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The 1960s Folk Music Revival

The 1960s Folk Music Revival

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.

The 1960s Folk Music Revival

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.

The 1960s Folk Music Revival

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).


Two Greenwich Villagers: Van Ronk and Dylan
Dave Van Ronk (who died in 2002), like many other figures of the 60s folk revival (or “The Great Folk Scare” as he called it with his typical sardonic wit), is of the generation after the Weavers. A brilliant acoustic guitarist, powerful singer, outstanding songwriter and arranger, marvelous storyteller, and generous, charismatic personality (and bearlike corpus), he soon became an archetypal figure on the Village scene, influencing and mentoring many younger musicians destined to become iconic stars of the post-folk era, among them Bob Dylan (who often slept on his couch in his early days in the city). Van Ronk considered himself more of a “cabaret singer” than a traditional folksinger, and was comfortable performing early jazz, jug band music, and other popular musical styles as well as folk music. Anyone interested in the history of American roots music as it exploded into prominence in the early 60s should read The Mayor of MacDougal Street. It’s a vivid and fascinating account of a hardworking musician’s life and times, packed with astute commentary on the larger cultural and political arena of those turbulent times.

The 1960s Folk Music Revival

The recording that brought Van Ronk much-deserved fame beyond his Village stomping grounds is Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger, issued on Prestige in 1963. His gravelly but delicately modulated voice (more indebted to Louis Armstrong than to the genteel traditional “English” ballad style that Joan Baez was then making famous), rock-solid yet intricate and harmonically adventurous finger-style guitar playing, and ability to adopt so many different kinds of songs to his own immediately identifiable manner, are nowhere better heard than on this early recording, though he made many more records over the following four decades. The poignance and simplicity of “He Was a Friend of Mine,” the sly dismissal of an aging lover in “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon,” the bluesy longing of “Come Back Baby,” the relentlessly building ferocity of “Poor Lazarus” lamenting the murder of a runaway slave, the lonely plight of “Motherless Children,” the drug addict’s morose, befogged passivity in “Cocaine Blues”—one after another, these indelible performances have resonated over the years as a testament to the depth of expressive power and subtlety possible in the “folk music” genre.

Folksinger remains perhaps the high-water-mark of Van Ronk’s recording career, though there are many other standouts, like his early rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” (recorded a few months before Judy Collins), his stunning arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun” on Just Dave Van Ronk (which Bob Dylan stole from Van Ronk to record on his debut recording, whence the Animals stole it for their hit rock version). Other stellar performances are “That’ll Never Happen No More” on Vanguard’s Blues at Newport anthology, and “Sunday Street,” a catchy-as-velcro Van Ronk original, on the album of the same title, jauntily reeling off the boastful imaginings of a lowlife loser. Then there’s Dave Van Ronk’s Ragtime Jug Stompers (on Mercury stereo, no less), featuring stellar run-throughs of “Temptation Rag,” “Sister Kate,” “Georgia Camp Meeting,” “Everybody Loves My Baby,” and lots more. And did I mention Van Ronk’s incredible rendition (with folk-style instruments) of Peter and the Wolf?

Dylan’s first record came out in 1962, establishing him as a droll, at times almost Chaplinesque interpreter of the folk tradition, but it was The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan from a year later that revealed him as an eloquent writer of both protest songs (most famously for “Blowin’ in the Wind” but more powerfully in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”) and love songs (“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Girl from the North Country”). Still, as celebrated as Dylan’s career has been since then, I’ve always felt that some of his most complex, original, and affecting work, with lyrics of astonishing sophistication and poetic resonance, came out in the two albums (The Times They Are A-Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan) released in 1964, and remains underappreciated. Has any prophesy ever been more enigmatically yet irresistibly triumphant than “When the Ship Comes In,” or any paean to sexual electricity more believably yet amusingly exaggerated than “Spanish Harlem Incident”? And then there’s “North Country Blues,” in which a miner’s wife stoically tells the story of how her family is destroyed by the rapacious logic of capitalist exploitation. Transcending the sharply-drawn particularity of its circumstances, “North Country Blues” becomes a universal indictment of merciless greed and its victims: the so-called “wretched of the earth,” used and discarded by forces beyond their control or understanding. Ineffably moving in Dylan’s understated performance, this is one of his greatest “protest” songs and indeed one of the greatest of the genre ever written. It wasn’t until two decades later, in “Blind Willie McTell,” his visionary evocation of the pathology and the pathos of the South and its baleful heritage of slavery, that Dylan matched “North Country Blues” in his anger and despair at “power and greed, and corruptible seed,” and his encompassing awareness of the misery they cause and have caused down through the tormented centuries of human history.

