Sunday, August 3, 2014

Progressive Chords


I've been boning up on folk music ever since Pete Seeger died this past January. I probably should have done a post about him then, but didn't. I guess I saw him more as a political activist than a musician. Had I seen him as strictly a political activist, I would have written something, as I believed in a lot of the same things he did (if not always with the same fervor.) However, he was also, principally it could be argued, a musician, and that presented a bit of a problem. If I pay tribute to him, I thought, people may think I actually like his music. I'm loathe to judge an artist based solely on his political convictions, lest I hail Mike Farrell as the Greatest Actor of His Generation. (Don't get me wrong, Farrell's a capable enough thespian. I just don't think MASH would have been all that different had Wayne Rogers stuck around for the entire 11 seasons.) Was Pete Seeger a capable enough musician? I couldn't really tell you back in January. What song was he famous for again? "Goodbye, Eileen?"  Something like that. Had I ever heard the song, I obviously wasn't bowled over by it.

Funny thing is, folk music, which Seeger during his long life had come so much to represent, even symbolize, wasn't perceived as political when musicologists first became aware of it toward the end of the 19th century. It was simply music composed by very poor but very talented people who lived far from the publishing companies or recording studios. Or lived before there were such things as recording studios. These now-forgotten souls (not they were ever well-known to begin with) played their songs to family, friends, and acquaintances, who then performed it themselves to whatever family, friends, and acquaintances they didn't already have in common. Human nature being what it is, these family, friends, and acquaintances probably got the soul-forgetting rolling by claiming they composed the songs themselves. That's OK, because the people they performed it for most likely took similar credit (what, you thought that kind of shit was unique to the Internet?) As these songs were bandied about, they're said to have changed over time, a claim I'm not sure I buy. Lyrics, OK, I can see where those might evolve. But music? You can only change a melody so much before it becomes a different tune altogether. At any rate, these songs were passed from camp fire to camp fire, slave quarters to slave quarters, bunk house to bunk house, migrant camp to migrant camp, chain gang to chain gang, box car to box car, until they ended up being sung into a WPA-owned recording device.

Some well-known folk songs a least a century old, many you probably learned in kindergarten (whether they were originally meant for children or not): "I've Been Working on the Railroad". "Jimmy Crack Corn". "Turkey in the Straw". "On Top of Old Smokey" "Michael, Row Your Boat A-Shore". "My Darling Clementine"*. "Hush Little Baby". "Yankee Doodle". "Dixie"* "Skip to My Lou". "Streets of Laredo". "A-Tisket, a-Tasket". "Buffalo Gals"*. "It's Raining, It's Pouring". "The Drunken Sailor". "Down in the Valley". "Yellow Rose of Texas". "Itsy Bitsy Spider". "Blow the Man Down". "Home on the Range"** "Casey Jones". "Over the River and Through the Woods"** "Tom Dooley". "Polly Wolly Doodle". "The Ballad of John Henry." "Row, Row, Row Your Boat". "Shortnin' Bread". "When the Saints Go Marching In"*. "The Farmer in the Dell". "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" "Git Along, Little Dogies"..

*Authorship in dispute (as opposed to author unknown.)
**It's known who wrote the lyrics (usually some poet who had no idea their work was going to be turned into music) but not the melody.

You're probably so familiar with some of those songs they're beyond good or bad by now, but if you were hearing them for the very first time, you might possibly enjoy them, even the nursery rhymes. They're just good songs, that's all. But you say can that about a lot of what's been played on the radio over the years. Why did the Left glom onto, even successfully co-opt, folk? One reason often given is the songs mysterious origins. They came from nowhere, were written by no one, were owned by no one, and thus belonged to everyone. Communal music. Let's join hands together and sing,  Kum bay ya, my Lord, kum bay ya...*

*Authorship in dispute (as opposed to author unknown.)


I'm sorry if this makes me sound like a right-wing philistine, but I find the above unacceptable. In the backwoods of Appalachia, the cotton fields of the South, in hobo camps, shantytowns, and coal mines, there may have been composers with as much potential talent as Lennon and McCartney, Rodgers and Hart, maybe even Ludwig van Beethoven himself, and we simply do not know their names. That bothers me. I mean, c'mon, if a trio I'll be mentioning shortly could get rich and famous off "Tom Dooley", why is it in such liberal bad taste to wonder out loud who came up with the melody and lyrics? It may be impossible to find out at this late date, but I don't see why the question can't be brought to the coffeehouse table. If unanswerable, then erect a Tomb of the Unknown Composer.  It's the least we can do.

Knowing who wrote what would certainly give us a better understanding of these songs. Let's look at this famous folk composition, one we all learned in childhood:

I've been working on the railroad
All the live-long day.
I've been working on the railroad
Just to pass the time away.

Can't you hear the whistle blowing,
Rise up so early in the morn;
Can't you hear the captain shouting,
"Dinah, blow your horn!"

Dinah, won't you blow,
Dinah, won't you blow,
Dinah, won't you blow your horn?
Dinah, won't you blow,
Dinah, won't you blow,
Dinah, won't you blow your horn?

Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah
Someone's in the kitchen I know
Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah
Strummin' on the old banjo

Now, what about the person who wrote that? Was he-or-she observing railroad work from a comfortable distance, or is the song autobiographical? If it's the latter, then of all the people working on the railroad, this one person decided to write a song about it. That right there makes him--if we're talking 19th century railroad work, it would have to be a him--a rather unique individual. Possibly a frustrated one, too. I doubt if he was a very prolific songwriter, not because he lacked talent, but after working on the railroad all the livelong day, he probably went home exhausted. That he even eked out this single song--one destined to be a classic, no less--is nothing short of remarkable.


And what's with Dinah in the kitchen? It's certainly not the future (and in 2014, now kind of forgotten) television personality, who wasn't even born yet. Come to think of it, that particular Dinah did have cooking segments on her 1970s talk show, but the composer would have to have been psychic, making railroad work highly unlikely. P.T. Barnum would have paid better.

 


This may shed some light on the whole thing. "I've Been Working On the Railroad" was first published in a 1895 Princeton University compilation without a particular composer being credited. Then titled "The Levee Song", the lyrics were a bit different. Or rather, they were the same, but pronounced differently:

I been wukkin' on de railroad
All de livelong day,
I been wukkin' on de railroad
Ter pass de time away.
Doan' yuh hyah de whistle blowin'?
Ris up, so uhly in de mawn;
Doan' yuh hyah de cap'n shouin',
"Dinah, blow yo' hawn?"

This version of the song had an intro as well:

(SOLO) I once did know a girl named Grace--
(QUARTET) I'm wukkin' on de levee;
(SOLO) She done brung me to dis sad disgrace
(QUARTET) O' wukkin' on de levee.

That's what's known as a 19th century Negro dialect. So, can we assume the song was written by a black man? If by "written" you mean pen to paper, I'm afraid not. I'd like to think that a literate black man--a rare phenomenon in the 19th century, I'm sorry to say--would have spelled "the" and "them" and "they" the proper way, even if he, or acquaintances of his, pronounced them differently. Most likely either a Princeton professor turned those words into "de" and "dem" and "dey" in order to give it a more regional flavor, or it was the work of some smarty pants undergrad who thought his fellow Caucasian classmates would find it hilarious.

Nevertheless, a black man could have composed the song, which someone else then put to paper. If it is indeed autobiographical, that knocks our railroad worker several notches down the socioeconomic scale. He probably worked very long hours for very little pay. If the song was composed before the Emancipation Proclamation, he may have worked very long hours for no pay at all. "Ter pass de time away" is exactly how his owner would have wanted it.


And Dinah? Turns out that's a 19th century euphemism for a female slave. So the song's really about some black guy literally slaving away on the railroad while the overseer, i.e., the Captain, molests his wife or girlfriend on the kitchen floor!

OK, I admit I don't have a whole lot of evidence to back that up, and the introduction of Grace complicates matters, but neither has generations of kindergarten teachers have had much cause to exhort their pupils to sing the song in the most exuberant manner possible, all smiles and hand clapping, a happy, peppy paean to manual labor, possibly forced manual labor at that. I find it just as likely the song was a cry for help.

Or a call to action. Here may be the real reason the Left was so attracted to this music.

