COMMERCIAL FOLK MUSIC

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Folk music in recorded form almost could be said to represent a contradiction in terms. True folk culture, including folk art forms, arose out of the shared activities and traditions of essentially rural communities. Cultural anthropologists came to define folk music as music created by the people (not by one composer) as a communal experience. From this perspective, real folk music belonged to the public domain, its origins forever lost in the hazy, undocumented past. Furthermore, it could not be disseminated by means of the mass media--published notation books, phonograph recordings, films, etc.--in an urbanized, industrial society. Urban musicians attempting to perform this orally transmitted genre came to be termed "folk interpreters." To everyday Americans, however, anyone playing traditional folk material or topical songs composed in a similar style constituted a folk music artist.

Whatever category to which they belonged, folk-based practitioners have achieved commercial success in various guises throughout American history. The rise of the minstrel tradition in the 1830s enabled audiences in the nation's northern urban centers to hear the indigenous music of southern blacks. The suffering caused by the Great Depression and an array of social inequities during the 1930s spurred the development of a more radicalized folk music. The activist stance espoused by performers such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger found a large following during the 1930s and early 1940s. Many of the leading artists of the 1960s folk revival would trace their roots back to the social imperatives of this earlier generation.

The conservative wave sweeping America in the 1950s--a product of economic prosperity and the political paranoia ensuing from the outset of the Cold War--forced the more socially conscious folk music artists (e.g., the Weavers) underground. The triumphant return of the Weavers to the stage and the desire in some quarters for an adult alternative to the teen-oriented rock 'n' roll fad then sweeping the nation, helped push folk music back into the cultural mainstream. The decidedly non-controversial Kingston Trio illustrated the commercial potential of the genre by means of a string of best-selling album releases and equally lucrative tours of college campuses. Folk performers like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary also achieved immediate success in the album market, thereby filling the void left by the calypso's inability to remain commercially viable beyond 1957-1958.

The social activitism engendered by the Kennedy Administration further stimulated the folk market. By early 1963 television was saturated by the hootenanny craze, providing a promotional vehicle for the influx of photogenic artists sporting collegiate clothes and hairstyles and singing about a better society for all. John F. Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963 tempered this communal optimism to a considerable degree, and disrupted the momentum of the folk music movement. The rise of the British Invasion in early 1964 swept aside all competition, pushing folk performers back down to the lower reaches of the singles and album charts. Many of the young folk musicians, intrigued by the progressive musicality displayed by the leading British bands, began experimenting with a hybrid of folk lyrics and rock's rhythmic drive; within another year folk rock would be the next big trend. The aesthetics of commercial folk music, however, have continued to be nurtured by artists such as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tracy Chapman, and the Indigo Girls.

 

Top Artists and Their Recordings

Joan Baez--Joan Baez (1960); Joan Baez 2 (1961); In Concert/Part One (1963); In Concert/Part Two (1963); Joan Baez 5 (1964); Farewell Angelina (1965); Portrait (1966)

The Brothers Four--"Greenfields" (1960)

Woody Guthrie--Columbia River Collection (1941; reissued 1987); Dust Dowl Ballads (reissued 1988); Cowboy Songs/Southern Mountain Hoedowns (194?; reissued 1995); Struggle (194?; reissued 1990); Nursery Days (reissued 1992)

The Highwaymen--"Michael" (1961)

Ian and Sylvia--"Four Strong Winds" (1964); "You Were on My Mind" (1965)

Burl Ives--The Wayfaring Stranger (1947); Burl Ives Sings (1981)

The Kingston Trio--The Kingston Trio (1958); The Kingston Trio At Large (1959); Here We Go Again! (1959); Sold Out (1960); String Along (1960); The Kingston Trio: The Guard Trio (10-CD box set covering 1957-1961; released 1997)

Leadbelly--Midnight Special (reissued 1991); Gwine Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In (reissued 1991); Let It Shine on Me (reissued 1991); Go Down Old Hannah (reissued 1994); Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen (reissued 1994); The Titanic (ressued 1994)

Chad Mitchell Trio--Mighty Day on Campus (1962); At the Bitter End (1962); Blowin' in the Wind (1963)

The New Lost City Ramblers--The Early Years, 1958-1962 (1991)

Phil Ochs--Farewells and Fantasies (3-CD box set; released 1997)

Peter, Paul and Mary--Peter, Paul and Mary (1962); Movin' (1963); In the Wind (1963)

The Rooftop Singers--"Walk Right In" (1963)

Tom Rush--Tom Rush (1965)

Mike Seeger--Music From the True Vine (1972); Fresh Oldtime String Band Music (1988)

Pete Seeger--Darling Corey (1950); Goofing Off Suite (1955); American Industrial Ballads (1957); The Bitter and the Sweet (1962); Live at Newport (1963); Children's Concert at Town Hall (1963); Waist Deep in the Big Muddy and Other Love Songs (1967); The Essential Pete Seeger (Folkways collection 1950-1774; released 1978)

Dave Van Ronk--Dave Van Ronk/Folksinger (1962); Inside Dave Van Ronk (1962)

Doc Watson--Treasures Untold (1964); Old Timey Concert (1967); Ballads From Deep Gap (1967); The Essential Doc Watson (1973); Doc Watson on Stage (1982)

The Weavers--"Goodnight Irene" (1950); "On Top of Old Smokey" (1950); "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena" (1950); The Weavers on Tour (1955); The Weavers at Carnegie Hall (1955); The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, Vol. 2 (1963); The Weavers Reunion at Carnegie Hall, 1963 (reissued 1987); Almanac (1963); Classics (reissued 1987); Wasn't That a Time (4-CD box set, 1992)