American folk music revivalThe American folk music revival began during the 1940s and peaked in popularity in the mid-1960s. Its roots went earlier, and performers like Josh White, Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, Richard Dyer-Bennet, Oscar Brand, Jean Ritchie, John Jacob Niles, Susan Reed, Paul Robeson and Cisco Houston had enjoyed a limited general popularity in the 1930s and 1940s. The revival brought forward styles of American folk music that had, in earlier times, contributed to the development of country and western, jazz, and rock and roll music.
The folk revival in New York City was rooted in the resurgent interest in square dancing and folk dancing there in the 1940s, which gave musicians such as Pete Seeger popular exposure. The folk revival more generally as a popular and commercial phenomenon begins with the career of The Weavers, formed in November 1948 by Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Ronnie Gilbert of People's Songs, of which Seeger had been president and Hays executive secretary. People's Songs, which disbanded in 1948–49, had been a clearing house for labor movement songs (and in particular, the CIO, which at the time was one of the few if not the only union that was racially integrated), and in 1948 had thrown all its resources to the failed presidential campaign of Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, a folk-music aficionado (his running mate was a country-music singer-guitarist). Hays and Seeger had formerly sung together as the politically activist Almanac Singers, a group which they founded in 1941 and whose personnel often included Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Lead Belly, Cisco Houston, and Bess Lomax Hawes. The Weavers had a big hit in 1950 with the single of Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene". This was number one on the Billboard charts for thirteen weeks. On its flip side was "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena", an Israeli dance song that concurrently reached number two on the charts. This was followed by a string of Weaver hit singles that sold millions, including ""So Long It's Been Good to Know You" ("Dusty Old Dust") (by Woody Guthrie) and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine". The Weavers' career ended abruptly when they were dropped from Decca's catalog because Pete Seeger had been listed in the publication Red Channels as a probable subversive. Radio stations refused to play their records and concert venues canceled their engagements. A former employee of People's Songs, Harvey Matusow, himself a former Communist Party member, had informed the FBI that the Weavers were Communists, too, although Matusow later recanted and admitted he had lied. Pete Seeger and Lee Hays were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. Despite this, a Christmas Weaver reunion concert organized by Harold Leventhal in 1955 was a smash success and the Vanguard LP album of that concert, issued in 1957, was one of the top sellers of that year, followed by other successful albums.
Folk music, which often carried the stigma of left-wing associations during the 1950s Red Scare, was driven underground and carried along by a handful of artists releasing records. Barred from mainstream outlets, artists like Seeger were restricted to performing in schools and summer camps, and the folk-music scene became a phenomenon associated with vaguely rebellious bohemianism in places like New York City (especially Greenwich Village), North Beach, and in the college and university districts of cities like Chicago, Boston, Denver, and elsewhere.
Ron Eyerman and Scott Baretta speculate that:
[I]t is interesting to consider that had it not been for the explicit political sympathies of the Weavers and other folk singers or, another way of looking at it, the hysterical anti-communism of the Cold War, folk music would very likely have entered mainstream American culture in even greater force in the early 1950s, perhaps making the second wave of the revival nearly a decade later [i.e., in the 1960s] redundant.The media blackout of performers with alleged communist sympathies or ties was so effective that Israel Young, a chronicler of the 60s Folk Revival, who himself was drawn into the movement through an interest in folk dancing, communicated to Ron Eyerman that he himself was unaware for many years of the movement's 1930s and early '40s antecedents in left-wing political activism.
In the early and mid-1950s, acoustic-guitar-accompanied folk songs were mostly heard in coffee houses, private parties, open-air concerts, and sing-alongs, hootenannies, and at college-campus concerts. Often associated with political dissent, folk music now blended, to some degree, with the so-called beatnik scene; and dedicated singers of folk songs (as well as folk-influenced original material) traveled through what was called "the coffee-house circuit" across the U.S. and Canada, home also to cool jazz and recitations of highly personal beatnik poetry. Two singers of the 1950s who sang folk material but crossed over into the mainstream were Odetta and Harry Belafonte, both of whom sang Lead Belly and Josh White material. Odetta, who had trained as an opera singer, performed traditional blues, spirituals, and songs by Lead Belly. Belafonte had hits with Jamaican calypso material as well as the folk song-like sentimental ballad "Scarlet Ribbons" (composed in 1949).