Ten years after the Princeton compilation, a musicologist by the name of John Lomax came out with a book titled Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, in which can be found the first published version of "Home on the Range". A generation later, in the 1930s, Lomax's son Alan began recording folk songs for the Library of Congress under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration. Once these songs got a bit of radio play, it sparked a revival of interest in folk music, one that prefigured the more famous revival of the 1960s. A few, like Josh White, Lead Belly, Sonny Terry, and calypso singer Lord Beginner, who had been playing folk music all their lives, unaware that it even was folk music, got increased attention during this time. Others, like Burl Ives and Cisco Houston, started out as fans of the genre, eventually deciding they'd like to be performers themselves.

Initially, this would have all seemed apolitical. However, a Great Depression was raging, and the utter collapse of capitalism had radicalized many a young musician, including a Harvard drop-out from New York named Pete Seeger and a migrant worker, intermittent journalist, and autodidact from Oklahoma named Woody Guthrie. Separately, they each took a hard listen to the old songs, and here's what they heard:

Workplace violence ("Jimmy Crack Corn""Blow the Man Down"), incarceration ("Down in the Valley") capital punishment ("Tom Dooley"), technological displacement ("The Ballad of John Henry"), occupational hazards ("Casey Jones"), promiscuity ("Skip to my Lou"), funeral preparations ("The Streets of Laredo"), deformity ("My Darling Clementine"), head injuries ("It's Raining, It's Pouring"), and existentialism ("Row, Row, Row Your Boat").

OK, some of these themes they may have heard louder than others, but it can be argued that such topics all can be found in those songs. The subject matter wasn't particularly liberal or progressive, yet still outside the concerns of the Tin Pan Alley composers of the day as they tried to come up with the 999th variation of "I Love You", making these tunes almost radical by default. Now, Seeger and Guthrie, who had met in 1940 at a migrant workers benefit organized by Will Geer (yes, Walton fans, that Will Geer) and struck up a friendship, would take the music to the next level and make it radical on purpose. To do this, they would have to write their own songs.

Now we must pause and ask, can you even write a new folk song? It's expected to be old, and of unknown origin. As I said before, no one was supposed to know or care where the tune came from. So this wouldn't be folk in the strictest sense of the word, but songs by identifiable composers that sounded like folk. Which meant they sounded a little like blues and country, but blues and country before the tropes, cliches, stereotypes and other consumer-driven conventions that was alreay characterizing those genres by the 1940s. As for this new/faux folk music lyrics, as they became more political, Seeger and Guthrie would come to discover that some people indeed cared very deeply about who wrote these songs.

Seeger, Guthrie, Lee Hays, and Milliard Lampell formed a group called the Almanac Singers. Later members included Ives and Houston. They wore street clothes instead of tuxedos while performing, and recorded politically-tinged material as well as traditional folk songs. Their politics changed in the two years they were together, from being against a draft and military buildup, to being for it after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. Neither stance brought them much success, and they were hounded in the press for their radical ties. Pearl Harbor was attacked, Seeger was drafted, and the group broke up.

Woody Guthrie went back to being a solo artist, and a minor celebrity with a deceptively cornpone persona who regularly appeared on radio shows dispensing Will Rogers-like witticisms. An autobiography recounting his adventures in the 1930s Dust Bowl furthered his reputation. Though Guthrie was now in full support of the war effort,  he saw no reason why that should prevent him from pointing out America's shortcomings. After a stretch in the U.S. Merchant Marine, Guthrie went into a New York City studio in 1943 and recorded what someday would become one of the most beloved folk songs of all times:
  
This land is your land, this land is my land 
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters 
This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway 
I saw below me that golden valley 
This land was made for you and me. 

I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps 
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts 
While all around me a voice was sounding 
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling 
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling 
A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting, 
This land was made for you and me.

 No shortcomings there, except Guthrie recorded several versions of this song. Here's a stanza hidden away in one of those versions that you probably weren't exposed to during the camp fire singalongs:

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking, 
Is this land made for you and me?

Nor this:

As I went walking I saw a sign there 
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing." 
But on the other side it didn't say nothing, 
That side was made for you and me.

My goodness, what are the chain-link fence manufacturers, home security alarm system installers, and doberman pincer breeders going to say when they hear that? They probably never did hear that. The song got little attention until the 1960s, when it was rediscovered and rerecorded by a number of artists, minus the inflammatory lyrics. The FBI, however, paid immediate attention to both the song and Guthrie. After the war he probably would have been hauled in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and asked to explain his earlier agitation if his own body hadn't started agitating against him first. Sometimes in the late '40s, Guthrie started losing his balance. Then his arms and legs began jerking involuntarily. Everyone around Guthrie thought he was going nuts. In and out of mental hospitals for several years, he was eventually diagnosed with Huntington's Disease, a neurological disorder. So little was known about it, mental hospitals remained his main place of residence for years afterwards when he really should have been in the more general kind. Either way, his career in both music and politics was over. Guthrie died in 1967 at age 55.


The much healthier Pete Seeger--he had many, many years ahead of him--returned from the war all ready to jump back into the folk music fray. First he had to create such a fray, as it had dwindled quite a bit in his absence. He and Lee Hays formed an organization called People's Songs, with the aim of giving folk music wider public exposure. This was partly accomplished through fundraising events known as "hootenannies". Since so many folk songs started out as spirituals (proto-gospel songs), Seeger and friends borrowed the call-and-response device of the black church, and had the audience, whenever possible, seated circularly, so as to better clap and sing along. Sounds a bit like kindergarten for adults actually. No wonder that's the place where most of us first hear folk music.

Next Seeger and Hays, along with Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert, formed the musical group, the Weavers. With all four exchanging lead singer duties, Hellerman on guitar, and Seeger on his trusty banjo, they played old folk songs, new folk songs by others (such as Guthrie), and their own compositions. They looked anything but working class doing so, as they were all very nicely dressed, often playing fancy, i.e., pricey clubs, all of which Seeger expressed some reservations about years later, when he had gone back to flannel shirts and jeans. However, the other Weavers, taking a cue from their manager, felt this was the best way to reach a mainstream audience, and what mattered was the material, which was still fairly provocative

Such as "Goodnight, Irene", their biggest hit. The hit's origins, anyway. It was first recorded by a black sharecropper's son by the name of Huddie Ledbetter, more commonly known as Lead Belly, who also either wrote or revised the song (he wavered a bit on that point.) Ledbetter recorded it several times in fact, most notably while in prison for attempted homicide (must have been rusty, as he had earlier served time for not just attempting but also succeeding in killing a man in a fight over a woman.) John and Alan Lomax had discovered him there--they'd go anywhere in search of a decent song--and petitioned the governor of Louisiana to set him free, which he did, supposedly after listening to a recording of "Goodnight, Irene" (Ledbetter was a model prisoner, so might have been let out anyway.) Once freed, John Lomax acted as his manager for a while, getting him nightclub gigs into the 1940s. Ledbetter died at the very end of that decade, when he was around 60. A year later the Weavers introduced their elegant version--the song contained an illusion to suicide; if you weren't listening carefully you might have thought Gilbert put on her bathing suit and went for a swim. However, that elegance sold much better than Ledbetter's more grittily sung rendition. It should be noted that whatever their own success with the song, the Weavers weren't about to let Lead Belly go unnoticed. In an early '50s television appearance, Hays interrupts the harmonizing to tell the audience about the black sharecropper's son who first brought the ballad to their attention. Classy, regardless of how they were dressed.

The Weavers put out other singles that met with varying degrees of success, such as the Hebrew folk song "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena", "On Top of Old Smokey", "The Roving Kind", "If I Had a Hammer", "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" and "Wimoweh". You might associate a few of those with other artists. Just as the Weavers spruced up "Goodnight, Irene" so too would later artists spruce up their own tunes. More about that in a bit.


Long before those cover versions,  the Weavers, and especially Seeger, would find that they needed a more immediate sprucing up as things were about to get quite dirty. The House Un-American Activities Committee now had trained its sights on folk singers. Josh White and Burl Ives--the latter had successfully branched out into acting--were called to testify, and both named names. Told they had done the right thing, they were now free to pursue their careers as they saw fit, just as long as they did nothing the HUAC didn't see fit. White, who was black, was blacklisted anyway. It took a 1963 JFK TV special to revive his career. Ives, who was white, fared arguably better. You might say that the HUAC had made the world safe for stop-motion animated snowmen to sing "Holly, Jolly Christmas" (couldn't resist that last bit of snarkiness; Ives was in fact a very fine actor and, of course, singer.)


