Cisco Houston Web Site

Ol' Pals

Robert Shelton (Page 3)

Notes from The Folk Box

The early 1930's saw no major "star" on the city folk music scene, but there was one singer, Jimmie Rodgers, who dominated the popular music industry. Born in Meridian, Ms., he is known as "The father of country music." Although he wrote and performed commercially oriented popular songs in the "hillbilly" vein, he was essentially an outgrowth of mountain folk song.

"Rural- performers-turned-city-musicians" began to appear in the late 30's and early '40's. Kentuckian Burl Ives made the first breakthrough to a mass audience for folk music. Josh White of South Carolina was to fuse unbridled sexuality with a highly personalized vocal and guitar style into a commanding vehicle for Negro music. With the heavy interest in Negro life and culture that developed in the Roosevelt era and the early years of World War II, Josh White was symbol, spokesman and interpreter for a vast reservoir of Negro blues and religious song. In Chicago about this time, Big Bill Broonzy, a sophisticated bluesman, was exploring other aspects of Negro thinking and music for a growing audience.

The development of professional folksingers and balladeers as nightclub and concert singers thus brought to the fore such figures as Richard Dyer-Bennet, Burl Ives, Cynthia Gooding and Oscar Brand. The first major group in the early '40's was The Almanac Singers, which included Pete Seeger, Millard Lampell, Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays and Butch Hawes. Indeed, out of Almanac House, their old residence on 10th Street in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, were to come many leaders in the subsequent folk revival.

Two of the strongest figures of this period were Woody Guthrie, the Oklahoma ballad-maker whom many regard as America's greatest writer of folk songs, and Leadbelly. The latter, as Hudie Ledbetter, was a dynamic, energetic font of song. He was discovered by John and Alan Lomax in the Louisiana State Prison at Angola in 1938. Leadbelly, with the help of the Lomaxes, sang his way to freedom, and was to invigorate the folk community with his personality and with songs such as "Midnight Special" and "Goodnight, Irene."

Guthrie may yet be an even greater influence. He wrote more than a thousand songs in his most creative period, 1938-'48, many of which already bear the stamp of classics: "So Long, It's Been Good To Know You" and "Pastures of Plenty" and "This Land is Your Land."

The year 1948 is a major year in American folk song. That year, when Henry Wallace ran unsuccessfully for President on the Progressive Party ticket, saw one of the greatest applications of topical songs to a political movement. But on the show business level, 1948 was historic for being the year that The Weavers organized, and the year that Hank Williams was moving into national prominence.

The Weavers grew out of such groups as The Almanac Singers and People's Artists, who had been deeply involved in the Wallace campaign. The original group, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, were looking to carry on the earlier singing tradition and to bring a large body of international folk song to a wide audience. After making its debut at The Village Vanguard, the group jumped into the hit parade with "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" and "Goodnight, Irene". Only the developing fury of political blacklisting was to derail the group's train to success. The group reorganized in 1956 and finally disbanded in 1964, after 15 successful years.

Hank Williams was a product of, and a hero in, the commercial country music world, centered in Nashville. The Nashville phenomenon had been developing alongside the folk revival. Many of the composed songs from the Tennessee city were banal, and bore the relationship that pop art does to fine art. Still, a few performers were so infused with self-expression, and so caught the imagination and served the needs of the "little" man in rural America, that it must be considered as part of the overall culture allied to folk music. Williams continued the Jimmie Rodgers tradition, and like "The Singing Brakeman" he died prematurely in 1951, leaving a legacy of music and legend.

From such rivers have flowed thousands of tributaries. The Kingston Trio in 1957 were to do what The Weavers had done before them. With a song by Frank Proffitt, a North Carolina mountaineer, called "Tom Dooley" the Trio started another, and perhaps the greatest, phase in the urban popularity of folk song. Peter, Paul and Mary soon succeeded in reaching even more listeners, and to deal in music of a greater depth.

Professional folk performers of today must number in the hundreds, as opposed to the few dozen who had specialized in folk song in the 1930's and '40's. This number keeps growing. The Newport Folk Festival of 1964, for example, attracted a total of 70,000 persons and offered 228 performers. This is the largest event of its kind, and yet still did not encompass the mass of professional and traditional folk singers, or the millions of fans.


Time was that a folk song devotee in an American city was an isolated aficionado who had to seek out rare recordings or rare concerts. This is no longer the case. Recording companies such as Elektra, Folkways, Vanguard, Prestige, Arhoolie, Folk Lyric, Folk Legacy, Mercury, Delmark and the four majors (Columbia, RCA-Victor, Decca and Capitol) have built a catalogue of folk LP's that staggers the imagination.

Live performances are easy to come by. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of John Cohen, Mike Seeger, Ralph Rinzler and Israel G. Young, one can hear almost as much good country music in the city as in the country.

Student festivals have even helped change the attitudes of professional concert managers. Among the best are those at the University of Chicago, Syracuse, Cal-Berkeley and UCLA, Swarthmore and the University of Illinois. The Newport Folk Festival, now run by a board of seven singers (and a non-profit foundation) promises to be a leading factor in perpetuating the folk movement.

Countless nightclubs and coffee-houses have sprung up, specializing in good folk music. New forms for listening to serious, and enjoyable folk song exist. One can hear folk songs in the "Sunday Sings" at Washington Square Park in Manhattan, and at the "Grand Ole Opry" in Nashville; in college dormitories, and at Old Time Fiddlers' conventions. The list is growing daily.


As comprehensive an anthology as the music on these four records provide, it must be considered as only a taste. For each song or artist chosen, another three were considered and had to be rejected. This is a basic collection for every home library, but one can continue to build from there. The discography and bibliography at the end of this book will open the door toward further exploration.

Folk song has great variety in mood, expression and performing style. There is no such thing as a "right" way to interpret any song. The rural people perhaps deserve the closest attention, because to them folk song is not "surface entertainment." It is a deeper form of communication, in a world whose media they do not have, or have only limited access to.

Here is a sample of America singing. Joy and sorrow, escape and protest, solace and anger, reverence and irreverence are all here. Listen for the people behind the song, for, in the final analysis, folk song is nothing more nor less than people talking of themselves and the things they hold dear.

<<Page 1 <<Page 2

Special thanks to Bill Adams for the superlative transcription.

We welcome any suggestions, contributions, or questions. You send it, we'll consider using it. Help us spread the word. And the music. And thanks for visiting.