Folk ‘n’ Roll Music

Among the CDs in my archives is an eight-disc Time/Life compilation called The Folk Years, released in 2002. (I picked it up at an estate sale a few years ago, where the company running the sale was letting CDs go for 50 cents apiece, meaning that I got The Folk Years, list price something like $79.95, for $2.00, which struck me as almost criminal.)

The Folk Years stretches the definition of the genre until it’s near to snapping. One does not generally think of Otis Redding, Van Morrison, Sonny and Cher, or Nilsson as folk acts, but there they are, and so are Glen Campbell, Chad and Jeremy, and Dion. All of them may have once walked down a street with an acoustic guitar on their backs, but they’re not folksingers the way Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, and Pete Seeger are. Some of this is because Time/Life repeatedly anthologizes whatever they can get the rights to, which explains why the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Mamas and the Papas are on every Time/Life set having anything to do with the 60s–-Classic Rock, AM Gold, The Folk Years, etc. Some of it is probably to make the set as commercially attractive as possible—Paxton, Tim Hardin, and the New Christy Minstrels won’t move late-night TV viewers to dial that 800 number as effectively as Peter Paul and Mary and the Spoonful might.

So The Folk Years is not anything like a comprehensive history of the genre in its heyday. But when you weed out the questionable inclusions, a couple of impressions remain about what’s left.

American popular music repeatedly assimilated African-American forms into the mainstream, from slave-era songs adapted by blackface minstrels in the late 19th century to the development of jazz in the early 20th to the hybridization of blues and country that gave birth first to R&B and later to rock ‘n’ roll in the mid 20th. It occurs to me that folk gives us a glimpse of what American pop might have sounded like without those influences. Baez and Paxton had beautiful voices and the acoustic guitars that accompanied them glittered like diamonds, but there’s no Elvis anywhere in those records. (Elvis was a white guy, but you know what I mean.) Even though folksingers often adopted and adapted Negro spirituals and traditional songs, they sometimes bleached the soul out of them entirely. Example from The Folk Years: “There’s a Meeting Here Tonight” by the Limeliters, which wants to be a spiritual, but ends up so stiff you start to fear the singers will break a hip.

Although folk prized its rural roots in addition to its ethnic ones, you do not imagine the artists on The Folk Years singing on front porches; instead, you picture them in ramshackle coffeehouses found on gritty urban streets. The popularity of folk on college campuses in the early 1960s confirms this image. The songs may have celebrated roamers and ramblers, but most fans were neither. I suspect that for some—fans and singers both—folk was fashion, representing how they wanted to be as distinct from who they actually were. In their defense, however, although that sort of thing happened with other genres and fans, and it still does. We’re all that way, at least a little.

Trying to be something you’re not might account for how painfully jive some of this stuff sounds. I’m thinking of the Limeliters again, trying to sound black and being unable to. One of the biggest hit singles of the folk boom, the New Christy Minstrels’ “Green Green,” is marred by Barry McGuire’s faux-gospel exhortations. Folk’s preoccupation with relevance can become wearying after a while (which is why the 1980s-vintage Saturday Night Live game show, “Make Joan Baez Smile” was so funny), but some attempts at levity were disastrous. The Serendipity Singers’ “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down” and “Beans in My Ears” sound like nothing so much as clueless adults trying to do something the kids will like, and “The Marvelous Toy” by the Chad Mitchell Trio, which I will bet you find less charming now than you remember it.

All that said, however, folk musicians were capable of astoundingly beautiful music: “Today” by the New Christy Minstrels leaves me beautifully wrecked every time I hear it; “There But for Fortune” might be the greatest thing Joan Baez ever did; the version of “500 Miles” by the Journeymen, featuring future California folk-rock stars John Phillips and Scott McKenzie, just might be the definitive one.

As always, I crave your two cents’ worth, because this is just my opinion and I could be completely wrong.

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6 responses

  1. I have “The Folk Years” set too (and I even paid less for it than you did, since I got it for free), and I like it quite a bit. There’s a lot of garbage on there, but since the years haven’t been kind to the folk revival, there’s a lot of good stuff on there as well that you never hear played on the radio anymore, not even on oldies stations – like the doomy “Greenfields” by the Brothers Four, or the whimsical “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog” by Norma Tanega. Hearing the Smothers Brothers in their original setting is fun, too. And I will go to my grave swearing that We Five’s “You Were on My Mind” is one of the greatest singles of the Sixties.

    But yeah, the Serendipity Singers are terrible. And it’s funny that they hired Robert Christgau to write the liner notes for the box set, and then he writes mostly about how he hates this folkie crap.

  2. Oh, I disagree about “The Marvelous Toy.” The tale of how a father and his son bond through a mysterious toy that keeps getting handed down through the generations still makes me smile. Interestingly, though, I think of this as a Christmas song. There’s nothing in the lyrics that ties it to the holiday, of course, but it often gets played on radio at that time of the year in the holiday mix, and the image has stuck with me. I see it charted at year’s end, too, so maybe it was intended to be thought of that way.

    “Green Green” I can remember enjoying when I was only 5, when it was new, and I like McGuire’s throaty vocal on the verses. But I agree with you about “Today” and “There But For Fortune” — they are breathtakingly poignant to this day.

  3. Poor We Five. There was no way in hell they could have followed the awesomeness of that song. No way.

    It was up to the great Shel Silverstein to send up the folk movement and did he ever on his LP “Inside Folk Songs.” He laments on “Folk Singer’s Blues” “what do you do if your young and white and Jewish” and you sing about a chain gang but the only chain is the one on your bike?

    Our local “Music of Your Life” station plays the great “Greenfields. ” I agree, its shifting major to minor chords really creates a mood of doom. Which is almost a palindrome.

  4. Always much debate about what is and isn’t folk music. Kingston Trio? Glen Yarbrough? Yarbrough was with The Limeliters until ’63, when he went on his own. All three of these are folk music to me. Yarbrough’s drummer in the later years of his popularity was Don Dexter (Jr.) from Appleton, and Don used to joke “it’s folk music, because I use my brushes and not my sticks most of the time.”

  5. The greatest thing Joan Baez ever did was “Diamonds and Rust,” in my opinion – I prefer the original version of “There But For Fortune” by Phil Ochs, who wrote it.

  6. Time to pay up. “The Marvelous Toy” still holds every ounce of its magic for me, and the Mitchells didn’t take a detour through the cutesy department like Peter, Paul & Mary did on their take. “Toy” proves to be merely the warm-up for “Maladiozhenaya,” the vocal workout which follows on the CMT’s ‘Singin’ Our Minds’ LP and showcases Chad Mitchell’s golden tenor voice at its peak.

    “‘Green, Green’ is marred by Barry McGuire’s faux-gospel exhortations.” Are you off your meds?? McGuire’s grittiness is what *made* the record, providing a welcome ingredient in the Christies’ otherwise white-bread folk recipe (which I dug, nevertheless.) After McGuire and director Randy Sparks departed, the franchise devolved into Wonder Bread lite.

    I asked Santa for my first record album in 1963, but instead of finding the expected ‘Ramblin’ (with “Green, Green”) under the tree, it was the Christies’ ‘Tell TALL TALES… Legends And Nonsense’ that lurked beneath the wrapping paper. Not a hit on it, but it proved to be a much more fun listen over the years. Thanks, Mr. Claus.

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