In August of 1955, it was Pete Seeger's turn. He was hardly "innocent". Like a lot of other people who brazenly blamed capitalism for capitalism's utter collapse in the 1930s, he had joined the Communist Party USA. Seeger quit sometimes after World War II when Stalin's misdeeds became better known, but which many American fellow travelers refused to acknowledge. However, Seeger felt that that refusal was their own business, and he himself refused to name names, but without the all-important invocation of the Fifth Amendment. He did offer to sing a few ditties for the congressmen, infuriating them even further. Eventually he was indicted for contempt of Congress, found guilty, and sentenced to a year in prison. It looked like he and Lead Belly would have something else in common besides "Goodnight, Irene." However, Seeger could afford better lawyers (remember, he had the bigger hit), and never saw a day in jail. The sentence was eventually found to be flawed by an appeals court and overturned.

Nevertheless, the damage had been done. Seeger split from the Weavers after being contractually forced to sing in a cigarette commercial. It was the last thing he would do on TV for quite some time as he was now banned from the airwaves. He did find work singing on college campuses to appreciative audiences--appreciative audiences that other like-minded souls would soon tap into.

Two like-minded souls off-campus were Moses Asch and Harry Smith. Polish-born Asch had founded the first folk music label Folkways in 1948. Smith was a bohemian artist/filmmaker/writer/ethnologist/mystic, none of which brought much in the way of income. So he went to Folkways to see if they if they might be interested in acquiring at least some of his massive collection of 78 rpm blues and hillbilly records. Asch said he could keep the collection, and asked him instead to turn it into a multi-volume anthology in the then-new 33 LP format, and provided him the necessary equipment and space to do so. The result was The Anthology of American Folk Music, issued in 1952. I can't find much evidence that this anthology sold all that well. For one thing, much of it was illegal, as some of Smith's recordings came from still-extant labels like Columbia and Paramount. Yet no one ever bitched, at least not in 1952, which suggests to me the whole collection went under the radar. If not particularly commercial, it was highly influential, as folk musicians that emerged in the decades that followed often cited it as an inspiration. Many of them were college kids themselves at the time, a time of stifling obedience to bourgeois principles, and the old songs about a more clamorous past had a freshness about them. Not that there weren't other musicals styles also challenging those bourgeois principles.

1950s rock 'n' roll has often been described as an accessible alternative to the increasingly inaccessible forms of jazz that emerged after World War II. But before the Beatles and a young man from Minnesota (whom I'll get to in a bit) changed everything, rock was seen as strictly high school. It wasn't just uptight middle-aged parents that looked down on it, but even more open-minded college kids, while not considering it a threat to their way of life, thought it beneath them. Not so folk music. It was played in the same venues--coffeehouses, basement cafes--as jazz, and had the same audience of intellectuals and hipsters. Except that you could hum folk. However, it might have remained marginal if not for three college kids from San Francisco, a place not unknown to either intellectuals or hipsters.

Dave Guard, Bob Shane, and Nick Reynolds came together to form a group called the Kingston Trio. Their first big hit was "Tom Dooley", about a man (his real-life name was actually Dula) accused of killing his girlfriend and thus had to pay the ultimate price. Guard, Shane and Reynolds got the ultimate career boost, and the hits kept coming. Even a change of personnel--Guard leaving and John Stewart arriving--didn't slow things down. Like the Weavers before them, the Kingston Trio took the old songs and gave them a fresh commercial sheen. Unlike the Weavers before them, they didn't see the old songs as part of a greater whole. Non-political, they weren't out to save the world, but merely wished to entertain. And they made damn sure it was indeed their music that they entertained with, eminent domain be damned!

The Kingston Trio weren't the first artists to secure the rights of songs whose composers were unknown. The Lomaxes had done it, their excuse being they had tweaked the music. The practice goes back farther than you might think. Of the folk songs I mentioned in the third paragraph from the top, only one has a 19th century copyright, "Dixie". It was first published in 1860 by Daniel Emmett, a white performer partial to greasepaint (did I forget to mention that some folk songs were passed from minstrel show to minstrel show?) Widely interpreted as being about a freed slave pining nostalgically for his old home town, i.e., plantation, it was hugely popular during the Civil War, in the South particularly.


I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten;
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
In Dixie Land where I was born in,
Early on one frosty mornin,
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.

Four years after it was published, Emmett finally secured the copyright for "Dixie". What took him so long? Musicologists have long speculated that he was waiting to see if the song's true composer would come forward, and when that didn't happen, took credit for writing it himself. Emmett died in 1904, by which time the song had attained an almost legendary status. He gave many interviews after its publication recounting the origin of "Dixie", an origin that varied in each retelling. Most of the time he said it was written quickly, in a burst of inspiration. In a rare moment of honesty--perhaps brought on by the fact that people were questioning his authorship almost from the very beginning--he conceded that as a minstrel performer who traveled from town to town, he chanced to hear many regional--folk!--songs played in taverns or on street corners or wherever, which might have influenced his burst of inspiration. So then, who wrote the song that influenced Emmett? Some scholars think it may have been a black man. After all, the whole idea behind a minstrel show is that white audiences were getting a chance to see how the other race lived, albeit in the most dumbed-down farcical way possible, lest their common humanity be exposed. If "Dixie" was written by a former slave, than the song's lyrics may not have been meant to be nostalgic but sarcastic. Less an evocative ode to a vanished time but a musical good riddence. Look away, indeed. Origins matter.

Nearly a 100 years later, the Kingston Trio would find out just how much origins mattered when they came across an antiwar song titled "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." Believing it to be traditional, in fact so sure it was traditional that they didn't even bother checking it out, they promptly copyrighted the song in their own name. Well, they were half-right. The melody was traditional, but the lyrics had been penned by Pete Seeger in 1955, a mere five years earlier, and published in Sing Out!, a folk music magazine. Seeger balked when he heard of the copyright, and the Trio gracefully backed off their claim. Besides, they already owned plenty of other songs written long before they were born, including "The Legend of Tom Dooley." How was that possible if they wrote neither the words nor melody? The arrangement. Now, I'm neither a musician nor a lawyer. If the arrangement has the same legal standing as the words and melody, so be it. But it does take something away from the idealistic notion that these songs are owned by everyone.

OK, so  combine the idealism inspired by Asch and Smith and the Weavers with the profit margins inspired by the Kingston Trio (which the major labels had certainly taken notice of), and you have the Great 1960s Folk Music Revival. Artists that emerged during this period include Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, The Limelighters (Glenn Yarbrough), The Brothers Four, The Chad Mitchell Trio, The New Christie Minstrels, Peter, Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, Dave Van Ronk, Tom Paxton, Odetta, Tim Hardin, Bert Sommer, Theodore Bikel, and Phil Ochs (yes, I've left out an important name--patience, people!)

Where was Pete Seeger during all of this? Not on the air. Still blacklisted, he wasn't allowed on radio or TV. Not even on Hootenanny, a term he helped popularize. Or rather, he wasn't physically on the air. Truth is, songs he either wrote, arranged, or introduced were all over the airwaves in the late '50s and early '60s. Take a gander:



"Kisses Sweeter Than Wine", a hit for Jimmie Rodgers in 1957.  Originally an Irish song called "Drimmin Down" about, of all things, a farmer and his dead cow. Lead Belly heard it being played in a Greenwich Village club, and decided to add it to his own repertoire, but Americanizing the lyrics and calling it "If it Wasn't for Dickey", recording it in 1937. He also made it more rhythmic. Seeger liked the music but not necessary the lyrics, so he and fellow Weaver Lee Hays changed it from farmer-mourns-cow to boy-meets-girl. And of course they changed the title as well. Because so many had contributed to the song over a period of so many years, it was credited to "Campbell-Newman" a pseudonym for the music publisher Howard Richmond. As Seeger once sardonically put it: "I know the...Richmond Organization cares." The song was a hit for the Weavers in 1951, but a bigger one for Rodgers.