The 1960s Folk Music Revival

Rediscovered Old-Timers
One of the main sources that Van Ronk and Bob Dylan and most of the other participants in the 60s folk renaissance drew on for inspiration in their own music was the archival recordings (taken from 78s made in the late 20s and early 30s) by the old-time blues and country folk singers. These voices from the past were found on Harry Smith’s seminal six-LP 1952 Anthology of American Music (folk, blues, and country music recorded from 1927 to 1932) and such single-LP releases as Columbia’s 1961 reissue of mid-30s recordings of Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers, the reverberations from which are still felt today by many a long-haired rock star. (A second volume of Columbia’s Johnson reissues followed some years later, graced by one of the best album covers ever: an Art Deco-ish painting of Johnson recording in an improvised hotel-room studio.) Dozens of other fine reissues from decades-old country and blues recordings (many of them sub-genre anthologies) also began coming out on LPs in RCA’s “Vintage Series” (with records like Early Rural String Bands, Smokey Mountain Ballads, etc.) as well as on small labels like Biograph, Origin of Jazz, and Old-Timey. A whole world of music known only to collectors of brittle old 78s suddenly became much more widely available.

To almost everyone’s surprise, however, some of those old folk and blues singers who recorded in the 20s and 30s were still living—and happy to resume their performing careers; soon their early 78s were supplemented by spanking-new long-playing vinyl. Among the first and best of these rediscovered musicians was Mississippi John Hurt, whose inventive and distinctive guitar playing, with its steady, bouncy rhythmic bass beneath deftly syncopated tunes, and unforced, old-fashioned singing (of sometimes slyly risqué lyrics) charmed everyone who heard him. Even his bluesier numbers were resigned rather than angry or sullen. A lovable man, unassuming, soft-spoken, richly humorous, and gentle, Hurt appears on the cover of his first LP Folk Songs and Blues (on Piedmont) with a broad smile on his face. I remember the day in 1964 I first saw him on that cover and bought the record, not knowing I was getting a treasure that guitar players and musical storytellers to this day still marvel at. Hurt was soon picked up by Vanguard and made several more records, every one of them memorable. His best performances—“I’m Satisfied,” “Frankie and Albert,” “Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me,” “Farther Along,” “Trouble, I’ve Had It All My Days,” “My Creole Belle”—are the creations of a unique and imperishable combination of warmth, wisdom, serenity, and musical genius.

Skip James—equally original but temperamentally opposite—spun out dark tales of amorous treachery and retribution. “Devil Got My Woman” is his signature song, and no one has ever distilled a more brutally cynical view of the war between the sexes: “Woman I’m loving, stole her from my best friend, but he’ll get lucky, steal her back again.” James’ falsetto singing and bluesy guitar playing are sui generis, spooky-strange and to this day marvels in a style often crowded with cliché. His piano playing is also astonishing in its mix of ruggedness and sophistication. Jagged and unpredictable, with downbeats made stronger by their absences and phrases both foreshortened and elongated, it makes a brilliantly high-strung accompaniment to such songs as “If You Haven’t Any Hay,” (with chilling verses like “I’m caught in Louisiana they’ll hang me sure”). Like Hurt, James recorded in the 60s (at least briefly) for Vanguard, but I prefer the reissues of his more persuasive 78-era performances gathered on his one-disc Complete Early Recordings (Biograph LP and later Yazoo CD).

Another bluesman who’d fallen out of sight after recording 78s and returned to record again in his old age is Sleepy John Estes, who made several fine early-60s albums on Delmark with a superb small backup group on harmonica, piano, and string bass. The Legend of Sleepy John Estes is a wonderful example, with bouncy uptempo numbers like “Drop Down Mama” and rending pain coming through in Estes’ “crying” blues like “I Been Well Warned.”

