Friday, January 17, 2014

Do This! The American Folk Revival

Hey guys and dolls, I've curated (that's a buzz word in the land o'blogs, right?) a little collection for you about the American Folk Revival.  Modern pop culture will have you believe that merely dancing a banjo back and forth across a stage makes something, anything, folk. Uh, no. To know where and what we are, we must know where we came from. The American Folk Revival that started swirling around in the 1940's and peaked in the 1960's influenced so much of the music that has been made since, so it is worth be obsessed with every now and then.  At the heart and soul of folk music, new and old, is survival. Not only in terms of songs about our daily breath and bread, but also the survival of the songs themselves.  A lot of the traditional folk songs were old songs handed down from one generation to another, and with each new passing, something was added to the song; maybe it was adding new instruments, or a new arrangement. Each song was new again, but under that newness was the echos of all the other voices that had ever sang or played it before.  And even when folk musicians started to write more their own original songs, there was still this feeling of here is my song of survival, here is my story of survival, pass it down, and let it survive. And so the writing of the folk story, which is really the story of all of us, keeps getting passed down as we all write and add our own chapter. That's going to be some book.  So let me pass on to you, some of the things that I've been digging lately: 

Read This: The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir by Dave Van Ronk
 Dave Van Ronk is considered one of the founding fathers of the folk revival in New York in the 1960's, and for good reason, he was literally in the middle of it all. This book is a primer of so many wonderful things, not the least of all, music and the politics, heavy on both.  Several times while reading the book, I had to set it down after only reading a page or two because there was just so much information that I had to take a minute to absorb it all. Van Ronk was a jazz musician, a blues musician, a folk musician, and even had his own jug band, so his story is how all the music that he made and surround himself with and all the dirt and beauty that was that time in history, got mixed and weaved together into some fantastic beast. And maybe above all the history and music lessons, what I took away from this memoir was that art, or whatever makes your soul ache, is worth struggling for. Van Ronk is/was highly respected and extremely talented, but he never made it Bob Dylan big. Making music his life, meant that there were starving days, and days wandering the streets looking for work as his debts grew, and all the practicing, and as much rejection as there was success, but  to quote the very end of this little memoir of his: I wanted to be a musician, and I am a musician, and that's what it is all about.

 And as a little post script: The Cohen Brothers were heavily inspired by the life and times of Dave Van Ronk, for their newest movie, Inside Llewyn Davis. Oh, Cohen Brothers, we like you.

Listen to This: Bob Dylan's Greenwich Village
After you have read The Mayor of MacDougal Street, you can listen to the whole cast of characters on this ridiculous 2 disc set.  I am almost positive that everyone that Van Ronk mentioned in his book is on these discs, except, well, Bob Dylan, who by the way, Van Ronk refered to as Bobby.  I guess the title is a tad misleading. Bob Dylan or any of his songs aren't on the album, it is more of a soundtrack to the making of Bob Dylan. It is filled with all the performers that not only walked the same streets as Dylan, but also built those streets way before Dylan showed up, musically speaking. Folk music, like almost every other piece of American music is tied to jazz and the blues. So, yes, this album starts with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and ends with Peter, Paul and Mary singing "If I Have a Hammer," but in between you have Odetta, and Big Joe Williams singing the blues so deep that I swear I can feel it in my toes. It also features Jack Kerouac singing. Yes, singing. With a hushed and strained voice he sings a little song called (wait for it) On the Road, as he puts it, straight from mind to voice with no hand intervening.

Watch This: Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest & Hootenanny
Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest was a television program that ran from 1965-1966 and featured Pete Seeger and guests. I am pretty sure that every television set in American should have exploded with all this musical firepower. Well, not every television. The original airing of the show reached a very limited audience, mainly those with UHF antennas, due to how and where it was produced. But those were the bygone days. These days, there are many clips and full episodes of the show on YouTube, including my favorites featuring Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee:

Hootenanny was another television variety show that ran from 1963-1964, showcasing folk performers as well as comedy acts such as Woody Allen and Bill Cosby. I have read articles ridiculing the show, which ran on ABC, for trying to mainstream the folk explosion. And I get that. Mass appeal does sometimes mean dilution, because you are just have to please too many people.  But still, by exposing music to more people, chances are you will find that one kid, who needed that one song more than anything,  that would of never heard it if the music just stayed local. There really isn't a whole lot of clips from the show online, but I did find a "Best of Hootenanny" DVD set at my local public library, which as been pretty fun watching the last couple days and has given me a very reasonable excuse to shout" It's Hootenanny time!"

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