"The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by the Tokens soared to number one in 1961, despite the single's moronic cover art. Originally called "Mbube" (Zulu for lion), it was recorded in 1939 by South African musician Solomon Linda. During the song's third take Linda yodeled an improvised bit of melody that years later would be translated into English as in the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight. The subsequent record was a hit, making Linda, who's day job had been that of a record packer, a star in South Africa. In 1949, Alan Lomax brought the song to Pete Seeger's attention. In 1951, the Weavers recorded their version called "Wimoweh" (after mishearing the Zulu word "Uyimbube" in the song's chorus) which made it to Billboard's Top 10. In 1961, RCA paid musician and lyricist George Weiss to come up with an English-language do-wop version for the Tokens, the most popular version of the song to date. More copyright problems. The South African company that first recorded Linda' song had paid him a small fee but kept all royalties to themselves. They also neglected to list Linda as the composer, just a performer. This led Seeger and Moses Asch (on whose label the Weavers recorded) to assume the song was traditional, and, thanks to a new arrangement, copyrightable. Seeger and Asch actually opposed the practice, but the song's publisher, the aforementioned Howard Richmond didn't, and the song was once again credited to the fictional Paul Campbell. When it became known afterwards that Linda was the actual composer, Seeger sent him $1000 dollars, and instructed the The Richmond Organization to send all royalties to the South African, instructions the publisher ignored (Weiss, meanwhile got his name added to the Token's version.) The song became popular once again in 1994 when it showed up in The Lion King, prompting the Linda estate (he died in 1962) to sue The Walt Disney Company for millions of dollars, resulting in an undisclosed settlement. See how it matters who writes these things?


"If I Had a Hammer" was a Top 10 hit for the popular--actually, it's what helped make them popular in the first place--folk music trio Peter, Paul, and Mary. Pete Seeger and Lee Hays had written, and the Weavers had recorded, the song in 1949, but it came and went without much notice. In spite of that, no other song of his probably better encapsulated Seeger's worldview:


If I had a hammer I'd hammer in the morning
I'd hammer in the evening all over this land
I'd hammer out danger, I'd hammer out warning
I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land

If I had a bell I'd ring it in the morning
I'd ring it in the evening all over this land
I'd ring our danger, I'd ring out warning
I'd ring out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land

If I had a song I'd sing it in the morning
I'd sing it in the evening all over this land
I'd sing out danger, I'd sing out warning
I'd sing out love between my sisters and my brothers
All over this land

When I've got a hammer, and I've got a bell
And I've got a song to sing all over this land
It's a hammer of justice, it's a bell of freedom
It's a song about love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land

In 1963, Trini López released a Latin-flavored rendition that went all the way to Number 3, seven whole notches above Peter, Paul, and Mary, even though their version is clearly superior. Where's a hammer of justice when you need one?




Joan Baez, probably the most politically conscious of the artists to have emerged during the folk revival, sings "We Shall Overcome" at the 1963 March on Washington. Some dispute--Surprise! Surprise!--as to where this song originated. Some say from a black minister named Charles Albert Tindley who wrote (and copyrighted) a gospel hymn titled "I'll Overcome Someday" in 1901. Others say it was another gospel artist, Louise Shropshire. Her song was called "If My Jesus Wills" but had "I Will Overcome" in the chorus. Shropshire was an associate of the Reverend Thomas Dorsey, ofter referred to nowadays as the Father of Black Gospel, who made sure the song was widely disseminated throughout the African-American church in the 1940s. Of course, one song could have influenced the other, though the melodies are different. Anyway, a song influenced by one or both named "We Will Overcome" was played often at the Highlander Folk School, a kind of political activist training center in Tennessee, where it came to Pete Seeger's attention. The one-time Harvard student changed "Will" to "Shall", feeling the latter word came trippingly off the tongue. It was recorded by various artists and sung at various political rallies throughout the 1950s. In 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights organization, adopted it as an anthem, and soon it was the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement itself. In my opinion, no one ever sang it better than Baez.


"Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season)" was a huge hit for the Bryds in 1965. Pete Seeger wrote the music, and King Solomon wrote the lyrics. Well, according to tradition, Solomon wrote the lyrics, which has come down to us via The Old Testament's Book of Ecclesiastes. Seeger did add the chorus (Turn! x 3) and the concluding line: a time for peace, I swear, it's not too late. I'm not sure Solomon, whose empire according to the Bible encompassed modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordon, Israel, and a slice of Egypt, would have liked the inclusion. You don't get all that territory attending summits. Still, Seeger's heart was in the right place, and I personally find it an improvement over the original source material ("a time to be born, a time to die") which was just so much obviousness. Both Seeger and the Limelighters recorded versions in 1962. A year later year the song popped up on a Judy Collins album. A guitarist playing on that album, Jim (later Roger) McGuinn had done the arrangement. McGuinn later helped form the Bryds, a band that specialized in Beatlesque covers of folk songs. "Turn! Turn! Turn!" the title track of the group's second album, was released as a single in 1965, and Solomonic wisdom for a brief while dominated the Top 40.



Despite some of my earlier criticisms--just trying to give as honest an appraisal as I can--I've now come to regard the '60s Folk Revival as a wonderful era in pop music. And make no mistake, it was pop, short for popular. For a couple of years there, folk ruled the charts. Yet when this era was played back to me as a kid in the '70s, the genre got kind of short shrift. According to the official narrative, nothing much happened musically between Elvis going into the army and the Beatles appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. If anything of interest did happen, it was that other music based on blues and country, rock 'n' roll. The 1973 film American Graffiti takes place in 1962, near the height of the revival, yet you don't hear anything remotely folkish emanating from the radios of the many cars in the movie. True, the film concerned itself mostly with high school kids, and perhaps they weren't as enamored with the music as their older college-aged brothers and sisters. Still, you'd think at least someone would have called up Wolfman Jack and requested a Peter, Paul, and Mary tune. Nevertheless, I did get some exposure to the folk revival from a very unusual source: my father.

Now, this man was no hippie. He wore a ducktail until the day he died. Yet he would walk around the house singing in that Robert Goulet-like baritone of his such songs as "Those Were the Days", "This Land Is Your Land", and, pushing the Goulet vocal stylings to their very limits, "Puff the Magic Dragon," songs that I now recognize as folk. I don't know that my father ever recognized them as folk. He had simply heard them on the radio. They were that popular.

Folk music was now no longer a subculture but a mainstream entertainment. Unfortunately, that can sometimes result in a less fervent, more fickle fan base. Folk might have been just another passing fad--actually, it did end up being another passing fad, but not before a young man from Hibbing, Minnesota named Robert Zimmerman came along and (with some help from the Beatles) utterly transformed popular music.


Once ensconced in New York City's Greenwich Village, now a center of the burgeoning folk scene (as well as a center of the jazz, poetry, modern art, off-Broadway, experimental film, and, lest we forget, coffeehouse, scenes) Zimmerman changed his last name to Dylan. Since no one has ever referred to him as Robert Dylan, I guess you could say he changed his first name as well. He was different from the start. Even his origins. A descendent of Eastern European Jews relocates to New York City from the Midwest? That's like smuggling orange juice into Florida. Then there was that nasally voice of his, a cross between Ernest T. Bass and Kermit the Frog. Yet he could sing. Contrary to the pretty, polished, and elegant vocals that dominated folk, Dylan's was a throwback to old-time blues musicians like Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, and Howlin' Wolf, whose coarse, seemingly unrefined voices, at first belied, but eventually revealed, a greater sensitivity. Still, folkies would just have soon rather listen to Wolf, still alive and in the middle of a comeback about this time. In fact, folkies would have just as soon rather listen to Robert Johnson, who had been dead about a quarter of a century, but whose recordings were in the middle of a comeback. Dylan's self-titled first album went nowhere, despite having been produced by John Hammond, a man with a very good track record who had discovered many, many stars, including Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Billie Holiday. In March of 1962, however, it seemed unlikely Bob Dylan would join that esteemed group. Around Columbia Records he was known as "Hammond's Folly"

A few months later, Dylan signed a management contract with wily Albert Grossman, who had put Peter, Paul, and Mary together, and things began to change. In May of 1963, his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan was released to critical acclaim. Produced this time by Tom Wilson, an emerging talent in the recording industry (Hammond and Grossman didn't get along), this album differed from the first one in that now 11 of the 13 songs were originals whereas the debut contained mostly covers. Turns out that Dylan's own voice, not his cracked vocal cords voice but his lyrical one, was what was needed all long. By turns poetic, sophisticated, satirical, and political, he was now hailed as one of the greatest living songwriters. Pretty good for a folly. Among the songs on this album:
"Girl From the North Country", "Masters of War", "Don't Think Twice. It's All Right", "A Hard Rain's a-Going Fall", and "Blowin' in the Wind"

How many roads most a man walk down
Before you call him a man ?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand ?
Yes, how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned ?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

Yes, how many years can a mountain exist
Before it's washed to the sea ?
Yes, how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free ?
Yes, how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn't see ?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

Yes, how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky ?
Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry ?
Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died ?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

--Bob Dylan, by way of Robert Goulet, by way of Ronald Jusko

All kidding aside, my father more likely first heard the Peter, Paul and Mary version released later that year, an international hit that sold more than one million copies. Indeed, many of Dylan's best known early songs were made best known by others. PP+M also had a hit with "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." Songs from some follow-up Dylan albums that others had success with include "It Ain't Me, Babe" by the Turtles, "Mr. Tambourine Man" by the Bryds, and "All I Really Want to Do" by Cher, all of which led a frustrated Columbia to start promoting their artist with the slogan "Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan."