More influential was Reverend Gary Davis, a fantastic guitar player with a powerfully affecting voice who sounded something like a rough-hewn Ray Charles (both men, as it happened, were blind). Davis’ repertoire included ragtimey instrumentals and salacious ditties, but he only played these when sufficiently lubricated by alcohol. His standard fare was gospel numbers—like “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand” and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”—that he shouted out with a street preacher’s fervor and authenticity. Davis also played harmonica with a breathy syncopation unlike anything I’ve ever heard on the instrument. He could make guitar, harmonica, even banjo into a kind of vocalizing counterpart to his singing—and vice versa, too. Many of Gary Davis’ recordings are on Prestige (some recorded by Rudy Van Gelder), and all are stellar, though my favorite is the Riverside disc Gospel Blues and Street Songs he shared with another street singer, the genial and comic Pink Anderson, whose “I Got Mine” describes how a gambler grabs the pot at a crap game broken up by the police.

The 1960s Folk Music Revival

Davis lived in New York City; other street singers and bluesmen had moved (as part of the great migration of southern Blacks to northern cities) to Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, and other urban centers. Some fronted small bands with added harmonica, string bass, sometimes electric guitar, recording for labels like King, Chess, Delmark, and Prestige. Anyone drawn to blues will know splendid records by Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins and their many contemporaries. Meanwhile more discoveries were still being made among those who’d stayed in the sharecropper’s fields and hadn’t been recorded until the 60s folk-revival was well underway, one of the best being Mance Lipscomb, whose brawny, rhythmically driving Texas Songster, with foot-tapping standards like “Sugar Babe,” “Bout a Spoonful,” and “Baby Please Don’t Go” meant to be danced to in small rural juke joints, became the first album recorded on the ever-adventurous Arhoolie label. (Lipscomb was born in 1895 to a former slave and a Choctaw Indian woman. His given name is short for “Emancipation.” Can’t get much “rootsier” than that.)


More New Voices
The influence of these newly appreciated old-timers on up-and-coming folk and blues musicians was immense, and showed up on a whole new crop of young “country blues” musicians who began recording in the early 60s: John Hammond, Jr. (son of the renown producer for Columbia Records), “Spider” John Koerner and Dave “Snaker” Ray, Geoff Muldaur, Eric Von Schmidt, and others. Listeners to Hammond’s debut recording (Vanguard) who hadn’t looked at the cover were startled to discover he was white, so completely had he absorbed the braggadocio and complaint of the old Mississippi Delta bluesmen. Koerner and Ray, with Tony Glover on harmonica on a couple of stellar Elektra releases entitled Blues, Rags, and Hollers, were more jumpy and revved-up. Their rendition of “Black Dog,” a gambler’s boast to his doubting paramour, fueled by Ray’s plangent 12-string and Koerner’s spiky 7-string, is irresistible.

Koerner and Ray also appear on Elektra’s 1964 anthology of young bluesmen entitled The Blues Project along with Geoff Muldaur (singing “Ginger Man” and Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” in his uniquely silken, insinuating voice), Mark Spoelstra, Von Schmidt, and the ever-present Van Ronk, among others—including Bob Dylan playing guitar under the transparent pseudonym “Bob Landy.” All the participants on this anthology were white, a reminder, if any is needed, that, as deeply dependent as they were on the pioneering music of rural black (and rural white) musicians, the younger generation of bluesmen and folksingers were mostly white and mostly lived in cities. Elektra followed up shortly after with The String Band Project featuring contemporary string bands playing old favorites, notable for The Dry City Scat Band’s twangy take on “Jealous” and suitably scrappy “Bald-Headed End of a Broom” cautioning would-be suitors about the tribulations of hen-pecked husbands. (Both Elektra “Projects,” I should add, are among the very few records in my discography still not yet reissued in any format.)

Of the other new jug bands formed early in the 60s who took inspiration not only from their predecessors on old 78s but also from the many and more recent New Lost City Ramblers’ Folkways LPs, the best, along with Van Ronk’s Jug Stompers noted earlier (which made only one record), was the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, whose Jug Band Music (Vanguard) demonstrated its huge advantage over all competitors: on-stage erotic appeal. Earthy sex-goddess Maria Muldaur vamping up “I’m A Woman” added a new dimension to the term “jug” band (watching her perform it in concert during my first year in college is a fond memory), and the group’s moony vocal harmonies on “Ukelele Lady” were at once campy and suggestive. Aptly so, I might add, as the jug band genre has strong origins in rowdy and racy minstrel show traditions.

