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Where it began
The Folk Years is a pop-history lesson

My mother was an amateur guitarist and singer who began collecting folk songs in the ’30s. When people started talking about a "folk revival" in the ’60s and including people like Bob Dylan, she wasn’t buying. "It has to be indigenous," she protested. "You can’t write a folk song."

Of course, the times — and the language — were a-changin’ faster than either of us realized. A new eight-CD box set called The Folk Years (Time Life Music) captures the chaotic blend of tradition, innovation, and social and technological change that reshaped American music from the mid ’50s to the mid ’70s. My mother’s folk music — like Burl Ives, Harry Belafonte with "Jamaica Farewell" and "The Midnight Special," and Pete Seeger singing "Guantanamera" — is here, as are the innovative folk combos that were starting to bend her ear in those days, like the Kingston Trio and the Chad Mitchell Trio with their wry humor and bright vocal harmonies. But much of what’s in The Folk Years is the seed material for the broader genres of rock and pop music that we’ve lived with ever since.

The folk phenomenon arose at a time when technology and the music industry were tossing in a whirlwind of change, a little like today, except that the 1960s music industry was growing, not shrinking, and popular music itself was evolving much more dramatically. Greil Marcus’s essay in the Folk Years booklet makes the point that unpretentious troubadours like Dylan — people willing, in Gerry Goffin’s words, to "just stand up there like a mensch and sing it" — really did shake the foundations of Tin Pan Alley.

It took time for America’s commercial music machine to begin manufacturing product to fit the new molds. The lucrative proliferation of vinyl was fueling widespread cultural upheaval as a generation of gospel singers became soul stars and rock and roll was radicalized by the British invasion and the San Francisco hippie scene. The celebrated radio eclecticism of the ’60s and ’70s reflected an industry that was overwhelmed by new music and hadn’t figured out which boxes to put everything in. So we got hit-parade AM radio that tossed Glen Campbell, Stevie Wonder, Joan Baez, Tom Jones, the Irish Rovers, and the Beatles together with José Feliciano doing "Light My Fire."

The Folk Years offers a rich slice of that jumbled pie. The cheerful, square naïveté so delightfully lampooned in filmmaker Christopher Guest’s recent A Mighty Wind is part of the mix. The Serendipity Sisters singing "Beans in My Ears" and the Simon Sisters (including young Carly) doing "Winkin’, Blinkin’ and Nod" are goofy enough to make you squirm. But it’s fascinating to see how easily, in the context of this movement, wholesome innocence morphed into powerful social protest. Imagine if a singer with the sort of general appeal that Glen Campbell enjoyed in the ’60s sang "The Universal Soldier" today. The Dixie Chicks got blacklisted just for criticizing a president; "The Universal Soldier" brazenly indicted military culture top to bottom, and it became a Top 40 hit both for Campbell and for Donovan.

This music also delves deeply into the past. The Kingston Trio reached back to Depression-era lore with "Greenback Dollar" but connected it with the 1960s anti-establishment mood. Kenny Rogers turned a tragic World War II love song into a Vietnam-era classic with "Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town." The banjo picking in Donovan’s "Colours" echoes old-time American music, yet most heard the song as Dylan-esque, part of a new wave in songwriting.

Outside of Harry Belafonte, and Otis Redding singing "The Dock of the Bay," there aren’t many black musicians here, but the echoes of African-American music are everywhere, whether it’s Joan Baez channeling Mississippi John Hurt’s finger-picking chug in her version of Phil Ochs’s "There But for Fortune" or the Kingston Trio reworking rural blues on "A Worried Man" or the Sandpipers polishing up the Gullah spiritual "Kumbaya." As for the future, we get the beginnings of psychedelic rock from the Byrds’ take on "Mr. Tambourine Man" and hints of garage-band punk to come in Trini Lopez’s "La Bamba."

The compilation is cleverly sequenced, following Roger Miller’s "England Swings" with Van Morrison’s "Brown Eyed Girl," and the Beach Boys’ "Sloop John B" with Belafonte’s "Banana Boat" and the Kingston Trio’s "Tijuana Jail." The subtitle, "A Singers and Songwriters Collection," finesses the indigenous-versus-composed debate, a dead horse few wish to reawaken. Today’s folk festivals include everything from singer-songwriters like Patty Larkin and Indigo Girls to indigenous world music and world pop fusion, American roots music, and contemporary pop music, which is swelling the amorphous folk classification with its rediscovery of acoustic guitars and low-tech production. In an odd way, we’re back where we started in the ’60s, in a world where folk music can be just about anything.

Issue Date: August 15 - 21, 2003
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