No need to feel sorry for Dylan. As a songwriter, he was making a whole heap of money from all those cover versions. And in two short years he had become synonymous with folk music. He appeared alongside Pete Seeger--an early champion of his--and Joan Baez--whom he was later involved with romantically--at various shows and rallies. Let the Top 40 crowd have the Turtles and Cher, for the true folk fan, the folk purist, Dylan was the Way, the Truth, and the Light. Or at least he was until July 24, 1965, when, headlining at the Newport Folk Festival, he plugged in his guitar...

Man, how the shit hit those fans! They booed Dylan, who left the stage after only three songs. Even Pete Seeger thought about cutting his cables. And it didn't stop there. A few months later at a show in England, caught in a never-released (albeit now available on the Internet) documentary Eat This Document, a rather unhappy person in the audience calls the singer "Judas!"  Since by this time Dylan's electric musicianship was well publicized, it seems strange someone would spend money on a ticket just to call the headliner names, but passions indeed ran high.

What accounts for this close-mindedness among people who regarded themselves as quite the opposite? Dylan sung on a stage with electric lighting and into an electric microphone. I imagine most if not all of those fans either drove, or were driven in, automobiles to the festival. It's not like any Amish were attending. Did folk tradition really demand the use of acoustic instruments? True, the ancestral 19th century musicians never played electric guitars. They hadn't been invented yet. Sure, once such instruments did come into existence, lots of backwoods people kept on playing washboards or blowing into jugs. Very unpretentious. No putting on airs there. Except the folk purists were making the same mistake people always make when romanticizing the poor, confusing what the destitute want to do with what they have to do. Washboards and jugs were all they could afford. Give them a little cash and they might be more than willing to go modern. OK, Dylan was never truly poor. How about Muddy Waters? Born in 1915, he grew up in a shack in Mississippi playing acoustic guitar. Alan Lomax showed up one day in 1941 to record him for the Library of Congress, and again a year later. Excited to hear his own voice and music on a recording, Waters lit out to Chicago, where he recorded for the Chess label, and had a number of hits. Jump ahead about a decade. The folk revival had birthed a blues revival that was especially strong in England. According to Keith Richards biography, Waters was booed in Manchester (the same place Dylan got his biblical rebuke) for playing an electric guitar. Assuming Richards doesn't have him confused with some other bluesman, the purists were really showing there ignorance, as Waters had helped popularize the electric guitar in Chicago in the 1940s. Whereas Dylan at least knew what he was getting into, the crowd's hostility must have been especially confusing to Waters. Now that he could afford one, why shouldn't he play an electric guitar, which he though would give him the best sound possible?

If the purists were a bit too hard on Dylan and Waters, perhaps I'm being a bit too hard on the purists. In 2001, I posted an essay titled "Musical Chairs" in which I contrast purists to those who take a more synergistic approach, and concluded art needs both to thrive. So I think I have some idea where Dylan's critics were coming from. As the Folk Revival took hold, they saw their favorite music become slicker, glossier, more show bizzy. If a quarter century earlier, folk was seen a bulwark against the excesses of capitalism, it was now threatening to turn into capitalism. So the purists pinned their hopes on Bob Dylan, hoping that with his ragged voice, lyrical sagacity, and political sensibilities, he would be the bulwark against, among other things, pizazz.

They should have asked him first. Dylan was never truly a folkie. Oh, he had a great affection for the music. I don't think he was a poseur or a phony or a sell-out. For a while there, he may have really wanted to be a folkie. But when Robert Zimmerman decided he'd like a new name, he didn't settle on Seeger, Guthrie, Ives, or Ledbetter but Dylan, as in Dylan Thomas, an early-to-mid-20th Welsh century poet best know for the line "Do not go gentle into that good night". Thomas wasn't a folkie. I doubt they even had folkies in Wales. He was a bohemian, and that best describes the American Dylan. Even back when he was wearing "working man clothes" and appearing at voter registration drives in the South, Dylan tended to pepper his speech with hipster argot. Another influence, and later a friend, was the Beat poet Allan Ginsberg. More than a bohemian, however, Dylan saw himself as an an artist not hemmed in by mere category. 16 when Elvis Presley released "Hound Dog", Robert Zimmerman was originally into rock 'n' roll but switched over to folk because he thought it would offer him more freedom. More artistic freedom. For a while it did, but strains began to set in. He chucked his flannel shirts for turtlenecks. It wasn't a political statement. He just didn't want the Left choosing his wardrobe for him. As for his music, even when he was still playing acoustic instruments, it had began to veer lyrically from folk orthodoxy. As music critic Ralph J. Gleason wrote, "Dylan sings of alienation of the individual in many of his songs, whereas one of the continuing themes of Seeger's," and I would add the folk revival by and large, "has been the theme of community." Just how much Dylan identified with the alienation of the individual became clear a few weeks after the Kennedy assassination when he showed up drunk to accept the Tom Paine Award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee and said he could see a little of himself, as well as every man, in Lee Harvey Oswald. The folk purists were willing to overlook that but not the use of electricity (a thought--maybe there was a second guitarist hiding in the grassy knoll!)

Oddly enough, four months before the Newport show, Dylan had released a album, Bringing It All Back Home, the first side of which was all electric, including the song "Subterranean Homesick Blues" his first U.S. Top 40 hit, peaking at #39. So the purists should have know what they were getting themselves into when they willingly attended a concert with Dylan as the headliner. Moreover, they should have been aware of another song, this one from the album Highway 51 Revisited, that was released a mere five days before Newport and was now quickly climbing the charts:

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
People’d call, say, “Beware doll, you’re bound to fall”
You thought they were all kiddin’ you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin’ out
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?



You’ve gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street

And now you find out you’re gonna have to get used to it
You said you’d never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And ask him do you want to make a deal?

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?



You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
When they all come down and did tricks for you
You never understood that it ain’t no good
You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you
You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain’t it hard when you discover that
He really wasn’t where it’s at
After he took from you everything he could steal

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?


Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They’re drinkin’, thinkin’ that they got it made
Exchanging all kinds of precious gifts and things
But you’d better lift your diamond ring, you’d better pawn it babe
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?


Folk, rock 'n' roll, the blues, heavy metal church music (courtesy of Al Kooper), primal screaming, voltage, the avant-garde, Beat poetry, upward mobility, downward mobility, class anger, the identity crises, Catcher in the Rye, existentialism, and too much caffeine all came together in that one song, which climbed all the way up to number two and stayed on the charts for 12 weeks, Dylan's highest-selling record to date. Lyrically, it may have been one of his more comprehensible songs of that period, as it ostensibly was no more than a simple rebuke against a high-class girl (an former lover, maybe?) brought low. It was the music that was incomprehensible. Or maybe just unidentifiable. A sound that went against all expectations. Rock and roll, it had to be rock and roll, but rock and roll is supposed to be fast. This song took its time. A full six minutes of time. Bob Dylan the promising young folk singer had, like Seeger and Guthrie before him, occasionally used century-old copyright-less melodies in keeping with the music's share-and-share-alike sensibilities. Now, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of burnt, confiscated school board copies of Howl, On the Road, Naked Lunch, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Bob Dylan the rock 'n' roll star was blazing an original, primordial, incendiary trail that left even the Beatles scrambling for a Revolver in its wake. In fact, the "and roll" part now sounded quaint, old-fashioned. With just this one song, ROCK was born! And such a dramatic metamorphosis could no longer be confined solely to music, as it now led to convulsions in the culture at large. Especially the under-30 culture.  Five years into the decade (and regardless of whether Dylan had actually intended it that way or not) the 1960s were born! The synergy was such that the youth of America, nay, the world, came together to form a nonconformist community of socially conscious individuals whose alienation was shared and shared alike. Drop out, join hands, do your own thing, and love another right now. That's right, the counterculture was born!

