The current popularity of “Americana” is only the most recent phase in the long history of American folk music. Indeed the folk music in and of our country has been “discovered,” or “revived,” several times over the past century. Probably the most influential and productive of these revivals took place in the early 1960s, about the same time as rock and roll became such a towering force in American music, and to some extent as a reaction to rock’s commercial dominance. Later, of course, musicians would find ways to merge the two strands. But in the 1960s pop music seemed quite distinct from the more rural traditions of the mountain music, bluegrass, country swing, gospel, spirituals, delta blues, traditional ballads, Woody Guthrie-style protest songs, and occasional “world music” anthems that first began appearing in smoke-filled coffee houses and on LPs in the late 50s and early 60s.
Two of the most prominent figures of that culture-changing movement, Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan, wrote memoirs of the 60s folk music scene and their place in it that make for fascinating and informative reading. Van Ronk’s Mayor of MacDougal Street is unvarnished, pungent, and witty, while Dylan’s Chronicles Volume 1 is surprisingly candid if sometimes spaced-out. Both men are outsize characters, and both—great talents themselves—also ardent admirers and appreciators of other musicians, albeit sharply critical of the hypocrisies and corruption engendered by the hyper-commercialized and celebrity-ridden promotion of the music business. No surprise that each attracted (and cultivated) many friends and acquaintances, indeed pretty much everybody in the late 50s-early 60s folk scene (centered on though not limited to New York City’s Greenwich Village), from Odetta and The Weavers and Joan Baez to Phil Ochs, Ian and Sylvia, Reverend Gary Davis, John Hurt, Tom Paxton, Joni Mitchell, Mary Travers and Noel Stookey (who used his middle name Paul as a member of Peter, Paul, and Mary), Jim Kweskin, John Koerner, Mark Spoelstra, and dozens more, some obscure who became famous, some obscure who stayed obscure, and some who were highly influential and much loved by folkies but never got much commercial airplay or financial success.
Many of the best performers and their songs from those halcyon days are described in Van Ronk’s and Dylan’s memoirs, and a good portion of their music is preserved on records that came out a half-century ago when they seemed as fresh and new and packed with discoveries as an unexplored continent. I’ve grown up with these records, listening to them over and over, often trying to untangle the intricacies of the guitar playing, and they remain a treasured part of both my record collection and my youth.
So, in honor of this music and in the hope that it will interest others drawn to this part of our American musical heritage, I offer a “discographic companion” to the early-60s folk revival: much-loved records from palmier days that still delight and surprise, albeit now burnished with nostalgia. I make no attempt to be canonic or comprehensive (nor would that be practical in a survey of limited size). The recordings I select are personal favorites, but all are also among the very best early-60s folk/roots recordings. Though few were huge, money-making “hits” (on the order of Peter, Paul, and Mary’s first few albums), most were well known and praised (if not indeed revered) by folk-music devotees of the period, and most retain a following even today. Originally on vinyl, almost all have by now been reissued on compact disc, and a fair portion have also reappeared on vinyl reissues. Copies in both formats (whether nominally “in print” or not) are in most cases easily available from on-line sources. Sonics are as you’d expect all over the map, though many of these records (especially the better Vanguards and Elektras) boast exceptionally good sound.
