The great Folk Revival of the 1960s really begins in the late fifties. Most historians trace it to 1958 and the Kingston Trio's #1 hit, "Tom Dooley," a song collected years earlier by the Frank and Anne Warner from Frank Proffitt in North Carolina ("Tom Dooley" earned a spot on NPRs Top 100 American Musical Works of the 20th C. - hear the song and the story behind it from NPR's audio archives). Folk music historian Robert Cantwell explains the new trend as a reaction to the end of the Red Scare, when the political folksingers of the left had been driven underground by Senator McCarthy's hunt for communists. According to Cantwell, folksongs re-emerged with a vengeance, stripped of the political messages that had overloaded them but still carrying their implicit message of the power of common working people (read my review of Cantwell's book When We Were Good).
The Kingston Trio's Close-Up (1961) contains a variety of folk and popular tunes. Their clean-cut college look and professional singing style helped bridge the gap between the hollers of the Carolinas to the dorm rooms and living rooms. Other similar acts that helped make American folk music palatable to a prime-time audience were The Limelighters and The Brothers Four.
In 1962, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan both released albums. Looking at them together can give a sense of the scene at the time. Baez's album - her second - contains all ballads from the British tradition - including her famous recording of "Barbara Allen" - all sung in her beautiful, almost operatic style. Dylan's album - his first - contains ten blues and traditional songs and two originals. Dylan's coarse guitar strumming, nasal whine and jumpy harmonica couldn't be further from Baez's almost reverential approach. His inclusion of blues, like Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," and his raucous American-style remake of the ballad "Fenario" ("Pretty Peggy-O") show Dylan fighting the clean cut stylings of the Kingston Trio and the imported feel of Baez.
Two things made the folk revival culturally and artistically significant and not just a fit of nostalgia for simpler times and a simpler life. One was the presentation of ordinary working class music - which was not explicitly political - to politicize the middle class. The second was the way a new generation of songwriters used folk elements to create a music that was both contemporary and deeply rooted in the American spirit and landscape - a music that was ultimately far more powerful than either the pop songs of the day or the rallying union songs of the previous folk era.
Pete Seeger was the great presenter of folk music to the middle class. Long before the Kingston Trio, Seeger had helped create the Almanac Singers in the 40s and The Weavers in the 50s, combining a wide variety of folk and popular songs and performing them with professional quality. Perhaps more than any other performer, Seeger featured the entire range of folk at the time. After nearly a decade of working underground after being blackballed during the McCarthy era, he rode the new wave of the folk revival to return to the stage stronger than ever. By the time of his famous Carnegie Hall concert in 1963, Seeger was an experienced pro at using folk music to achieve a dramatic transformation in his audiences. Without working from a set list, he naturally and effortlessly combined children's songs, civil rights hymns and spirituals, folk songs from various countries including a song by Chilean activist Victor Jara, and new protest songs by Bob Dylan.
While Seeger was mining the folk music of the recent American past, carrying on the tradition of Woody Guthrie who had finally died in 1961 after a long illness, the young Joan Baez was mining a deeper past, and one that was to have a tremendous influence on the new generation of writers. Baez, with her pure soprano voice, was astounding audiences with her performances of ancient ballads from the British Isles. "Silver Dagger," Barbara Allen," "Mary Hamilton," "Henry Martin" - these old, tragic tales resonated with audiences who could look to neither Hollywood, television or radio for the kind of art that would help them process the emotions brought on by the deepening war and the social upheaval of the Civil Rights movement.
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