old friend Bob Dylan, Morton loved to say, “I don’t play Bob Dylan’s songs and he doesn’t play mine.”
He has been recognized nationally for his contributions to civil rights and1960s counterculture. In 1961, Morton was arrested in Jackson, Miss., and spent time in prison as one of 442 Freedom Riders who were ultimately successful in desegregating interstate bus travel. His contribution to American history is memorialized in a book called “Breach of Peace” and in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. Fifty years later, he received a thank-you letter from President Barack Obama.
Morton’s Bay-area jug band, The Jook Savages, is also in the annals of history with band posters in the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
A charismatic radical, he ran with the art crowd printing poetry, posters, collages and zines from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. From the Greenwich Village beat scene to the California acid test psychedelic music explosion, Morton was a force.
Being on the rolling edge of the 1960s counterculture, many mothers have complained that Morton encouraged their children to turn on and tune out.
“David was like a meteor that streamed into the atmosphere, altering course and consciousness,” says ‘60s friend Rochelle Karter.
Richie “Moon” Golfus, a founding Jook Savage, remembers how meeting the long-haired Morton in the Dinkytown days changed his life.
“Dylan’s roommate was an old guy, 24, Dave Morton. He was farther out than anyone I’d ever met,” Moon said. “Returning from the New York scene with Dylan, Ginsberg and the gang, we started as a rock and roll jug band in Minneapolis, then Los Angeles. Alan Ginsberg was around, came to our rehearsal and taught us to chant and meditate.”
The Jook Savages were at the fabled Watts Acid Test in Los Angeles with the Grateful Dead, the one Tom Wolfe wrote about in The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test, said Moon. “The Dead, Airplane, the Charlatans, Quicksilver, Big Brother, Country Joe, Blue Cheer were all on the scene and we played with all of them,” Moon said. “We were part of the Committee Theater.’”
“SF was the most exotic event in the world then,” said Moon. The band lived up on the hill in Larkspur Canyon, and “tortured the entire area with our music,” he recounted, “unquestionably the weirdest thing out there. The Mothers of Invention used to invite us out to their gigs to ‘freak people out’.” Elliot, the guitar player, said, “You guys make us look like the Beach Boys!’”
It was on a Midwest tour in 1966 that David met his life partner, Shirley (Swenson) Morton. Jook Savage Mark ‘Reno’ Myerson had set up a college tour featuring their protest-performance-art-piece “Vietnam Concerto,” which included far-out shows in Duluth, River Falls, Augsburg College and elsewhere. The band played around the Twin Cities and Morton even put on a beatnik-style, acid-test “Happening” at the Firehouse Theater. Shirley ended up joining David and the band going back to California.
Playing on the Walker/Guthrie stage “we ended the set with ‘Smoking’ My Dope,’” Carolyn Brown Zniewski remembers. “There had been some concern that the management might step in and turn the sound off if we did, but David said ‘so what if they do,’ so we went ahead with it. I have the feeling we were finished with the song before the words really registered.”
Morton fancied himself a bead-trader and his spaces as galleries. In the ‘60s he lived in the old West Bank firehouse with Melvin McCosh’s bookstore and sold hippie paraphernalia alongside the nascent Electric Fetus. Taught by his father, jeweler Phillip Morton, he honed his craft through the ‘70s making popular spoon rings from old silver utensils, selling his hippie flair necklaces and earrings made from silver and foreign-sourced beads at the annual Park Point Art Fair, Last Place on Earth in Duluth and other local art fairs.
When he left the ‘scene’ behind and moved to Northern Minnesota he never stopped making friends, music or art. He exhibited in the ‘80s and ‘90s at the Duluth Art Institute, Mesabi Community College and the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s “Foot in the Door” show. He appreciated collective efforts and group shows like “Art Space,” a grant funded traveling exhibit, in 1982.
Music was always Morton’s lifeblood; he sang until the day he died. Weekly sauna and jam sessions, often at the Morton family farm in Angora, nurtured a creative community of friendships in the post-Vietnam era, lasting through today. Everyone can play music, Morton would say. Life was a party.
He was an instigator in the Minnesota Battle of the Jug Bands, playing the first as a benefit concert in Minneapolis for a friend’s son’s passing, Bobby Crabb. His impact still resonates and the battles live on today. He was “a legend in his own mind” said the late Ron Coon, co-conspirator and rhythm guitar player with the Jook Savages for 40 years.
Through bold authenticity and artful humor, Morton encouraged people to be unfettered, “to be themselves.”
“One of his greatest legacies was his absolute believing in everyone, that everyone had innate abilities, everyone was a shining star, and he empowered and encouraged others to step into their own,” said daughter Larkspur Morton.
Morton called himself an “honorary Finn,” identifying with the pioneering spirit of the locals, and he was active in the community-minded Alango Unitarian Church. He loved having a farm full of animals with his family, and family of friends. The Mortons raised pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, geese, guinea fowl, cows and even had a pack of wild ponies. Daughters Larkspur and Maija, and wife Shirley, moved out of northern Minnesota by the late ‘80s but David enjoyed living in the woods, up near Lake Vermilion, until 2017.
A rocket-science, mathematician college drop-out, Morton embraced the starving-artist life. At 35, he “came out of retirement” and made a career in the building trades pouring a million yards of cement. Union forever, he served in leadership and often as a reluctant foreman with Seppi and Lenci.
“All our sheltered little lives were expanded by Dave’s friendship and working relationship” Greg Lenci said. “You can’t help but love him.”
Morton was kind and authentic and shared his encyclopedic knowledge, music and friendship freely.
“Having been on so many jobs over the span of so many decades with (Mort), I can still hear his voice, often triggered by a word or phrase. Always it brings a smile,” writes cement finisher and dear family friend Jed Hejda. “At times I just burst out laughing.”
“David was a good dad who taught us to fish and fix our cars and be critical and smart instead of judgmental,” Maija Jenson shared on Morton’s memorial Facebook page. “He was incredible in so many ways. I so loved playing music with him over the years. He was a pure lunatic, which not everyone enjoyed. He was one of a kind.”
About the author: Maija Jenson is a journalist, and faculty at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She is the daughter of David Morton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.