Christopher Guest knows folk music. He grew up near Manhattan's Washington Square, the nexus of the urban folk boom. As Guest said in a TIME interview whose long version appears here, he loved bluegrass, Bill Monroe-style. In a high-school folk band led by his classmate Arlo Guthrie, he played a mandolin owned by Arlo's father Woody. He was surrounded by folk singers: Bob Dylan was a neighbor; Mary Travers, of Peter Paul &, had been Chris' babysitter. So, four decades later, he was just the fellow to direct and co-author "A Mighty Wind," the funny and somewhat loving parody of old folkies that opened this week.
And I'm just the fellow to appreciate it. I've already reviewed the film favorably, but I probably would have liked "A Mighty Wind" even if it had smelled. I was smitten by the notion of a silly movie about the reunion of some 60s folk groups: three males who are not quite the Kingston Trio; nine perky people who are kind of the New Christy Minstrels; and a duo who might be Richard & Mimi Fariña. Their worthy aims, their solemn self-absorption, their belief that the popular form of folk music ever mattered, or still might that's so utterly me. Me back then, me maybe now.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen of the parole board, I was a teenage folkie. Aficionado, that is. I haunted Philadelphia's folk clubs, the Second Fret and the Gilded Cage. When folk singers played at our Town Hall, I'd go see Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, the Greenbriar Boys, Bob Dylan or the (ahem) Kingston Trio, and dutifully, happily, sang along. I also drove out to a nearby farm for early editions of the Philadelphia Folk Festival. It wasn't Woodstock, but it was ours.
Along the way I learned dozens of folk songs and would play them, to a rising chorus of yawns, at family get-togethers. (My rendition of "Now That the Buffalo's Gone" could empty the living room of Republicans, which was all we had, by verse three.) Later, as Top 40 radio proved that folk was the pop music even parents could like, I won a few converts and became a regular on the family barbecue circuit. My most discriminating fans were my nieces at the peak of my popularity they were, respectively, four and two and for a birthday present I went into a dinky recording studio on Market Street and for $3 etched my vocal stylings of Shel Silverstein's "The Unicorn" and Tom Paxton's "Goin' to the Zoo."
And I bought lots of folk albums. Still have those 33-1/3s, weathered talismans of a naive youth: my Miriam Makeba and New Lost City Ramblers LPs, my Odetta and Theodore Bikel, my Bud & Travis, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Chad Mitchell Trio, The Limeliters, Judy Collins, The Gateway Singers, Dave van Ronk, Peter Paul & Mary various Tims and Toms and, of course, Carolyn Hester. Also my batch of 45s they were little records with big holes, children by Ian & Sylvia, the Rooftop Singers, the Highwaymen, the Brothers Four, the Irish Rovers and other performers I've forgotten or repressed.
Here was my quandary: to play or not to play these records after 40 years? Of all my youthful pop-cultural fancies, my fondness for commercial folk music is the one that later filled me with suspicion. "A Mighty Wind" finally compelled me to go back and face my bland demon. But what if the more mature me listened to the scratchy LPs and 45s, and concluded that they were awful?
THIS LAND IS OLD LAND
I've long thought that the most instructive embarrassment an adult could endure would be to see himself, in flashback, as a teenager. All his puppy gaucheries would be exposed to his older, suddenly wiser-sadder self. (If only I'd known I talked like that! Walked like that. Been that ... thing. Why didn't some kindly adult take me aside and say, "Do yourself a favor: change.") Fortunately, the Corlisses were not a home-movie-taking family, so I'm spared that painful revelation.
Recently, though, I got a hint of the teen folkie me and of the creature I've devolved into when I watched a PBS fund-raiser called "This Land Is Your Land." A passel of old folkies were convened to sing what Bud & Travis used to call "a medley of our hit." The Smothers Bothers, as well-preserved as their ancient "comedy" routines, were the hosts. Judy Collins sang "Send in the Clowns." But Collins and the Smotherseses have been in the public eye, at least on public television. The ghoulish fun was to see performers who'd had their day in the glare when they were 20. Now they were back, to trade on, and trash, our fond memories. So out trotted The Brothers Four, 43 years after "Greenfields," to sing it again.