The revival at its heightThe Kingston Trio, a group originating on the West Coast, were directly inspired by the Weavers in their style and presentation and covered some of the Weavers' material, which was predominantly traditional. The Kingston Trio avoided overtly political or protest songs and cultivated a clean-cut, collegiate persona. They were discovered while playing at a college club called the Cracked Pot by Frank Werber, who became their manager and secured them a deal with Capitol Records. Their first hit was a catchy rendition of an old-time folk murder ballad, "Tom Dooley", which had been sung at Lead Belly's funeral concert. This went gold in 1958 and sold more than three million copies. The success of the album and the single earned the Kingston Trio a Grammy award for Best Country & Western Performance at the awards' inaugural ceremony in 1959. At the time, no folk-music category existed in the Grammy's scheme. The next year, largely as a result of The Kingston Trio album and "Tom Dooley", the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences instituted a folk category and the Trio won the first Grammy Award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording for its second studio album At Large. At one point, The Kingston Trio had four records at the same time among the Top 10 selling albums for five consecutive weeks in November and December 1959 according to Billboard Magazine's "Top LPs" chart, a record unmatched for more than 50 years and noted at the time by a cover story in Life Magazine. The huge commercial success of the Kingston Trio, whose recordings between 1958 and 1961 earned more than $25 million for Capitol records or about $195 million in 2014 dollars spawned a host of groups that were similar in some respects like the Brothers Four, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Limeliters, The Chad Mitchell Trio, The New Christy Minstrels, and more. As noted by critic Bruce Eder in the All Music Guide, the popularity of the commercialized version of folk music represented by these groups emboldened record companies to sign, record, and promote artists with more traditionalist and political sensibilities.
The Kingston Trio's popularity would be followed by that of Joan Baez, whose debut album Joan Baez, reached the top ten in late 1960 and remained on the Billboard charts for over two years. Baez's early albums contained mostly traditional material such as the Scottish ballad, "Mary Hamilton", as well as many covers of melancholy ballads that had appeared in Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, such as "The Wagoner's Lad" and "The Butcher Boy". She did not try to imitate the singing style of her source material, however, but used a rich soprano with vibrato. Her popularity (and that of the folk revival itself) would place Baez on the cover of Time Magazine in November 1962. Baez, unlike the Kingston Trio, was openly political, and, as the civil rights movement gathered steam, aligned herself with Pete Seeger, Guthrie and others. She was one of the singers, along with Seeger, Josh White, Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan, who appeared at Martin Luther King's 1963 March on Washington and sang "We Shall Overcome", a song that had been introduced by People's Songs. Harry Belafonte was also present on that occasion, along with Odetta, whom Martin Luther King introduced as "the queen of folk music", when she sang "Oh, Freedom" (Odetta Sings Folk Songs was one of 1963's best-selling folk albums). Also on hand were the SNCC Freedom Singers, the personnel of which went on to form Sweet Honey in the Rock.
The critical role played by Freedom Songs in the voter registration drives, freedom rides, and lunch counter sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and early '60s in the South, gave folk music tremendous new visibility and prestige. The peace movement was likewise energized by the rise of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the UK, protesting the British testing of the H-bomb in 1958, as well as by the ever-proliferating arms race and the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War. Young singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, playing acoustic guitar and harmonica, had been signed and recorded for Columbia by producer John Hammond in 1961. Dylan's record enjoyed some popularity among Greenwich Village folk-music enthusiasts, but he was "discovered" by an immensely larger audience when a pop-folk-music group, Peter, Paul & Mary had a hit with a cover of his song "Blowin' in the Wind". Peter, Paul & Mary also brought Pete Seeger and the Weavers' "If I Had a Hammer" to nationwide audiences, as well as covering songs by other artists such as Dylan and John Denver.
It was not long before the folk-music category came to include less traditional material and more personal and poetic creations by individual performers, who called themselves "singer-songwriters". As a result of the financial success of high-profile commercial folk artists, record companies began to produce and distribute records by a new generation of folk revival and singer-songwriters—Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Eric von Schmidt, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dave Van Ronk, Judy Collins, Tom Rush, Fred Neil, Gordon Lightfoot, Billy Ed Wheeler, John Denver, Arlo Guthrie, Harry Chapin, John Hartford, and others, among them. Some of this wave had emerged from family singing and playing traditions, and some had not. These singers frequently prided themselves on performing traditional material in imitations of the style of the source singers whom they had discovered, frequently by listening to Harry Smith's celebrated LP compilation of forgotten or obscure commercial 78rpm "race" and "hillbilly" recordings of the 1920s and 30s, the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music (1951). A number of the artists who had made these old recordings were still very much alive and had been "rediscovered" and brought to the 1963 and 64 Newport Folk Festivals. One of these, Clarence Ashley, for example, introduced folk revivalists to the music of friends of his who still actively played traditional music, such as Doc Watson and The Stanley Brothers.
