American folk music revival was a phenomenon in
States in the 1950s to mid-1960s.
Its roots went earlier, of course, since
traditional folk music
has thousands of
years of history, and performers like Burl
, Woody Guthrie
, and Cisco Houston
had enjoyed a limited general
popularity in decades prior to the 1950s. The revival brought
forward musical styles that had, in earlier times, contributed to
the development of country &
, and rock and roll
Pete Seeger entertaining Eleanor
Roosevelt, honored guest at a racially integrated Valentine's Day
party marking the opening a Canteen of the United Federal Labor,
CIO, in then-segregated Washington, D.C.
Photographed by Joseph Horne for the Office of War
The folk music revival is sometimes said to have begun with
, formed in 1947
by Seeger, had a
big hit in 1949 with Lead Belly
". This hit was
probably one of the first glimmerings of the folk music
carried along by a handful of artists releasing records, the
folk-music scene's development was still only a phenomenon in
bohemian circles in places like New York City (especially Greenwich Village), North Beach, and in
the college and university districts of cities like Boston, Denver, Chicago and
It was hip
, but not
In the 1950s and after, acoustic folk-song performance became
associated with the coffee houses
private parties, open-air concerts and sing-alongs, and
college-campus concerts. It 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.
The Kingston Trio, while playing at a
college club called the Cracked Pot, were discovered 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 song, "Tom
", which went gold
. The following year, the group won the
first Grammy Award
for Best Ethnic or
Traditional Folk Recording category for the album The Kingston Trio at Large
At one point late in 1959 , The Kingston Trio had four records at
the same time among the Top 10 selling albums according to
"Top Ten Albums" chart for the week of December 7, 1959, a record
unmatched for nearly 40 years and noted at the time by a cover
story in Life Magazine
The Kingston Trio's popularity would be followed by Joan Baez
, whose debut album Joan Baez
, reached the top ten in
late 1960, and remained on the Billboard charts for over two years.
Her popularity (and that of the folk revival itself) would place
Baez on the cover of Time Magazine
in November 1962.
However Baez, unlike the Kingston Trio, was extremely vocal about
her often left-leaning political stances; though her first few
albums were comprised largely of traditional Child balads, she
began integrating her politics with her music, beginning in the
mid-1960s, following the tradition of Seeger, Guthrie and
The contemporary-songwriter and folk-music scene during these times
often had a facet of social
singer-songwriter Bob Dylan
, had been signed and recorded for
by producer John Hammond
. Dylan's record enjoyed some popularity
in the Greenwich Village folk-music cult, but he was "discovered"
by an immensely larger audience when a pop-folk
-music group, Peter, Paul & Mary
had a hit with
his song "Blowing in the Wind
Their songs often shared in the humanitarianism
and social idealism of the
Weavers, and a few of the earlier folk-scene notables, and this and
other songs by Dylan fitted the bill.
Dylan’s general popularity was soon so great that record companies
began to sign, and distribute records for, many new, young,
sometimes-scruffy singer/songwriters – Phil
, Tom Paxton
, Eric von Schmidt
, Buffy Sainte-Marie
, Dave Van Ronk
, Tom Rush
, Fred Neil
, Billy Ed Wheeler
, Arlo Guthrie
, and others, among them. Some of this wave had emerged
from family singing and playing traditions, and some had not.
Archivists, collectors, and re-issued recordings
these same years, the devoted and growing folk-music crowd that had
developed in the United States began to want and to buy records by
obscure older folk musicians, from the Southeastern
hill country and from urban inner-cities.
LP records made
up of re-issue collections of ethnic and regional 78-rpm records
(studio recordings) stretching back to the 1920s
were put on sale.
Also becoming available were LP-record collections made from
original folk-music field recordings originally made by
ethnomusicologists. Many smaller 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 white Americans first heard country blues and especially Delta blues, that had been recorded by Mississippi folk artists 30 or 40 years before.
Artists like the Carter Family
, Blind Lemon Jefferson
, Clarence Ashley
, Buell Kazee
, Mississippi John
, and the Stanley
, 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
Living representatives of some of the varied regional and ethnic
traditions, including younger performers like Southern-tradition
singer Jean Ritchie
, enjoyed popularity
through enthusiasts' widening discovery of this music.