The Weavers and Pete Seeger
When I was a kid my parents’ idea of music was Broadway musicals and the occasional ten-incher of rumbas and mambos (for practicing the dance steps). But one day my dad brought home an anomaly: The Weavers at Carnegie Hall. Recorded on Christmas Eve of 1955 (but not released until 1957), this is the first folk music I ever heard (and the only folk music record among my favorites I didn’t buy myself). Though I didn’t know anything about this then, the Weavers were leftist activists who’d been around long enough to have been black-listed, but now making a comeback just in time to spark the beginning of what was going to become the early-60s folk music revival. Their performances overflow with joyous verve and vitality, especially the singing—no one has ever bettered them for vocal harmonies—and the program is exhilarating in its inclusiveness and variety, ranging through genres and around the globe. They could be sweetly charming, sonorous and uplifting, defiant and passionate, earthy and impudent—as effective in rousing spirituals and plaintive love songs as in a hit-parade take on a coal miner’s complaint—with wonderful performances of “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” “Wimoweh” (which reappeared in 1961 on the pop charts as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”), “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” “Venga Jaleo,” even Merle Travis’ “Sixteen Tons.” More Weavers albums followed, in concert and in the studio, but none I’ve heard match the energy and engagement the group sustained on that magical Christmas Eve in Carnegie Hall.
By far the most famous “Weaver” was Pete Seeger. Son of musicologist Charles Seeger and stepson of the distinguished modernist composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, Pete had a sterling musical as well as politically leftist pedigree. A modest man who cared deeply about the welfare of the earth and its people, Seeger—following Woody Guthrie—imparted these concerns in his original songs. (One has the lovely chorus “Well May the World Go When I’m Far Away.”) Seeger is famous for his protest and solidarity-affirming songs, but not as well appreciated for his instrumental excursions and more playful numbers as heard on his less-known Folkways albums like Nonesuch and Other Folk Tunes (with Frank Hamilton) and Indian Summer (with his brother Mike) and the delightful (ten-inch LP) Goofing-Off Suite on which he plays the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony on solo banjo. (I listened to this before I discovered classical music and for a while considered it a slightly odd banjo piece until noticing that it was actually an arrangement of a symphonic movement.) Other gems on Goofing-Off are Seeger’s banjo-plus-whistling version of “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth, and a dazzling solo banjo rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” “Sally My Dear” (alternating unaccompanied singing and melismatic tootling on a recorder) and “Empty Pocket Blues” show how appealing Seeger can be on lover-come-a-courting songs (clear also from “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” on the Weavers’ first Carnegie disc).
Of course many other elder statesmen of earlier folk music revivals were still performing at the end of the 50s and after. One was Ewan MacColl who sang, with his young consort Peggy Seeger (Pete’s half-sister)—among hundreds of songs both traditional and original he recorded—“The Ballad of Springhill” about the 1958 Springhill mining disaster. His rustic burr and commanding delivery blended with Peggy’s forthright soprano to impart a tragic grandeur to this grim recounting, strong evidence that the Woody Guthrie tradition of memorializing topical events in timeless songs was still alive and well. Stark and riveting, the couple’s unaccompanied performance was issued on one of the early volumes in Vanguard’s superb Newport Folk Festival series, a live-in-concert series so packed with distinguished folk musicians that anyone interested in the early-60s folk revival will want to hear every one of these records. (Peter, Paul, and Mary later recorded “Springhill,” in one of their best performances, on A Song Will Rise.) Another marvelous ballad singer is mountain-born Kentuckian Jean Ritchie, who specialized in the old songs of the early Appalachian settlers which she sang in a homespun, almost childlike lilt. Her version of “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies,” on The Best of Jean Ritchie (Prestige), has exquisite melodic nuances all her own.
Also predating the early-60s revival, Arkansas native Jimmie Driftwood took the old fiddle tunes, some going back to pre-Civil War days, and added his own lyrics, recording them in the late 50s in Nashville (though he too, like so many others, also appears on Vanguard’s Newport Festival recordings). The Wilderness Road from 1959 (on an RCA “Living Stereo” with somewhat incongruous added reverb and ancillary guitar licks by Chet Atkins) is a goldmine of dandy items rendered in Driftwood’s leathery Arkansan drawl. Highlights include “Tennessee Stud,” “Song of the Cowboys,” “Arkansas Traveler,” “The First Covered Wagon,” “Peter Francisco,” and “The Battle of New Orleans” (which reached the top of the 1959 Billboard chart in Johnny Horton’s rendition).