Looking surprisingly alive, The Byrds' Roger McGuinn (whom I first knew of as Jim McGuinn, Chad Mitchell's guitarist) played Seeger's "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." Barry McGuire, one of the proto-heads in the Mamas and the Papas' "Creeque Alley" ("McGuinn and McGuire/ Couldn't get no higher") rejoined Randy Sparks and the Minstrels for the ramblin'-guy sing-along "Green Green." Later he performed his solo hit, the 1965 "Eve of Destruction," updating the last two words of the song's most politically pregnant couplet "Think of all the hate there is in Red China / Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama" to the idiotically inappropriate "Columbine, Colorado." (Suggested fix: "Donald Rumsfeld's karma.")
Then, the moment I'd been awaiting/dreading: the Kingston Trio! In my youth, they changed pop music, and me with it. But that was 45 years ago. The last time I'd seen TKT, in the mid-60s, they comprised founding members Nick Reynolds and Bob Shane (the other charter Kingstonian, Dave Guard, had left in 1961 to form the Whiskeyhill Singers) and latterday recruit John Stewart. Now I squinted through my age-o-meter, trying to add pounds and decades to the three figures before me. The heavy, silver-haired, pony-tailed man in the middle I recognized to be Bob, from his scotch-and-soda baritone. But was the bearded bald one Nick? and was John the surgically-youthened third guy? I felt like a geezer at a high school reunion, quizzically scanning the strangers who might be quizzically scanning me.
Turns out that this Trio was, for my purposes, the Kingston Uno: Shane (he bought the rights to the group's name in 1976) and two other fellows. Now, those two, George Grove and Bob Haworth, have been with the Trio a cumulative 33 years, longer than Guard's and Reynolds' combined tenure. But to me they were road-company members, like the pick-up singers who join doo-wop oldies groups on other PBS waxworks concerts. They don't give me the ache of nostalgia.
That job fell to Shane, a handsome collegiate type in his prime, who will be 70 next year. His extra weight is no more than mine. His mortality urges me to consider mine. His warbling of the exact same music, 45 years later, spurred me to examine what I thought I was hearing when for a kid who loved all kinds of music folk was the sweetest four-letter word.
THE PRE-FOLK-BOOM FOLK BOOM
Commercial folk music didn't explode with the Kingston Trio in 1958. It had been going pop for most of the decade.
In 1950 The Weavers the folk quartet led by Pete Seeger took off their work shirts, put on fancy clothes, suffered the strings of Gordon Jenkins and, before you could say "House Un-American Activities Committee" (just before, actually), registered six hits in two years. Their version of Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene" topped the pop charts. "On Top of Old Smokey" and the Israeli rouser "Tzena Tzena Tzena" went to #2. The Woody Guthrie "So Long (It's Been Good to Know Yuh)" got to #4. "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" and the South African chant "Wimoweh" made the top 20. (Songs composed or discovered by Seeger would dot the charts throughout the 60s: "Michael," "If I Had a Hammer," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "Guantanamera," "Turn! Turn! Turn!" But Pete deserves his own column, and he'll get one soon.)
The Red scare shooed the Weavers off the charts, but traditional ballads still made vagrant appearances in odd disguises. Burl Ives was a benign folkie presence on the charts throughout the 50s (and bigger, when he went to Nashville in the 60s). In 1955-56 two 19th century ballads that found their way into movies and then to Billboard's #1: "The Yellow Rose of Texas" (from "Giant") and Elvis' "Love Me Tender." Other #1's: the Negro spiritual "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," by English 13-year-old Laurie London, and the rowdy blues "Stagger Lee," a smash for Lloyd Price. Jimmie Rodgers returned "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" to the charts (#3). Ritchie Valens enjoyed a two-sided #2 hit in 1959, with the Mexican "La Bamba" backing "Donna." ("Enjoyed" is perhaps too strong a word, seeing as Valens was dead by then, in the Buddy Holly plane crash.)
"Wimoweh" had another life, this time at #1, as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." That was 1961, the year of the Highwaymen's "Michael," another #1, and Brook Benton's smoothing up of a work song, "The Boll Weevil Song" (#2). The folk boom went transatlantic when Jeanine Deckers, the Belgian Dominican nun known as Soeur Sourire, had a world-wide hit with "Dominique"; and the Animals, fronted by Eric Burdon, revived the old brothel blues tune "The House of the Rising Sun." Both songs were #1 in the U.S. (Few would have bet that the Beast of Burdon would outlive the Singing Nun, but it's true. Deckers left the convent and, in 1985, committed suicide with her girlfriend. Eric, somehow, is still alive and rockin'.)
