Sunday, 25 October 2009

Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival & American Society, 1940-1970

By Ronald D. Cohen

For a brief period from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, folk music captured a mass audience in the United States as college students and others swarmed to concerts by the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. In this comprehensive study, Ronald D. Cohen reconstructs the history of this singular cultural moment, tracing its origins to the early decades of the twentieth century.

Drawing on scores of interviews and numerous manuscript collections, as well as his own extensive files, Cohen shows how a broad range of traditions - from hillbilly, gospel, blues, and sea shanties to cowboy, ethnic, and political protest music - all contributed to the genre known as folk. He documents the crucial work of John Lomax and other collectors who, with the assistance of recording companies, preserved and distributed folk music in 1920s. During the 1930s and 1940s, the emergence of Left-wing politics and the rise of the commercial music marketplace helped to stimulate wider interest in folk music. Stars emerged, such as Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, and Josh White. With the success of the Weavers and the Kingston Trio in the 1950s, the stage was set for the full-blown "folk revival" of the early 1960s.

Centered in New York's Greenwich Village and sustained by a flourishing record industry, the revival spread to college campuses and communities across the country. It included a wide array of performers and a supporting cast of journalists, club owners, record company executives, political activists, managers, and organizers. By 1965 the boom had passed its peak, as rock and roll came to dominate the marketplace, but the folk revival left an enduring musical legacy in American culture.


Broadside attracted many new singer-songwriters. Via Ohio State University. Phil Ochs arrived in the Village in mid-1962 and participated in his first Folk City hootenanny in July, doing more country than folk, but he soon moved into protest music. Gil Turner brought him around to the Broadside meetings and he became a regular. When the editors called for a song about James Meredith's troubles at the University of Mississippi, Ochs responded in November with "Ballad of Oxford, Mississippi." Ochs, Dylan, and their colleagues developed an intense and sometimes competitive fellowship. Josh Dunson described one stimulating taping session at the Friesens' in Broadside no. 20, with Turner, Dylan, Seeger, Ochs and Happy Traum. Dylan sang "Masters of War" followed by "Playboys and Playgirls Ain't Gonna Run My World," then Ochs did one about striking miners in Hazard, Kentucky. "We were all out of breath without breathing hard," Dunson concluded, "that feeling you get when a lot of good things happen all at once. Pete expressed it, leaning back in his chair, saying slowly in dreamy tones: 'You know, in the past five months I haven't heard as many good songs and as much good music as I heard here tonight.'"

Moe Asch, who early on gave Broadside financial support, suggested issuing an album of songs by the regulars under a new Broadside Records label. Ochs, Turner, Matt McGinn, Seeger, Peter LaFarge, Mark Spoelstra, Happy Traum, and Dylan (aka "Blind Boy Grunt" because of his Columbia Records contract) gathered at the Cue Recording studio to cut the sides for Broadside Ballads, which appeared in late 1963. Five of the fifteen songs were Dylan compositions, starting with the New World Singers' performance of "Blowin' in the Wind."

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