Another newcomer to the folk scene was a soulful-voiced young man named Perry Miller who made his first recording, Soul of a City Boy, released in 1964 on Capitol, under his nom de plume Jesse Colin Young. This auspicious debut was graced by swell renditions of several old-timey mountain standards like “Rye Whiskey,” “Black-Eyed Susan,” and “Same Old Man,” along with some dandy original songs including “Four In the Morning.” Though City Boy is just a young man and his acoustic guitar, it’s stood up pretty well against JC’s later recordings with the Youngbloods and remains a favorite of mine and many other fans.

Like Dave Ray, Mark Spoelstra (1940-2007) is strongly identified with his virtuoso 12-string guitar playing. He was more of an in-the-tradition (albeit quite versatile) folksinger than a bluesman, however, as his first two Folkways records, The Songs of Mark Spoelstra and At the Club 47 (both from 1963) reveal. Old tunes like “Sugar Babe” and “Drowsy Sleeper” and Spoelstra originals like “The Times I’ve Had” and “Willow Tree” and “Deep Blue Sea Blues” burble along nicely if fast, or glower quietly, whether menacing or tender or forlorn, if slow. For even more variety Spoelstra threw in virtuoso fingerpicking showpieces like “Buckdancer’s Choice” and “Deadthumb Roll #1.”

The 1960s Folk Music Revival

Gifted with an angelic voice and a relaxed, natural dignity, Joan Baez was almost instantly recognized (indeed, beloved) as a star, one of the first and brightest to shine in the folk revival, quickly gaining national fame with her (sonically as well as musically superlative) 1960 debut on Vanguard. (An even earlier appearance on ’Round Harvard Square issued in 1959 on Veritas, a local Boston LP that she shared with several other singers, had already displayed that unforgettable voice, notably on “What You Gonna Call That Pretty Little Baby.”) No one, before or since, could sing ballads with Baez’ perfect marriage of breathtaking purity and aching sadness, yet she could slip easily into a humorous ditty or peal out a defiant protest-song just as convincingly. (She did a hilariously wicked “Little Town Flirt” when I heard her in concert.) “Silver Dagger,” “East Virginia,” “Fennario,” “Once I Knew A Pretty Girl,” “Jackaroe”—the list of immortal performances from her early-60s recordings goes on and on.

Joan’s younger sister Mimi found her voice as a folksinger by teaming up with her husband, writer/singer Richard Farina, on a pair of early-60s Vanguards. The couple married in 1963, when Mimi—a striking beauty—was 17. A pal and fellow writer of Richard’s that he’d known from Cornell was best man: Thomas Pynchon. (David Hadju’s excellent Positively 4th Street details the rise to prominence of both Baez sisters along with Dylan and Farina, and offers an acute analysis of why folk music became so attractive to artistic kids turned off by Eisenhower-era conformity and commercialism.)

The Farinas will forever be known for one supreme masterpiece: On the pair’s second Vanguard album, from 1965, they sang Richard’s haunting, wistful lyrics (in beautiful harmony) to an equally haunting 14th Century Sephardic melody. They called this mating of ancient tune and new words “A Swallow Song,” and it will last as long as men and woman share their wondering sorrow at this mortal life. It became Farina’s epitaph, for he died in a motorcycle accident a year after the recording was made.

The 1960s Folk Music Revival

Another man-and-wife duo who also recorded on Vanguard (again captured in exceptional sonics) is Canadian-born Ian and Sylvia Tyson. The rugged but plaintive austerity of their blended voices (and the hardscrabble tales their songs tell) give a special truthfulness to their recordings, and the love expressed by a girl waiting for her rodeo-riding lover to marry her in “Someday Soon” (on 1964’s Northern Journey) is both so real and so fetching that the ever-shrewd judge of musical potential Judy Collins quickly smoothed off the rough edges and turned it into another hit. She did a good job with it, too, but Ian and Sylvia’s original is the genuine article.


Eccentrics and Instrumentalists
Most early-60s folksingers were also, of course, instrumental players, and almost all were notably independent-minded. The music attracted countercultural types if not indeed stubborn individualists. Still, some were more, shall we say, unusual than others.

