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Robert Shelton on Folk Music

Notes from The Folk Box


There are many ways to draw a portrait of America -- in paint, word or sound. But no more vibrant, polychrome picture of this complex society could be drawn than through its folk music. Once considered a primitive and inferior genre of antiquarianism that flourished only "in the sticks," folk music in the last ten years has become recognized as an important artistic entity of both city and country.

The four discs in "The Folk Box" are designed as a basic anthology of American folk expression. The cream of the Elektra and Folkways catalogues was used for these selections. The singers are of every stripe: sophisticated urban professionals, unsophisticated rural laborers, talented city amateurs, and country traditionalists turned entertainers. That a kindred sort of music can be made by people of such diverse backgrounds is not only one of the surface anomalies, but one of the deeper wonders of the urban folk revival (or arrival, as some choose to call it.)


Although some authorities, including collector/composer Bela Bartok, have always regarded folk song as a rural, or peasant music, those who argue for its simultaneous growth in towns and cities have equally compelling evidence. In the history of the current revival, what has been happening since the late '50's is just the largest in a series of waves of intellectual interest in folk song.

We are primarily interested at this point in what has happened in the last ten years: a curious, exciting, often ironic and inconsistently laden "Movement." If we look to causes and effects of this revival, it is possible to see it as one of the most wholesome trends to have ever affected American mass culture.

Folk song has never been a total stranger to city ears. There were urban song-makers and people moving from rural areas to keep the body of traditional music alive in the cities. Any child who had heard a lullaby, a skip-rope rhyme, or a traditional song at school was exposed to folk music. Adults would absorb folk song almost as well in the city, sometimes with folk hymns at church, or drinking songs, or at "community sings."

What has happened in the last decade, however, is a totally different development. For the first time of importance, "folk music" became "popular music" in the city as well as in less-populated areas. Since the mid-'50's, folk song has become a major form of American popular music. The reasons are many:

  1. The current folk revival/arrival was a musical reaction to the emptiness, vacuity and monotony of the five years of poor rock 'n' roll that preceded it.
  2. The revival/arrival was a musical extension of the post-WW II "do it yourself" trend. Increasing reliance on machines and services by specialists had cut most Americans off the limb of self-reliance, to which so many had clung since frontier days. The major trend away from being a mere "recipient-spectator" in life had its expression in all sorts of home crafts. The spread of photography as a mass artistic expression is one example. Musically, this trend spurred the folk revival. The simplicity of most folk melodies, and the accessibility of a few simple chords on guitar or banjo have opened the way toward a mass music-making that many never realized they were capable of.
  3. The search for self-expression in music. In the rural folk tradition, a person would frequently sing about what he felt most keenly, or else retell some diverting, arresting or moral tale in ballad form. Folk music held more meaning than the factory-packaged, pat-formula, machine-tooled song composed by some "Tin Pan Alley" songsmith. At the core of most American folk song, aside from the purely instrumental, is a directness of expression, a link-to-life that is rare in our popular music. The "pop" music purveyors are one arm of an escapist-oriented mass entertainment industry, concerned with myth and romanticism rather than reality, and enamored with life's fantasies rather than its hard facts.
  4. Folk music is far from being a totally literal transcription of life. It is irradiated with symbol, metaphor and legend, and its own brand of romanticism. But its fealty to life, and to genuine, not imagined, emotions is obvious. Folk song deals in passion rather than antiseptic hand-holding love. It does not shy from facing suffering, anger, social injustice head-on. Instead of the fanciful escapist fripperies that dominate Tin Pan Alley lyrics, folk song has its roots and its blossoms in the real world.

    This has been a magnet for a generation growing up in the wake of World War II. "The time has come," the youngsters were saying, "for treating us like adults. Perhaps if our parents had faced more facts and did less escaping, there would have been a better world for us to have been born into. We want to have sexual freedom, and freedom to know what the real story is. Don't treat us as children and we won't act like children." This has been the thinking of a bold new generation of war babies now coming into their late teens and early twenties.

  5. Social and political commitment. The search for a personal meaningfulness in music also leads to a demand by the new audience for a relation of their art to their social environment. The fear, conformity and silence of the early Fifties, when McCarthyism inhibited social comment and political involvement, has ceased, at least for now. But the late '50's and early '60's saw a group of youngsters who were not going to be silenced by anything or anyone. They spoke out boldly about the world's inequities and injustices. Folk music, in the form of topical songs and contemporary broadsides, was a logical outgrowth. The Americans involved in the folk revival are the sort of young activists who are joining the Peace Corps, are volunteering for hazardous service with the southern integration movement, and otherwise trying to do something about their world. This generation is singing the songs of the poor and the downtrodden. They are going beyond the music, to be interested in the lives of the two great unresolved groups in American life: those suffering from poverty and those suffering from discrimination.
  6. It would be unrealistic to regard the folk revival as something that happened totally outside the mainstream of American business. Somewhere in the 1957-58 period, when The Kingston Trio was scoring a tremendous popular success, the organized elements of the American music industry realized that "There was gold in them thar hillbillies."

Then ensued the giddiest part of the revival. A tasteless, superficial TV show called "Hootenanny" started in the Spring of 1963. Quickly it spurred a six-month commercial debauch of folk song. Dozens of touring troupes bearing the "Hootenanny" banner spread around the land, going to auditoriums and colleges and places where only big dance bands and rock 'n' roll performers had been before. The recording market was glutted with folk music that was distorted, hoked up, disguised and destroyed. For a good six months of 1963, there was such folk music in the air of America as to nearly invalidate the whole movement.

But popularization did not do lasting harm. The vapidity of much of the "pop/folk" music soon wore thin on the audience's ears. A movement toward the better, more serious and esthetically valid music was underway. Not everything that had been done to exploit the popularity of folk music by the business interests had been to its detriment. In several instances, the popular folk arrangements of such groups as Peter, Paul and Mary and the Chad Mitchell Trio had made inroads on educating and elevating taste.

Even that Goliath of Detroit, the Ford Motor Company, realized the appeal of folk music and the importance of the vast youth market by initiating a series of traveling concerts called "The Ford CARavan of Music -- Folk and Jazz Wing Ding." In spite of, not because of, the organized music industry, folk music grew in popularity and broadened the audience for serious folk song, of the sort contained in "The Folk Box."


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