Cultural convulsions aside, it's amazing the impact Bob Dylan has had simply on other musicians. Bruce Springsteen is one often cited example, but did you know that he's also claimed as an influence by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Pete Townsend, Syd Barrett, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, David Bowie, Elton John Joe Strummer, Patti Smith, Bryan Ferry, Nick Cave, Tom Waits and even Lady Gaga. Now, a few of those artists would later diss Dylan, but I that that was just disappointment talking. What avatar hasn't broken a few hearts?

Avatars can also take over essays. I want to get back to folk music in general, so let me just give just give you a quick recap of the rest of Dylan's career up to now: the album Blonde on Blonde, marriage, a somewhat mysterious motorcycle accident, a convalescence that lasted throughout the rest of the 1960s, recording with the Hawks (later the Band) in a basement of a house dubbed "Big Pink", a foray into country music, an appearance at a Woody Guthrie (whom he sought out when he first moved to New York) memorial concert,  an appearance at George Harrison's Bangladesh concert, a supporting role in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (which introduced the song "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"), a swith to Asylum records, "Forever Young" (a song Howard Cosell once used to describe Muhammad Ali after his second bout with Leon Spinks), a return to touring, divorce, a album about broken relationships titled Blood on the Tracks, the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, directing and starring in the film Renaldo and Clara (part Rolling Thunder concert documentary, part fictional story with Dylan and his soon-to-be ex-wife Sara in the title roles), an appearance in the Band breakup film The Last Waltz, born-again Christianity, a solo turn on "We Are the World", a Live-Aid appearance which included a plea from the former Midwesterner to help America's farmers, a couple of Farm-Aid appearances (organized by Willie Nelson but inspired by Dylan's plea), touring with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as his backup band, a couple Traveling Wilburys albums (other members: Petty, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynn), the informally titled Never Ending Tour (which gave rise to the belief that Dylan never uses the same arrangement twice, which he denies), a Lifetime Achievement Grammy along with a sped-up and unintelligible rendition of "Masters of War" (the first one in Iraq had just started),  a life-threatening heart condition that had him hospitalized for a bit ("I really thought I'd be seeing Elvis for awhile"), the highly-acclaimed album Time Out of Mind, another highly-acclaimed album Love and Death, an autobiography (part 1, anyway),  a satellite radio show, yet another highly-acclaimed album Modern Times (the three highly-acclaimed albums forming a trilogy in some critics minds), a Presidential Medal of Freedom (Obama praised his "unique gravelly power"), and several recent interviews in which he denies any responsibility for the 1960s, claiming he's just a '50s boy at heart.

Dylan continues to surprise. This past February he turned up, in of all things, a Super Bowl commercial. Why'd he do that? He can't need the money. The songwriting royalties from the Bryds cover of "Mr. Tambourine Man" alone should provide a comfortable enough annuity. It could be that he honestly believed in the product he was selling, in this case the often-beleaguered American auto industry. In fact, Dylan first complained about the negative affects of global capitalism way back in 1964. The commercial ends with the appeal,  "So let Germany brew your beer, let Switzerland make your watch, let Asia assemble your phone. We will build your car," as Dylan, standing over a pool table with what I guess are auto workers behind him, shoots a ball into a side pocket.  Very patriotic (unless you happen to work for an American brewery or an American watchmaker or an American phone-maker.) There's only one problem. While the ad may seem to be about the American car in general, it really wants you to buy one model in particular, Chrysler, now owned by Fiat, an Italian company.

I wonder what Pete Seeger, who died a few weeks before the Super Bowl, would have made of all this. Perhaps the old socialist would have advised Dylan to shill for GM instead. After all, the government once owned them.



Now let's go back and wrap up the 1960s. Dylan's musical switch, no matter how controversial at first, proved ultimately successful (as well as an alternative to the Beatles), inspiring a host of others to switch their musical styles. Performers who started out as folk but ended up as rock include Simon and Garfunkel, Donovan, The Lovin' Spoonful, Richie Havens, the Mamas and the Papas, Fairport Convention, Dusty Springfield, Janis Joplin, Country Joe McDonald, Neil Young, Paul Butterfield, Melanie, and various members of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, the Doors, and Canned Heat. Now, these acts didn't all sound alike. For instance, the Jefferson Airplane had a very hard (and "psychedelic") rock sound by the end of the decade, whereas John Sebastian, former lead singer of The Lovin' Spoonful, remains rooted in folk to this very day. But then some would argue that the term "rock" (as opposed to "rock and roll")  doesn't apply to a particular genre, but any type of music popular with young people after 1965. What most of these acts did have in common was long hair and weird clothes, putting them, in some eyes, on the wrong side of the Generation Gap. With such mutual enemies as the PTA, the FBI, and military-industrial complex, the folkies and the rockers had no other choice but to put aside their differences, shake hands, and appear on the same bill together.

With the arrival of the 1970s came a new focus on the back-to-folk basics, the Singer-Songwriter Movement. Among the mostly acoustic-minded acts were Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Gram Parsons,  Kris Kristofferson, Jackie DeShannon, James Taylor, Don McLean, Carly Simon, Janis Ian, John Prine, Carole King, Tim Buckley, Leonard Cohen, Jim Croce, Jackson Browne, Randy Newman, Gordon Lightfoot, Harry Chapin, Jimmy Buffett, Dan Fogleberg, and the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash, and, occasionally, Young. Some of these acts were political, but more often than not, they were simply into navel gazing, which suited the Me Decade just fine.

Joni Mitchell, perhaps the most influential of the acts I just mentioned, could do both. With her long, straight hair, thrift shop attire, and faraway look in her eyes, she epitomized the hippie chick whose '60s-style engagement was now giving way to '70s-style introspection. Sometimes in the very same song:

Sitting in a park in Paris, France
Reading the news and it sure looks bad
They won't give peace a chance
That was just a dream some of us had
Still a lot of land to see
But I wouldn't stay here
It's too old and cold and settled in its ways here.
Oh, but California
California, I'm coming home
I'm going to see the folks I dig
I'll even kiss a sunset pig
California, I'm coming home.

I met a redneck on a Grecian isle
Who did the goat dance very well
He gave me back my smile
But he kept my camera to sell
Oh the rogue, the red red rogue
He cooked good omelets and stews
And I might have stayed on with him there
But my heart cried out for you, California
Oh California, I'm coming home
Oh make me feel good rock'n roll band
I'm your biggest fan
California, I'm coming home


Oh it gets so lonely
When you're walking
And the streets are full of strangers
All the news of home you read
Just gives you the blues
Just gives you the blues

So I bought me a ticket
I got on a plane to Spain
Went to a party down a red dirt road
There were lots of pretty people there

Reading Rolling Stone, reading Vogue
They said, "How long can you hang around?"
I said a week, maybe two
Just until my skin turns brown
Then I'm going home to California
California, I'm coming home
Oh will you take me as I am
Strung out on another man
California, I'm coming home

Oh it gets so lonely
When you're walking
And the streets are full of strangers
All the news of home you read
More about the war
And the bloody changes
Oh will you take me as I am?
Will you take me as I am?
Will you?
Will you take me as I am?
Hmmm mmmmm
Take me as I am

Because of her complex lyrics and musical versatility, Mitchell has often been referred to as the "female Bob Dylan", a comparison she took great umbrage at in a recent interview (“He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.") Whether that umbrage is justified or not, their vocal stylings were certainly different. Unlike Dylan, Mitchell's voice is conventionally pretty on such songs as "Chelsea Morning" (for whom Bill and Hillary named you-know-who),  "Both Sides Now", "Big Yellow Taxi", "Free Man in Paris" and "Help Me", though sometimes with odd flourishes, such as Hawaiian-style yodels. However, she could also be quite experimental vocally, no more so than on "California", the lyrics of which are above. Here she sings-the-words-very-quickly-and-at-odds-with-the-rest-of-the-song-which-is-otherwise-leisurly-paced. I'm amazed she didn't accidentally bite the inside of her mouth. It's like scat but intelligible. It comes as no surprise that she turned to jazz later in her career. Finally, Joni Mitchell may be the only folk singer outside the Mississippi Delta to have inspired a Led Zeppelin song, "Going to California" (Robert Plant and Jimmy Page both reportedly both had crushes on her.) Michell certainly seemed at home in California. Actually, the woman grew up in Canada.

