Late in 1966, a song turned up on the radio that would become an icon of the age. The band was Buffalo Springfield, and the song was For What It’s Worth. It opens with a sparse drum beat and harmonic notes on a guitar, setting up an atmosphere that the lyrics confirmed. “Something’s happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. But there’s a man with a gun over there telling me I got to beware”. The guitar notes were played by Canadian Neil Young, and the drummer was another Canadian, Dewey Martin, born in Chesterville, Dundas County, in 1940.
Dewey’s real name was Walter Milton Dwayne Midkiff, and he grew up in Chesterville, Smiths Falls and Ottawa, changing his name when he began playing with various bands around the Ottawa Valley. He moved down to Nashville and played with artists like Carl Perkins, The Everly Brothers, Patsy Cline, Charlie Rich, Faron Young and Roy Orbison. It was obvious he had talent and Neil Young was later to remark on Dewey’s feel for the music he played. “He was a sensitive drummer,” Young says in his biography Shakey. “You get harder, he hits harder. You pull back, he hits back. He can feel the music — you don’t have to tell him.”
He moved to Los Angeles for the climate, or so he claimed, and worked in a number of bands, touring in support of groups like the Beach Boys and Herman’s Hermits. By the time he auditioned to join Buffalo Springfield, he already had quite an eclectic background as a musician.
Buffalo Springfield has a strong Canadian content. Stephen Stills had met Neil Young of Winnipeg when he was gigging in Thunder Bay. When they got together in L.A., they were joined by bass player Bruce Palmer from Toronto, as well as Dewey Martin. Richey Furay on rythm guitar and vocals. Stills wrote For What It’s Worth when the City of Los Angeles imposed a curfew on the Sunset Strip because young people at some clubs there were spilling out into the streets late at night, causing neighbours to complain. Passing by the Pandora’s Box club one evening, Stills saw a crowd of young people faced by a strong cohort of police in riot gear.
Something’s happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear, were the words that ran through his head. When he brought the song to a recording session, he told producer Ahmet Ertegun, that he had another song, “for what it’s worth”. It became the title.
Dewey Martin’s introduction to the song, along with Neil Young’s harmonic notes, raised the song from being a good acoustic folk song to something greater than the sum of its parts. Stephen Stills has always stated that Dewey’s drum intro gave the song that extra edge. Dewey also sang backing vocals on the chorus of the song. It wasn’t the only vocal contribution he made to the band, taking lead on others songs too.
Even while part of Buffalo Springfield, Dewey continued to work as a session musician, playing on sessions with the Monkees, among others. But Buffalo Springfield only lasted about three years, before personality clashes and other issues led to its demise. Bruce Palmer was deported to Canada for drug offenses. Stephen Stills joined with David Crosby of the Byrds and Graham Nash of The Hollies to form the eponymous trio, later joined by Neil Young, on and off. Richie Furay went on to form Poco with future Eagles Timothy B. Schmit and Randy Meisner.
Dewey Martin didn’t have as bright a future. He even worked as a mechanic during times out of work as a musician. Short-lived bands followed one another over the decades, and he never again attained the level of success and fame as he had with Buffalo Springfield. In 1970, he was back in Ottawa and living with his mother, but he returned to the States in 1971 and carried on gigging with various combinations of musicians. He did enjoy some late recognition in 1997, when Buffalo Springfield was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Dewey Martin died on January 31, 2009, in his apartment in Van Nuys, California, apparently of natural causes. He was just 68. Walter Milton Dwayne Midkiff had travelled far from Chesterville and enjoyed a long career in the music he loved o play. If only for that astounding part he played in For What It’s Worth, he will be remembered with respect and appreciation by generations.