Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival

Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival

Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival. By Stephen
Petrus and Ronald D. Cohen. 2015. New York: Oxford University Press.
320 pages. ISBN: 9780190231026 (hard cover). 

Reviewed by Robert Cochran, University of Arkansas

[Word count: 1074 words]

Folk City stumbles out of the gate, leading off with a smarmy
"Foreword" presenting the moment in the late 1950s and early 1960s
when traditional music recorded by nontraditional performers for
nontraditional audiences enjoyed great commercial success as "a
departure from the superficiality of the times" (9) and "the
soundtrack of the awakening conscience of our nation" (10). The
author of this self-congratulatory drivel is Peter Yarrow, remembered
by a dwindling few as one third of Peter, Paul and, Mary, a briefly
popular trio from that era assembled by hardball promoter Albert
Goldman in conscious imitation of the Kingston Trio, who had cashed
big checks on their bouncy rendition of "Tom Dooley" in 1958.

A dismal start for sure, with intermittent injections of schlock and
high-octane boosterism to follow, but counterbalancing virtues soon
surge to the fore. Most obvious are the photographs. Folk City is a
richly illustrated volume, a monograph/coffee-table hybrid featuring
scores of full-page images and two-page spreads supported by maybe
one hundred smaller shots of concert posters, record album covers,
music periodicals, news events, night club exteriors, and the like. A
less evident but no less valuable resource is the extensive (though
hard to search) bibliography -- authors Stephen Petrus and Ronald D.
Cohen are diligent researchers, and their endnotes reveal a thorough
command of both popular and scholarly sources.

Their work is also notable for its comprehensive coverage. Several
prominent episodes and significant figures shortchanged or omitted
altogether in earlier studies are accorded fuller treatment here:
Eric Andersen, Broadside, Guy Carawan, Len Chandler, the 1960-1965
sequence of Folkways albums centered on the Civil Rights Movement,
Howard Moody, the two-stage battle over singing in Washington Square
Park. On the other side, Pete Seeger is perhaps too prominently
featured -- he's pictured thirteen times in the first third of the
book (and on the back cover). A substantial portion of this attention
is no doubt deserved -- Seeger stood up bravely to HUAC lintheads and
spineless music industry suits through various blacklistings and a
seven-year legal battle. A little Pete, however, always went a long
way -- "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" might break out at any moment.
If Dick Clark and Snoop Dogg duked it out for a decade or two for the
title of World's Oldest Teenager, Pete Seeger went unchallenged for
half a century as the nation's premier hootenanny leader. Folklorists
may be pleased to see mention of the roles played by several of their
own (Roger Abrahams, Paul Clayton, Kenneth Goldstein, Alan Lomax,
Ralph Rinzler, Steve Zeitlin).

These substantial virtues redeem the book as a whole from Yarrow's
intro, the regularly inserted "Recollections" overwhelmingly devoted
to self-serving plugs, and from the heavy-handed promos for New York
City that show up at regular intervals. "The international cultural
capital of the world" (71), insists one redundant sample, with Paris
dismissed by name from contention in the next sentence. "The
worldwide capital of commerce, finance, media, art, culture, fashion,
and entertainment" (255), shouts a later iteration, making the reader
wonder again why our largest metropolis, its cultural and commercial
eminence assured, must also lead the nation in booster
self-glorification. No contemporary Babbitt, crying up the virtues of
his hinterland Zenith, could be louder. (Things clear up a bit when
it's remembered that Folk City originated as the catalog for an
exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York.)

Then there's Dylan, the only A-team player on the block. In from
Hibbing via Minneapolis in 1961 as a Guthrie wannabe with a
long-as-your-arm bunco backstory, he cut through the Village folkies
like a knife through butter, shoving his way first to the mike,
second to the studio, and finally to stardom past a long line of
disposable helpers. The international cultural capital of the world
thus fleeced like a hayseed yokel at a carnival booth, the renamed
Mr. Zimmerman split south and west for brief outings as a plugged-in
rocker in Newport, a rooted country man in Nashville, a frontier
drifter named Alias in his Hollywood debut. The last role fit
perfectly; he'd been Alias all the while.

He wasn't alone in any of this, of course. They all did it.
"Rambling" Jack Elliott, a Brooklyn native, settled on his moniker
after first trying out "Buck," and Woody Guthrie himself needed
reminding by Okie commie Gordon Friesen that his guitar killed no
fascists, that he was an entertainer, not a grape picker.

Dylan's shtick played better because he dropped off memorable songs
at every stop. New York when he arrived being "folk city," he sang
folk songs and wrote protest songs, but was careful as he left to
dismiss the whole topical song scene as "bullshit" (289). Hard truth
brutally told, followed by a slamming door. But for the folkies and
civil rights activists he left "Blowing in the Wind" behind, and
tossed off "Masters of War" for the anti-war protesters. Talent
traveled well, too. The Nashville stand resulted in "All Along the
Watchtower" (from 1967's John Wesley Harding) and "Girl from the
North Country" (from Nashville Skyline, in 1969). Even the unlikely
stint as a born-again Christian produced "I Believe in You" (from
1979's Slow Train Coming) and "Every Grain of Sand" (from Shot of
Love, in 1981).

Folk City, I hope this quick overview suggests, is a striking mix, at
once the mostly predictable product of its immediate purpose as an
exhibit catalog for a city-level museum and an impressive job of
research readably and sometimes eloquently presented. The
presentation of the Guy Carawan-produced Folkways albums, The
Nashville Sit-In Story from 1960 and The Story of Greenwood,
Mississippi from 1965, is especially compelling -- the
cringe-inducing clumsiness of the former, with its "mannered and
affected" (213) recreated scenes, only serves to highlight the
still-powerful impact of the latter. Carawan proved a very quick
study. Go back and listen -- the album is still available. The
resonant mix of singing and preaching, prayer and song, framed by
Robert Moses' deft narration, the soft, precise, youthful voices of
SNCC workers combined with the roughened, prayerful voices of their
local elders, female and male -- the whole is a treasure, a precious
record of a terrible and wonderful time. Here, far from Greenwich
Village, is the true "soundtrack of the awakening conscience of our
nation." But, yes, the wisecracking voice of Dick Gregory, in from
New York in a supporting role, serves to connect "folk city" to the
Mississippi story. Petrus and Cohen have done a worthy job of
bringing it vividly before us.


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