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.