Archivists, collectors, and re-issued recordings
During the 1950s, the growing folk-music crowd that had developed in the United States began to buy records by older, traditional musicians from the Southeastern hill country and from urban inner-cities. New LP compilations of commercial 78-rpm race and hillbilly studio recordings stretching back to the 1920s and 1930s were published by major record labels. The expanding market in LP records increased the availability of folk-music field recordings originally made by John and Alan Lomax, Kenneth S. Goldstein, and other collectors during the New Deal era of the 1930s and 40s. Small record labels, such as Yazoo Records, grew up to distribute reissued older recordings and to make new recordings of the survivors among these artists. This was how many urban white American audiences of the 1950s and 60s first heard country blues and especially Delta blues that had been recorded by Mississippi folk artists 30 or 40 years before.
In 1952, Folkways Records released the Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled by anthropologist and experimental film maker Harry Smith. The Anthology featured 84 songs by traditional country and blues artists, initially recorded between 1927 and 1932, and was credited with making a large amount of pre-War material accessible to younger musicians. (The Anthology was re-released on CD in 1997, and Smith was belatedly presented with a Grammy Award for his achievement in 1991.)
Artists like the Carter Family, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Clarence Ashley, Buell Kazee, Uncle Dave Macon, Mississippi John Hurt, and the Stanley Brothers, as well as Jimmie Rodgers, the Reverend Gary Davis, and Bill Monroe came to have something more than a regional or ethnic reputation. The revival turned up a tremendous wealth and diversity of music and put it out through radio shows and record stores.
Living representatives of some of the varied regional and ethnic traditions, including younger performers like Southern-traditional singer Jean Ritchie, who had first begun recording in the 1940s, also enjoyed a resurgence of popularity through enthusiasts' widening discovery of this music and appeared regularly at folk festivals.
Ethnic folk musicEthnic folk music from other countries also had a boom during the American folk revival. The most successful ethnic performers of the revival were the Greenwich Village folksingers, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, whom Billboard Magazine listed as the eleventh best-selling folk musicians in the United States. The group, which consisted of Paddy Clancy, Tom Clancy, Liam Clancy, and Tommy Makem, predominantly sang English-language, Irish folk songs, as well as an occasional song in Irish Gaelic. Paddy Clancy also started and ran the folk-music label Tradition Records, which produced Odetta's first solo LP and initially brought Carolyn Hester to national prominence. Pete Seeger played the banjo on their Grammy-nominated 1961 album, A Spontaneous Performance Recording, and Bob Dylan later cited the group as a major influence on him. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem also sparked a folk-music boom in Ireland in the mid-1960s, illustrating the world-wide effects of the American folk-music revival.
Books such as the popular best seller, the Fireside Book of Folk Songs (1947), which contributed to the folk song revival, featured some material in languages other than English, including German, Spanish, Italian, French, Yiddish, and Russian. The repertoires of Theodore Bikel, Marais and Miranda, and Martha Schlamme also included Hebrew and Jewish material, as well as Afrikaans. The Weavers' first big hit, the flipside of Lead Belly's "Good Night Irene", and a top seller in its own right, was in Hebrew ("Tzena, Tzena, Tzena") and they, and later Joan Baez, who was of Spanish descent, occasionally included Spanish-language material in their repertoires, as well as songs from Africa, India, and elsewhere.
The commercially oriented folk-music revival as it existed in coffee houses, concert halls, radio, and TV was predominantly an English-language phenomenon, though many of the major pop-folk groups, such as the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Chad Mitchell Trio, The Limeliters, The Brothers Four, The Highwaymen, and others, featured songs in Spanish (often from Mexico), Polynesian languages, Russian, French, and other languages in their recordings and performances. These groups also sang many English-language songs of foreign origin.
Rock subsumes folkThe British Invasion of the mid-1960s helped bring an end to the mainstream popularity of American folk music as a wave of British bands overwhelmed most of the American music scene, including folk. Ironically, the roots of the British Invasion were in American folk, specifically a variant known as skiffle as popularized by Lonnie Donegan; however, most of the British Invasion bands had been extensively influenced by rock and roll by the time their music had reached the United States and bore little resemblance to its folk origins.
After Bob Dylan began to record with a rocking rhythm section and electric instruments in 1965 (see Electric Dylan controversy), many other still-young folk artists followed suit. Meanwhile, bands like The Lovin' Spoonful and the Byrds, whose individual members often had a background in the folk-revival coffee-house scene, were getting recording contracts with folk-tinged music played with a rock-band line-up. Before long, the public appetite for the more acoustic music of the folk revival began to wane.
"Crossover" hits ("folk songs" that became rock-music-scene staples) happened now and again. One well-known example is the song "Hey Joe", copyrighted by folk artist Billy Roberts, and recorded by rock singer/guitarist Jimi Hendrix just as he was about to burst into stardom in 1967. The anthem "Woodstock," which was written and first sung by Joni Mitchell while her records were still nearly entirely acoustic and while she was labeled a "folk singer", became a hit single for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young when the group recorded a full-on rock version.