Rock subsumes folk
After the darling of the young enthusiasts, Bob Dylan, began to
record with a rocking rhythm section and electric instruments in
(see Electric Dylan controversy
many other still-young folk artists followed suit. Meanwhile, bands
like The Lovin' Spoonful
, 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
", copyrighted by folk artist
, and recorded by rock
singer/guitarist Jimi Hendrix
he was about to burst into stardom in 1967. The anthem "Woodstock
" was written and first sung and
accompanied on keyboard by Joni
while her records were still nearly entirely acoustic,
and while she was labeled a "folk singer" receiving big airplay
when Crosby, Stills,
Nash & Young
recorded a groovy folk-rock version.
By the late 1960s, the scene had returned to being more of a
lower-key, aficionado phenomenon, although sizable annual
acoustic-music festivals were established in many parts of North
America during this period. The acoustic music coffee-house scene
survived at a reduced scale. Through the luminary young
singer-songwriters of the 1960s, the American folk-music revival
has influenced songwriting and musical styles throughout the
- Burl Ives - as a
youth, Ives dropped out of college to travel around as an itinerant
singer during the early 1930s, earning his way
by doing odd jobs and playing his banjo. In
1930 he had a brief, local radio career on WBOW
radio in Terre Haute, Indiana, and in the 1940s he had his own radio show, titled The
Wayfaring Stranger, titled after one of the popular ballads he sang. The show was very popular, and in
1946 Ives was cast as a singing cowboy
in the film Smoky. Ives went on to play parts in other
popular films, as well. His first book, The Wayfaring
Stranger, was published in 1948.
- Pete Seeger had
met, and been influenced, by many important folk musicians (and
singer-songwriters with folk roots), such as Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. Seeger had labor movement involvements, and he met Woody
at a "Grapes of Wrath" migrant workers’ concert on March 3, 1940,
and the two thereafter began a musical collaboration (which
included the Almanac Singers). In
1948 Seeger wrote the first version of his now-classic How to Play the Five-String
Banjo, an instructional book that many banjo players
credit with starting them off on the instrument.
- The Weavers were
formed in 1947 by Seeger, Ronnie
Gilbert, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman. A fifth member, Erik Darling, sometimes sat in with the group
when Seeger was unavailable. After a period of finding themselves
unable to find much, if any paid work, they finally achieved a
performance slot at the Village Vanguard in New York. They were
then discovered by arranger Gordon Jenkins, and were signed with
White was an authentic singer of rural blues and folk
music, a man who had been born into abject conditions in South Carolina during the Jim Crow
years. As a young black singer, he was initially dubbed “the
Singing Christian” (he sang some Gospel songs, and was the son of a
preacher), but also recorded blues songs under the name Pinewood
Tom. Later discovered by John H.
Hammond and groomed for both stage
performance and a major-label recording career, his repertoire
expanded to include urban blues, jazz, and gleanings from a broad
folk repertoire, in addition to rural blues and gospel. Josh White
gained a very wide following in the 1940s and had a huge influence
on later blues artists and groups, as well as the general
folk-music scene. His pro-justice and civil-rights stance provoked
harsh treatment during the suspicious HUAC era,
seriously harming his performing career in the ‘50s, and keeping
him off TV until 1963. In folk-music circles, however, he retained
respect and was admired both as a musical hero and a link with the
Southern rural-blues and gospel traditions.
Belafonte, another influential singer, started his
career as a club singer in New York to pay for his acting classes.
At first he was a pop singer, but later he developed a keen
interest in folk music. In 1952 he signed a contract with RCA
Victor. His breakthrough album Calypso (1956) was the
first LP to sell over a million copies. The album spent 31 weeks at
number one, 58 weeks in the top ten, and 99 weeks on the US charts.
It introduced American audiences to Calypso music and Belafonte was
dubbed the "King of Calypso." Belafonte went on to record in many
genres, including blues, American folk, gospel, etc.
- Odetta - As an example
of the more obscure among the early notables, starting in 1953
singers Odetta and Larry Mohr
recorded some songs, with the LP being released in 1954 as
Odetta and Larry, an album
that was partially recorded live at San Francisco's Tin Angel bar.
For Odetta, it began a period of great respect and a sort of
underground reputation associated with a repertoire of traditional
songs (e.g., spirituals) and blues covers.