One such is Buffy St. Marie, a Canadian-born Cree Indian, who made her recorded debut in 1964 on It’s My Way (Vanguard), with performances as much dramatic enactments as they were singing. In “The Old Man’s Lament” she impersonates an elderly husband whining about his marriage to a young beauty who “favors the neighbors” while he’s left “rockin’ the cradle and it’s none of my own.” Her vocal inflection as she switches from the storyteller’s pellucid tone to the old man’s descending wheeze is comically pitiful. More subtle but equally effective tonal shifts imply the tangled but mostly unspoken web of tenderness and menace in the exchanges between brother and sister in “The Incest Song,” a medieval tale (based on an old ballad called “The King’s Daughter”) of forbidden love, betrayal, and doom. So flawless its poetry, so rich in implication, so shimmering in mystery—and so magnificently realized in her performance—this song by itself ranks St. Marie as one of the great 60s folksingers.

The 1960s Folk Music Revival

For the early-60s folk revival Wizards of Odd Award I nominate the Holy Modal Rounders—Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber—whose first two self-titled records (on Prestige) pretty much reincarnated “the old weird America” all by themselves. Pairing Weber’s squeaky, tottering fiddle, bumpy banjo playing, and squawky warble of a voice with Stampfel’s off-kilter guitar and vocal lunacy, they appropriated funny strange old songs and made them funnier and stranger still, taking “Give the Fiddler a Dram,” “Same Old Man,” “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” the bumptiously enthusiastic “Chevrolet Six,” even the gospel number “Better Things For You,” and refracting these and many another traditional country song and dances through a subversively cracked prism. The subtexts of “Hesitation Blues” and “Black Eyed Suzie” devolve into explicit lust, and “Born to Lose,” a cautionary portrait of the boozy world of riverboat gamblers and their whores, veers off into an existential recognition of a dazed, meaningless irreality. There are no duds on those first two albums: every number is endearingly and roundly Holymodalized.

Though of course many if not most good folksingers were quite expert on their instruments, from Robert Johnson and Blind Blake to Gary Davis, Dave Van Ronk, and Mark Spoelstra (among dozens more), only occasionally did folk musicians specialize as instrumentalists, especially considering that they usually performed and recorded as soloists. Early-60s exceptions already mentioned are the instrumental-only albums by Pete Seeger; Gary Davis also made at least one nifty instrumental-only record.

A conspectus of notable early-60s folk instrumental specialists might begin with Stefan Grossman (whose Folkways album of piano rags adapted for two guitars is amazing though not entirely convincing) and Englishman Davy Graham. More of an oddity was John Fahey, who began his own label, Takoma Records, to release his recordings, and quickly acquired a cult following. There’s something runic in his evocative finger-style wanderings, curiously enhanced by the dim sonics of his early recordings that made them sound like missives from the distant past. Fahey’s best pieces are seldom catchy or ragtimey or showy, but instead tend to be serious and unhurried, whether impressionist like “Some Summer Day” or dark, as is “The Downfall of the Adelphi Rolling Grist Mill,” a spooky danse macabre with Fahey’s slashing guitar under a soaring flute. Both these and more of Fahey’s best work appear on his early-60s album entitled, with Fahey’s characteristically morbid flippancy, Death Chants, Breakdowns, and Military Waltzes.

The 1960s Folk Music Revival

As multi-cultural and cosmopolitan as Fahey was American and insular, Sandy Bull’s wide-ranging explorations on guitar (electric as well as acoustic), banjo, oud, and pretty much anything else he could fret, often lengthy improvisations with over-dubbed tracks on several instruments, pushed his first two Vanguard albums to the edge if not beyond what might be termed “folk music.” But there wasn’t any other available category so that’s what it was filed under. His rendering of the “Triple Ballade” of 14th-Century master Guillaume de Machaut is a stunner, for many listeners (as for me) a revelation of an utterly new (though actually ancient) kind of music that bypassed tonality and cadential structures entirely, instead spinning out rhythmically complex polyphony with harmonic clashes so unexpected and alien they seemed hieroglyphs from another world. From Medieval France Bull zoomed to Brazil, with a gorgeous version of Luiz Bonfa’s sensuous and luxuriously atmospheric “Manha de Carnival,” thence to a trippy improv on Chuck Berry’s “Memphis,” and on to one of his half-hour Asian-inspired raga-like “blends” as he called them. Bull not only anticipated much of the next half-century’s “world music,” he invented some of the best of it ever recorded.

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