The Folk Boom

Photo: Nat Norman

For those born immediately before or after World War II, the Folk Boom of the late 1950s was inevitable.

No American or Canadian child of that generation could avoid the influences around them. The film, television and radio brought the singing cowboys into our houses and wove their way into our lives. A guy with a guitar could articulate the highest aspirations of our hearts and minds; in a simple song. The girls appeared to melt under the spell of the music. Movie musicals used songs to expose the true thoughts of the players. It appeared that all things were best expressed in music and song.

The poetry of the beat generation found it’s voice in the rhythmic drive of Bebop jazz. There was room for the individual artist to soar in improvisational and Free jazz. Poetry readings were interspersed between musical acts in nightspots all over the country. They possessed a musical rhythm all their own – fingers clicking to the beat of cool jazz.

The 1942 Recording Ban had given birth to all manner of vocal groups as they were not affected by the musicians union and therefore exempt from the recording ban. At the top of the popular music trend were groups like the Andrew Sisters picking up where the Big Bands left off. At the bottom of the spectrum, but equally musically sophisticated were groups like the Limelighters and Lambert Hendricks & Ross. The tunes were generally simple and the harmonic arrangements fairly complex. The musical accompaniment was minimal (musicians were on strike). Groups like the Limelighters accompanied themselves with banjo, guitar and bass. It was simple, powerful and expressive. Above all, it was fun and entertaining. The songs evolved naturally: there was less fluff and more substance to the lyrics. They may be bawdy, adult or politically inclined, but always new and entertaining.

Through the 1950s, the country became increasingly aware of the recordings of the Lomax family for the Library of Congress. The songs and melodies were so inherently powerful that young players took up performing the music. It was worth hearing and seemed to capture the imagination of a public increasingly aware of the social problems facing the country. Desegregation, for example, brought public discussions and curiosity to understand the issues at hand. Rural Black songs and music helped bring some heart and humanity to the public discourse. Young urban white activists singing rural Black music implied some form of unity with a cause.

The long career of Woody Guthrie, as a voice for social justice, found its way into New York City and groups of like-minded musicians including Lee Hayes, Pete Seeger and many others. Here is another example of a man with a guitar that managed to make a difference. The music of the common folk (Folk music) was gathering a growing following. Many musicians, seeking others with similar passions and beliefs, began to gather in Greenwich Village in New York City. There was a synergy with the Beat Generation in similar misanthropic feelings and common cause.

The House Committee on Un-American Activities and Senator Joseph McCarthy actually helped propel the movement forward by giving credibility and relevance to the musical groups and individuals that they chose to investigate. The overwhelming sense of the American public of the injustice of the hearings helped label activists as local heroes. These included the Almanac Singers, The Weavers, the Limelighters and others.

The Weavers were asked to perform at Carnegie Hall on Christmas Eve of 1955. It was a comeback for the group following their inclusion on the entertainment industry blacklist. It was a metaphor for the freedom of expression, release from tyranny and a victory for music of the common man.

By 1960, one person with a guitar could be viewed as a true patriot and fighter for social justice. This was the stage as it had been set for the growth of the individual singer-songwriter. It was the explosion of the Folk Boom. New groups popped up all over the country, as Bud & Travis, the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Peter, Paul & Mary, Tom Rush, and dozens of others emerged. The music would eventually take many new directions into Rock ‘n’ Roll, Fusion, and beyond. The traditional Jug bands of the early 1960s evolved into the Grateful Dead and the Lovin’ Spoonful. The list is far too long to explore here.

ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth. Research compiled, expanded and edited from numerous web and print sources including Wikipedia and Ibanez USA.