3/14/13 - folk music tops the american charts

In today's encore selection -- in the 1950s, amid the saccharine hits of The Chipmunks and Doris Day -- and against the background of the payola scandal -- American folk music found its way to the top of the charts. Groups such as The Weavers and The Kingston Trio had hits, and college students flocked to the grittier offerings of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Odetta, and even songs from isolated towns in the Appalachian mountains passed down from ancestors in the British Isles. One of these was a University of Minnesota student later known as Bob Dylan:

"American folk music had been recorded as early as the 1880s, and was popular in rural areas until the Depression, which killed the industry by rendering country people too poor to buy records. Folk music started to recover in the 1940s, and in 1950 The Weavers, a radical singing group featuring Pete Seeger, enjoyed an unexpected folk hit when they recorded a version of Leadbelly's 'Goodnight Irene.' It was the most popular song that year. By the end of the 1950s, partly as an antidote to the anodyne pop music of the time, exemplified by artists like Doris Day, folk music had begun its great popular revival. The payola scandal of 1960, revealing that music labels commonly paid bribes to get pop records played on the radio, was a further unexpected boost for folk music. In contrast to the pop charts, folk music seemed refreshingly untainted.

"A sign that there was a major change in the public's musical tastes came in the fall of 1958 when The Kingston Trio, a clean-cut vocal group of three young men, had a number-one hit with the folk standard 'Tom Dooley.' The record shared radio time with bubblegum tunes like 'The Chipmunk Song,' by The Chipmunks, and 'To Know Him Is to Love Him,' by The Teddy Bears. Although The Kingston Trio performed folk songs, their style was too prissy for the tastes of the college students who hung out at the [college coffee shops]. Students' musical heroes were grittier folk and blues artists like Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie. Another favorite was Odetta, a classically trained African-American vocalist with a formidable stage presence, who sang traditional songs like 'Jack O'Diamonds' and 'Mule Skinner Blues' in an almost operatic contralto. Odetta was one of Bob's [Dylan] important early influences. 'The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta,' he has said. 'I heard a record of hers in a record store. . . . Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar.'

"Those that followed or considered themselves part of the folk revival placed great importance on an elusive quality in music that might be described as authenticity. To be respected in the folk community, musicians had to perform traditional songs in a manner true to the original, while also making the songs distinctively their own. The starting point was to find and learn from the earliest and purest forms of the songs. This involved a degree of musical archae­ology. Folk societies, including the Minneapolis Folklore Society, sent away to the Library of Congress for field recordings of hillbilly musicians, convicts, farm workers, and cowboys. Many of the record­ings had been made by John Lomax and his son, Alan, the musicologists who had discovered Leadbelly in a Louisiana jail in the early 1930s.

"Some of the older songs sung by convicts, cowboys, and rural workers were known to academics as Child ballads, songs catalogued by Harvard professor Francis Child that originated in the British Isles and were still sung by descendants of immigrants, partic­ularly in the isolated communities of the Appalachian mountains. These songs had endured through centuries, and across cultural and geographical divides, because they dealt with primal experiences -- faith, love, and acts of violence -- and because they were written in words both poetic and true. These were the timeworn songs Bob heard when he began frequenting [a coffee shop near the University of Minnesota] and saw student musicians get up on stage to sing and play acoustic guitar."


Howard Sounes


Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan


Grove Press


Copyright 2001, 2011 by Howard Sounes


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