The song “Nature Boy” was a number one hit for Nat King Cole in 1948, selling 1 million copies that year. Since then, the song has been performed and recorded by hundreds of artists from jazz and other genres, including Frank Sinatra, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, James Brown, David Bowie, and more.
Eden Ahbez composed the song, which was about himself. During and after the Great Depression, he preferred living in nature, even when he started receiving significant royalties from his music.
Brian Chidester, who is working on a documentary called “As the Wind: the Enchanted Life of Eden Ahbez,” says Ahbez was part of a group called the California Nature Boys in the 1930s and 1940s. “They were interested in Eastern mysticism. They followed some gurus like [Jidda] Krishnamurti and [Paramahansa] Yogananda, who were in Southern California at that time giving lectures. … They were really the precursors of the hippies.”
In a 1948 appearance on the TV show “We the People,” Ahbez told host Dwight Weist, “All the money in the world will not change my way of life. Because all the money in the world could not give me the things I already have. Anna and I have learned that nature and a simple life will bring you peace and happiness. We sleep on the ground in sleeping bags in the California mountains and deserts.”
Anna was Ahbez’s wife. They married in 1946, and their son, Zoma, was born in October 1948, a few months after “Nature Boy” became a big hit. In the 1950s, they camped in Big Tujunga Canyon and other areas, and sometimes lived in ashrams in the Glendale area. They lived almost exclusively outdoors.
Sadly, in 1960, Anna was diagnosed with cancer. She died a few years later at age 44. Chidester says there’s some evidence that Zoma got involved with a bad crowd and drugs. He died of an overdose in 1969 at age 21.
Ahbez wrote music for many artists, but he also recorded an album of his own music, called “Eden’s Island,” which was released in 1960. Chidester says the record was a flop, only selling about 100 copies. But the historian calls the album “an incredible musical statement, so cohesive, and so ahead of its time.” And he wondered if the composer hadn’t written more music to follow it up.
At the Library of Congress, Chidester discovered sheet music for hundreds of Ahbez compositions that hadn’t before seen the light of day. About 22 of them were written in the years right after the release of “Eden’s Island.”
With the help of the Swedish band Ìxtahuele, Chidester produced a new album, “Dharmaland,” of 12 of these songs. It came out in June.
“We also had access to Abi's handmade drums, we got access right at the last second to one of his hand-carved bamboo flutes. We had nine of his friends and former collaborators guest on the album. … I’m so proud of it.”
One of the former collaborators was Joe Romersa. He worked with Ahbez late in his life, when he was in his 80s. He says it could be difficult to contact the composer, since he didn’t have a consistent home, and this was in the 1980s, before cell phones. Romersa says Ahbez called when he wanted to come into the studio. And the engineer has kept some of those voicemails because they are “lovely to listen to.”
Ahbez says in one of the voicemails, “The first thing I would say to the youth of America is … the earth is my altar. The sky is my dome. The mind is my garden. And the heart is my home. And I'm always at home. Yay. I'm always at ohm.”
Romersa found it was an emotional experience to engineer the new album, “Dharmaland,” years after his old friend and collaborator died. He sang on one of the record’s songs, “Fire of the Soul,” which Chidester calls the highlight of the album.