After the singer-songwriter era, folk music went through--OOPS! I almost forgot a very important name: John Denver.

You heard me right, John Denver. Some may be loathe to admit this (so I'll just have to do it for them) but Denver was indeed a product of the 1960s folk revival. You could say the former John Deutschendorf was born into it. Though his father was an Air Force officer who moved the family around a lot, his uncle Dave was a member of the 1950s folk group The New Christie Minstrels. Changing his last name to the simpler Denver, the capital of his favorite state, he joined another folk group popular in the late '50s, the Chad Mitchell Trio, except it was now the late '60s and the group no longer popular. Concluding he'd be better off as a solo act, Denver produced his own demo tape of a song he wrote that in the end didn't get much attention for him but did get quite a lot for Peter, Paul and Mary when they decided to cover it. "Leaving on a Jet Plane" soared to number 1 in October 1969, the trio's last big hit. The first big hit for Denver the recording artist came two years later, "Take Me Home, Country Roads". He dominated radio, and with his numerous specials, almost dominated TV by the mid-1970s. The Vietnam War had wound down, and the counterculture no longer seemed so threatening. Indeed, with the headlines full of Watergate, the establishment is what now sent chills. The time was ripe for Denver.  With his blond, Beatlesque locks, embroidered shirts, granny glasses, beaming smile and exuberant ("Far out!") demeanor, here was finally a hippie suburban mom and dads could groove to, his simple back-to-nature/back-to-basics message very appealing in that era of rising crime and rising prices. Other hits include "Rocky Mountain High", "Sunshine on My Shoulders", "Annie's Song", "Fly Away", "I'm Sorry" "Calypso" and the cliche-ridden rockabilly extravaganza "Thank God, I'm a Country Boy." Take note, folk purists, all these songs were performed with acoustic instruments. Show biz pizazz doesn't always require an electric outlet.

The reason I bring up Denver is that, commercially, he really was the folk revival's last hurrah, as the singer-songwriter movement was just about over by 1980. In the decades since, folk music has gone back to being a subculture, the very thing that defined it in the first place. Except now there's two of these subcultures. I'll briefly examine what's happened with both.

I've hesitated to use this word until now, but "folk", when applied to the 19th century, really means amateur. "I've Been Working On the Railroad", "On Top of Old Smokey", "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" and "Git Along, Little Dogies" were composed by amateurs. The negro spirituals, the cowboy ballads, the sea shanties, the drinking songs, the work songs, and the nursery rhymes--all the works of amateurs. That's not to take anything away from them. In fact, it makes these songs all the more remarkable.

So if we apply that definition to modern times, what do we get? That 21st century repository of folklore, the Internet. In spite of serious corporate encroachment in recent years, it's still home to amateur storytellers, amateur artists, and amateur performers, just as the camp fire, the cave wall, and the street corner was in eons past. If one of the prevailing definitions of "folklore" is that an amateur's particular creative endeavor can get passed from one person to another, well the same thing happens online. It's called going viral. Though sometimes it doesn't even have to do that to get attention. In 2007, a Canadian single mom by the name of Pattie Mallette posted a video of her 12-year old son's performance in a school talent contest, in which he placed 2nd. Online this performance got rave reviews from friends and family, not exactly the most objective audience in the world, but that was good enough for Mallette, who began posting even more videos. Apparently, her son soon did gain a substantial following, meaning strangers were now logging on to hear him sing. One such stranger was a talent agent by the name of Scooter Braun. Impressed, Braun got in contact with Mallette, offering to maker her son, whose last name was Bieber like his father, a star.  So, there you have it, as the term was understood late in the 19th century, Justin Bieber is a folk musician, albeit one who has since crossed over to the other side. OK, OK, OK! I admit his output isn't quite as remarkable as, say, the old negro spirituals, but you've got to understand, the kid's had a different set of life experiences. Can I help it Justin Bieber wasn't born a slave?

There we're talking about a performer. As for the 19th century phenomenon of a song becoming famous without anyone having a clue as to the composer, that's now extinct, I'm afraid. If "I've Been Working On the Railroad" came out today, there'd be a caboose full of lawyers securing the authorship rights, whether they had the actual author or not..

Now, what about that other kind of folk music? You know, the kind with copyrights performed by professional musicians but called folk music anyway because it sounds a little like the singer-songwriters of the 1970s, which in turn sounds a little like the folk revival of the 1960s, which in turn sounds a little like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger in the 1930s and '40s, which in turn sounds a little like the traditional music of the 19th century century and earlier, which in turn sounds a little like blues and country, but before blues and country sounded like they do today?

Though there's been no sustained movement, at least not as popular as the one you had in the 1960s, some folk musicians have managed to pierce the wider public consciousness since the 1980s, including Nanci Griffith, Suzanne Vega, John Gorka, Shawn Colvin, Peter Case, Tracy Chapman, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tom Waits, Michelle Shocked, Kathy Mattea, Eddie Vedder, the Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, PJ Harvey, Coner Oberst, Jewel, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Sarah McLachlan, Joan Osbourne, Mumford and Sons, Tegan and Sara, Lucinda Williams, and Lisa Loeb. To give you an idea of just how vaguely defined folk is these days, several of these acts have also been categorized as either country or alternative or both. Depends, I guess, on whether you first heard them in a coffeehouse, honky-tonk, or basement. Also notice that the women outnumber the men. Folk seems to be less of a guy thing these days. It's also gotten less political since the 1960s, though the second Iraq War did breathe some new life into the protest song. Still, if I google "21st century political or protest songs", I'm more likely to get either punk or rap. Very in-your-face, whereas folk, at its most effective, seduced the listener to its point of view.

21st century folk music has so many sub-genres (there's neofolk, folk punk, industrial folk, indie folk, freak folk, folk metal, progressive folk, psychedelic folk, anti folk, and even techno folk) and I have so little time, I can only do spot checks on its current state. However, one type of video does keep popping up. Some young woman with a catatonic expression in a sparsely furnished room with peeling wallpaper, or outside a dilapidated farmhouse with peeling paint, or on a bus or subway with peeling advertisements, sings in a high-pitched but rather unemotional voice about such emotions as loneliness, dejection, hopelessness, repression, depression, resignation, frustration, defeatism, shame, grief, insecurity, alienation, and, last but not least, sadness; with the video occasionally switching over to black-and-white so as to emphasize the gloom and doom. This type of folk seems to be a continuation of the '70s-style introspection I mentioned earlier, or what is sometimes referred to as "confessional" singing, though these ladies' chief confession seems to be that they're not happy campers. Just as I believe art needs both purists and synergists, so too does it need both those who look outside at the wider world, and those who look inward. Except these women are looking so deep within themselves they're finding spots on their X-rays.

I don't wish to come off like Tony Robbins here. I often chafe at the upbeat-attitude-at-all-costs mantra that permeates so much of American culture, but even an old pessimist like me needs an occasional break from existential angst. Besides, though it's always had darkness to spare, folk music use to have a fun side as well. Go watch some of those old Hootenanny clips on YouTube. Those people are enjoying themselves! (That the performers dodged the blacklist, while others didn't, and got on the show in the first place may be one reason for their euphoria.)


In addition to being fun, folk music could also be funny. Carefully, very carefully, read the lyrics to the popular 19th century song "Clemetine":

In a cavern, in a canyon,
Excavating for a mine,
Lived a miner, forty-niner
And his daughter Clementine
Oh my Darling, Oh my Darling,
Oh my Darling Clementine.
You are lost and gone forever,
Dreadful sorry, Clementine.

Light she was and like a fairy,
And her shoes were number nine
Herring boxes without topses
Sandals weren't for Clementine.
Oh my Darling, Oh my Darling,
Oh my Darling Clementine.
You are lost and gone forever,
Dreadful sorry, Clementine.

Drove she ducklings to the water
Every morning just at nine,
Hit her foot against a splinter
Fell into the foaming brine.
Oh my Darling, Oh my Darling,
Oh my Darling Clementine.
You are lost and gone forever,
Dreadful sorry, Clementine.

Ruby lips above the water,
Blowing bubbles soft and fine,
But alas, I was no swimmer,
So I lost my Clementine.
Oh my Darling, Oh my Darling,
Oh my Darling Clementine.

You are lost and gone forever,
Dreadful sorry, Clementine.

How I missed her! How I missed her!
How I missed my Clementine,
Till I kissed her little sister,
And forgot my Clementine.
Oh my Darling, Oh my Darling,
Oh my Darling Clementine.
You are lost and gone forever,
Dreadful sorry, Clementine.

