Brendan Hogan: Last week's 10:00 feature on new music was a lot of fun. The more and more we get into these themes the more I'm realizing that we are only scratching the surface on these things. That's a good thing, though. Despite how deeply or passionately we may delve into something in our personal lives, there's always something else to learn. I know I learn a lot from you, and I hope people who read these find them a good jumping off point for their own listening, too.
This week's theme will be the Folk Revival of the 1950s and '60s, an era that served as an important bridge between the two halves of the last hundred years.
Mike Mellor: Yeah, books have been written about most of the themes we discuss and we reduce the discussion to a handful of paragraphs. We need to be thankful to the researchers and authors who have provided so much insight into what we love; you can never get that depth of knowledge from a wikipedia article. Me being a librarian & blogger and you being a musician & DJ, we know that the knowledge we pass off in snippets is stuff we obtained in larger, more authoritative hunks from historians, scholars and other musicians. What they do makes it possible for me, at least, to be a good dilettante.
I can't resist making a proto-Folk Revival choice to start. If there were a Mt. Rushmore for American culture Woody Guthrie would be on it. His life was immense and instructive and I would argue that his cult of personality is the aesthetic base of the American Folk Revival movement. Obviously, lots of other people contributed to it and Woody stole bits, lyrics and licks from most of them, hut his posture, politics and prose styles form the feeling of the scene.
As you mention the bridge between halves of the century, the most enduring contribution Woody made was as the living, breathing, thinking Dust Bowl refugee. By singing the Dust Bowl songs he was speaking for all victims of the Great Depression, their lost pasts, compromised futures and difficult present. That's pretty much the template for a Bruce Springsteen song, isn't it?
Brendan: I think there's no denying Woody's impact on American culture and his influence on some of the most successful musicians of our day. To me, Springsteen's Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad are direct descendants of Guthrie's storytelling style. It's a style that seems to stretch back to Greek mythology, doesn't it? Tell the story plainly, cast your characters in myth, have clear heroes and villains. The difference with Guthrie is that he was singing of the people, for the people, casting them in the role of hero, and telling their stories in three minute chunks tailored for radio and record.
What I especially love about The Asch Recordings is the clarity of Guthrie's playing on them. His whole thing was to just bust out a song, as is. I don't think he gave much thought to the presentation of what he was playing or singing; in fact perfection was probably antithetical to his point. The sound of the recordings themselves are of quality, so there is nothing to get in the way of the loose simplicity of his delivery. That quality makes a recorded song more accessible than one that sounds slapdash or hastily recorded. You can really hear why they were so influential on the next generation of "folk revivalists".
Odetta borrowed Guthrie's simple style of guitar playing, but her overall delivery was far more intense to suit the material she was singing. Listen to her version of "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho". It's pure Odetta, straight from the black church and presented very directly. She was very good at using the guitar strumming to create a dynamic range that served her vocal, and therefore the story or message of the song.
Mike: Would you say that the directness of writing, playing, singing and recording are characteristics that define the genre? Are there examples in the genre that are not like that? Or did the instances where the artists didn't do that mark an evolution into another genre?
Brendan: Joan Baez is good example of someone whose technical proficiency on guitar and vocal is very much a part of her sound, but I don't think anyone would dispute her relevance as a folk revivalist. She's never really strayed from that, either.
And that's not to say that Odetta, or any other artist of the era, isn't proficient in their own way, but generally-speaking the folk revivalists were more about getting the point across than about technical proficiency. There's a genuineness about that approach which is appealing.
Mike: Oh, you're talking about virtuosity. Now I get it.
Plenty of them were virtuosos on their instrument, none moreso than Dave Van Ronk. Just listen to his "Sunday Street".
Brendan: First, I'm thrilled that you included a live version of that song from Dave Van Ronk. I had never seen film of him performing before! His playing is so idiosyncratic, which is evident just by hearing him on record, but seeing him play is really cool because his finger-picking style is so "wrong". He uses the thumb and two fingers in his right hand, where "proper" technique would have you use three fingers. So, I guess that keeps him far from the virtuoso category, but show me another picker with that style.
Other people play using the two-finger method, but none of them sound like the next. They're all unique. People who play by the book all sound very similar; very tamed. I guess that goes back to my point about the singularity of the style of many of the folk revivalists. They were trying to get to the message with the least amount of resistance. No indoctrination on account of little proper musical education. What's more "folk" than that?
But your mentioning "Sunday Street" also brings up another subject: Dave Van Ronk was maybe best known for interpreting older traditional music from sea shanties to dixieland jazz, but he wrote "Sunday Street". At what point do the folk revivalists cross over into singer/songwriter territory? Is Bob Dylan part of the folk revival? How about Joni Mitchell or Fred Neil? Neil wrote "Everybody's Talkin'", a massive hit for Harry Nilsson in the late 60's, but he also did this:
Mike: I told you I was a dilettante.
You could answer those questions with musical beginnings. Dylan's first important work came directly out of that Greenwich Village scene, after having hunted down Guthrie in a mental hospital and meeting Ramblin' Jack Elliott there at his bedside. He also knew Van Ronk very well. I think he certainly belongs in the group, even though he famously turned his back on it.
Joni—in my mind anyway—is in the lineage after Dylan's evolution of and then out of the folk revival, writing idiosyncratic poems as songs. And Neil, he worked in the Brill Building for Christ's sake, and wrote some pretty awesome hits for the rockabilly guys. This is all actually a very good example of how cultural scenes weave in and out of each other across the mainstream.
Brendan: Exactly, and that's why labels for artists are at best placeholders. But the movement on a broader scope was real. The folk revivalists acted as a conveyor, pushing American spirituals, cowboy songs, folk ballads and blues into the second half of the 20th Century. And they did it by putting their own mark on the music, and in some cases creating entirely new styles in the process.
That's the whole point right? It was a revival, after all, and when you revive something you give it new life.
Dark Was the Night airs on WUMB Saturdays from 8pm-midnight.
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