- Joan Baez’s career
got started in 1958 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where at 17 she
gave her first coffee-house concert. She was invited to perform at
the 1959 Newport Folk Festival, after which Baez was sometimes
called “the barefoot Madonna," gaining renown for her
clear voice and three-octave range. She recorded her first album
for a major label the following year – a collection of laments and
traditional folk ballads from the British Isles, accompanying the
songs with guitar. Her second LP release went gold, as did her next
(live) albums. One record featured her rendition of a song by the
then-unknown Bob Dylan. In the early 1960s, Baez moved into the
forefront of the American folk-music revival. Increasingly, her
personal convictions – peace, social justice, anti-poverty – were
reflected in the topical songs that made up a growing portion of
her repertoire, to the point that Baez became a symbol for these
- Bob Dylan often
performed, and sometimes toured, with Joan Baez, starting when she
was a singer of mostly traditional songs. As Baez adopted some of
Dylan's songs into her repertoire and even introduced Dylan to her
avid audiences, a large following on the folk circuit, it helped
the young songwriter to gain initial recognition. By the time Dylan
recorded his first LP (1962) he had developed a style reminiscent
of Woody Guthrie. He began to write songs that captured the
"progressive" mood on the college campuses and in the coffee
houses. Though by 1964 there were many new guitar-playing
singer/songwriters, it is arguable that Dylan eventually became the
most popular of these younger folk-music-revival performers.
Although singers such as the Weavers and Joan Baez occasionally
in their repertoires, the folk-music revival in North America (as
it existed in the coffee houses, concert halls, and radio and TV)
was overwhelmingly an English-language
phenomenon. In that sense,
it bypassed a lot of ethnic folk traditions to be found in North
America (e.g., Italian
) – except in a small proportion of
instances where songs’ lyrics had been translated into
- From the Washington Post, Feb 12 1944: "The Labor
Canteen, sponsored by the United Federal Workers of America, CIO,
will be opened at 8 p.m. tomorrow at 1212 18th st. nw. Mrs.
Roosevelt is expected to attend at 8:30 p.m."
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Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-674-95132-8
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& American Society, 1940-1970. Amherst: University of
Massachusetts Press, 2002). ISBN 1-55849-348-4
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Firsthand Accounts of the Folk Music Revival. American
Folk Music Series no. 4. Lanham, Maryland and Folkstone, UK:
The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1995.
- Cohen, Ronald D., and Dave Samuelson. Songs for Political
Action. Booklet to Bear Family Records BCD 15720 JL,
- Cray, Ed, and Studs Terkel. Ramblin Man: The Life and Times
of Woody Guthrie. W.W. Norton & Co., 2006.
- Cunningham, Agnes "Sis", and Gordon Friesen. Red Dust and
Broadsides: A Joint Autobiography. Amherst: University of
Massachusetts Press, 1999) ISBN 1-55849-210-0
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American Left. Urbana: University of Illinois Press,
- Denisoff, R. Serge. Sing Me a Song of Social
Significance. Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972.
- Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of
American Culture in the Twentieth Century. London: Verso,
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Pete Seeger. [1981, 1990] Villard, 2008. ISBN
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folk Music Revival in the United States". Theory and
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Movements. Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth
Century. Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN
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American Roots Music. Chapel Hill: The University of North
Carolina Press, 2000. ISBN 0-8078-4862-X
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Folkways Records. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution
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Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña. New
York: North Point Press, 2001. ISBN 0-86547-642-X
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University of Illinois Press, 2008
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American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930-50.
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- Lomax, Alan, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, eds. Hard Hit
Songs for Hard Hit People. New York: Oak Publications, 1967.
Reprint, Lincoln University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
- Lynch, Timothy. Strike Song of the Depression (American
Made Music Series). Jackson: University Press of Mississippi,
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Reuss. American Folk Music and Left Wing Politics.
1927-1957. American Folk Music Series no. 4.
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Records and the Folk Alliance. Urbana: University of Illinois
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Stories. Bethlehem, Pa.: Sing Out Publications, 1993.
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Hays. New York: Norton, 1988.
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History of the Folk Music Revival in America. New York:
Continuum, 2005. ISBN 0-8264-1698-5
- Wolfe, Charles, and Kip Lornell. The Life and Legend of
Leadbelly. New York: Da Capo  1999.
Recorders Collective - a collection of CDs of American
traditional styles; Appalachian, fiddling, banjo, Cajun, Gospel
from private collections now made available to the public