Then the miner, forty-niner,
Soon began to peak and pine,
Thought he oughter join his daughter,
Now he's with his Clementine.
Oh my Darling, Oh my Darling,
Oh my Darling Clementine.
You are lost and gone forever,
Dreadful sorry, Clementine.

Now you see why Huckleberry liked it so much? It may be the world's oldest novelty song. How about more recently? Shel Silverstein was best known as a cartoonist and children's book author, but he put out an album of comical folk songs in the early '60s, including "Beans Taste Fine" about what appeals to the man who has everything. He also wrote "A Boy Named Sue", made famous by country (and some would say folk) singer Johnny Cash. Speaking of country singers, David Allan Coe had a hit with "You Never Even Called My Name" in 1975, but it was written by folk singer Steve Goodman, who was not from the South at all but Chicago, and on his own sang "A Dying Cub's Fan's Last Request"("when baseball season rolls around/When the snow melts away/Do the Cubbies still play/In their ivy covered burial ground?" --change the lyrics slightly and it can be sung about any number of Cleveland sport teams.) Goodman used to be the opening act for another Steve, Martin. The comedian has played banjo with the bluegrass (arguably a form of folk music) band Steep Canyon Rangers. Mason Williams was both a stand-up comedian and folk musician, best known for "Classical Gas". Two members of the sitcom band Monkees, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork, got there start in folk. Loudon Wainright III's one radio hit to date is "Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road" a situation humorous only in retrospect. Bob Dylan can be funny when he wants to be, which is actually quite a bit, except his most ardent fans may be too distracted by the halo to ever get the joke. On "Rainy Day Woman #12 & #35" you can hear his own backup band cracking up ("But I would not feel all alone/Everybody must get stoned"--along with being giddy they probably had the munchies, too.) I suspect many of the modern day gloom-and-doom folk singers I mentioned earlier are taking their cues from Joni Mitchell, but she herself breaks into giggles at the end of "Big Yellow Taxi" ("They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot") Arlo Guthrie (Woody's son) may have had the funniest, as well as the longest, folk song of all time with "Alice's Restaurant", a true account of how a Thanksgiving littering conviction got him out of the draft. Finally, there's the two brothers who cracked jokes in-between songs until they switched the formula around and hit it big. And it was those two brothers, Tom and Dick Smothers, who got Pete Seeger back in front of a television audience in 1967.

A television network audience, that is. Seeger had a year earlier hosted a syndicated folk music show called Rainbow Quest, shown mostly on independent UHF stations, at a time when a lot of people had VHF sets, meaning only NBC, ABC and CBS. It was the latter network that aired The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a major hit which had knocked a dent in the previous Sunday night ratings champ, Bonanza. Appearing on the first show of the second season, Seeger stood along side Tom and Dick and sang "Winowah" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone". Then came a solo turn on "Waste Deep in Big Muddy" a song that takes place during World War II but was really an allegory about Vietnam. It ended up being a solo turn no one got to see. The Smothers Brothers wasn't shown live but shot on videotape, and subject to review by CBS's Standards and Practices--better known as the censor--who cut it from the final broadcast, something that Seeger didn't find out about until the night it aired. Word of the censorship was leaked to the press--probably by the Smothers themselves who were none too happy about the excising either--and several editorials chastised the network for treating its viewers as children. Taken aback by the criticism, CBS allowed Seeger back on the show in February 1968--about when public opinion began turning against the war--and this time viewers at home got to hear the song.

It was back in nineteen forty-two,
I was a member of a good platoon.
We were on maneuvers in-a Loozianna,
One night by the light of the moon.
The captain told us to ford a river,
That's how it all begun.
We were -- knee deep in the Big Muddy,
But the big fool said to push on.
 

The Sergeant said, "Sir, are you sure,
This is the best way back to the base?"
"Sergeant, go on! I forded this river
'Bout a mile above this place.
It'll be a little soggy but just keep slogging.
We'll soon be on dry ground."
We were -- waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool said to push on.


The Sergeant said, "Sir, with all this equipment
No man will be able to swim."
"Sergeant, don't be a Nervous Nellie,"
The Captain said to him.
"All we need is a little determination;
Men, follow me, I'll lead on."
We were -- neck deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool said to push on.


All at once, the moon clouded over,
We heard a gurgling cry.
A few seconds later, the captain's helmet
Was all that floated by.
The Sergeant said, "Turn around men!
I'm in charge from now on."
And we just made it out of the Big Muddy
With the captain dead and gone.


We stripped and dived and found his body
Stuck in the old quicksand.
I guess he didn't know that the water was deeper
Than the place he'd once before been.
Another stream had joined the Big Muddy
'Bout a half mile from where we'd gone.
We were lucky to escape from the Big Muddy
When the big fool said to push on.


Well, I'm not going to point any moral;
I'll leave that for yourself
Maybe you're still walking, you're still talking
You'd like to keep your health.
But every time I read the papers
That old feeling comes on;
We're -- waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.


Waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Waist deep! Neck deep! Soon even a
Tall man'll be over his head, we're
Waist deep in the Big Muddy!
And the big fool says to push on! 


Not a funny song, obviously, but it still took two comedians to get it on the air.


You might call the two Smothers Brothers appearances a comeback for Seeger, except he hadn't really gone anywhere. The amazing thing about the 1960s portion of his career is that with almost no television exposure, and, really, not much radio, either (his biggest hit of the decade, the satirical "Little Boxes", written by Malvina Reynolds, peaked at #70 on the Billboard's Top 100, the only time as a solo performer he made the pop charts) he still sustained a devoted following. You might argue it was merely a cult following, but it was a big enough cult to get him booked at Carnegie Hall in 1963. Just not on Hootenanny. Seeger seems to have got 'em when they were young. He often did children's concerts in the 1950s, '60s and beyond. Joan Baez went to such a concert when still a child herself and, in her words, "It took." Seeger's fans didn't all grow up to be musicians, however. Some made it to the highest rungs of power. The Establishment had once scorned Seeger. Now it was ready to embrace him.


Bill Clinton spent eight years in the White House denying he was now, or had ever been, a liberal. Yet almost halfway through his first term he let his hair down and awarded Seeger, then 79, the National Medal of the Arts, calling him "an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them. Some people make musical history. He made history with his music." Clinton even sounded a bit envious when he said it. The presidential hoopla didn't end there. Fifteen years later Seeger, now a few months shy of 90, sang "This Land is Your Land" alongside Bruce Springsteen at the Lincoln Memorial for Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration. Amazingly, he was allowed to sing all the verses. This was not too long after the economy collapsed and giant banking firms like Goldman Sachs were now finding themselves at the relief office. Forgive them their trespasses. They were too big to fail.

Seeger didn't let his new-found acceptance among the high and mighty go to his head. As he had done all his life, he continued to hold the Establishment's feet to the fire. With his own two feet and a couple of canes, he led an Occupation Wall Street march through Manhattan. He was 92.


This essay shouldn't be read as a history of folk music. I've left way too much out. Rather, it's a meditation on folk, and, in particular, the two men who most epitomized the music during my lifetime. The individualist and the communitarian. The icon and the mainstay. The synergist and the purist. In my own creative endeavors, I lean toward synergy--why limit my options?--but it just so happens that it was the purist who got me meditating about all this stuff in the first place. What was it about folk music that turned Pete Seeger into such an evangelist for it, and what did it all have to do with his politics? I guess in those old songs--the original, uncopyrighted songs--he heard the voices of sharecroppers, backwoods people, migrant workers, those who in their times were all too easily overlooked, and that informed his politics. Or maybe it was the other way around. To his most fervent admirers, there was no separating the musician and the activist. Outside of that fan base, however, you probably thought of him, if you thought of him at all, as just an activist, the Clearwater guy who helped clean up the Hudson River, say, because that's all the mainstream media ever emphasized, which I'm sure he was quite fine with. That Pete Seeger was also a suburb musician, a crackerjack songwriter, and a wonderful entertainer was all too easily overlooked.

Well...all too easily overlooked by me, anyway.


    
















 





 













2 comments:

  1. The question is, who's gonna take up the hammer? I think it's this dude,
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Morello
    AMAZING POST! I have to read it again, good work Kirk!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Morello was a fan of Seeger's and has played with him several times, Patricia.

    ReplyDelete