The pre-Dylan era also had hits in the fake-folk mode: dark, country epics like "Sixteen Tons," "The Battle of New Orleans," "El Paso" and "Big Bad John." Many folk-ish hits were composed by Terry Gilkyson, who recorded albums as a solo folk act and with his group The Easy Riders but had more success with covers of his songs: "Cry of the Wild Goose" (Frankie Laine), "Memories Are Made of This" (Dean Martin), "Marianne" (The Hilltoppers), "Fast Freight" (Kingston Trio), "Greenfields" (Brothers Four) and "Everybody Loves Saturday Night" (The Minstrels). Gilkyson later wrote songs for Disney cartoons, including "The Bare Necessities" for "Jungle Book."
WHAT'S A FOLK SONG?
The foundations for pop-folk were the songbooks of Seeger and Woody Guthrie. But most early folkies weren't songwriters, or hoboes. They got their music the way an industrious grad student would: research. They lined up at the Library of Congress' American Song Archive to listen to the Lomax family's ethnographic recordings and take lots of notes. (I imagine Van Ronk and Eric von Schmidt arguing, "I found 'He Was a Friend of Mine' first!" "No, I did!"). They also ransacked the pop and folk traditions of a dozen countries.
Most folk groups, to fill out their albums, needed a wider range of material. They were typically playing venues those predecessors of dinner theater known as supper clubs that had previously been occupied by pop crooners and thrushes, and intimate musical-comedy revues, till rock made them obsolescent. Occasionally the folk groups used the same songs, from several subgenres.
One such was the folk-art song: a Tin Pan Alley confection with a traditional-ballad feel. The Kingston Trio frequently folk-arted. The group's first single was "Scarlet Ribbons," a child's-prayer ballad by Evelyn Danzig and Jack Segal that Jo stafford had taken to #14 in 1949. The Trio (and the Brothers Four) performed "Try to Remember" from off-Broadway's "The Fantasticks." TKT and the Smothers Brothers covered "They Call the Wind Maria," the "Paint Your Wagon" cowboy lament by Lerner and Loewe or, as Bud & Travis puckishly ID'd them, Leopold and Loeb. The Brothers Four had a hit with "Green Leaves of Summer," Dimitri Tiomkin's theme from the film "The Alamo." Sometimes a folk-art song was commissioned. In 1961, Shane asked Ervin Drake (Broadway's "The Rothschilds") to write him a solo and got "It Was a Very Good Year," which was famously covered by Sinatra five years later.
Another subgenre was the comic song, often from a Broadway or off-Broadway show. Michael Brown's "Fall River Hoedown," better known as "Lizzie Borden" (" 'Cause you can't chop your poppa up in Massachusetts"), had been introduced by Paul Lynde, Carol Lawrence and other performers in "New Faces of 1952." Sheldon Harnick's "A Merry Minuet" ("They're rioting in Africa...") was first sung by Orson Bean in "John Murray Anderson's Almanac of 1953." The Limeliters poached the mildly ribald "Madeira, M' Dear" from Flanders and Swann, the British comic-song duo who had been on Broadway. A favorite of the Bikel repertoire was Gene Raskin's "Kretchma," a sardonic evocation of a Russian boite in New York. TKT's big novelty hit was "M.T.A.," which was written (by Jacqueline Steiner and Alan Lomax's daughter Bess Hawes) to protest a fare hike on the Boston subway system.
In the 50s, everybody who was anybody, or who thought he was somebody else, was in psychoanalysis. Three University of Chicago students confected "The Ballad of Sigmund Freud" ("Oh, Dr. Freud! Oh, Dr. Freud! / How we wish you had been diff'rently employed!"), later sung by The Limeliters. My own pet-shrink song was John Greenway's "Psychotherapy," which to the tune of "Battle Hymn of the Republic, declared: "Freud's mystic world of meaning needn't have us mystified, / It's really very simple what the psyche tries to hide: / Anything's a phallic symbol if it's longer than it's wide, / As the Id goes marching on!"
All of these tunes were in the spirit of the Tom Lehrer song parodies that had their own cult following. Yet no folk group I know of covered a Lehrer song. The Limeliters, who wowed the crowd with Larry Rand's gentle in-joke "Generic Up-tempo Folk Song," could have tried Lehrer's more pointed "Folk Song Army": "If you feel dissatisfaction, / Strum your frustrations away. / Some people may prefer action, / But give me a folk song any old day." Lehrer's song sees a smug liberal insularity in the folk milieu, whose artists dared to sing out against any unjust or fatuous belief except for ones their fans might hold.
FOLK VS ROCK
The one large area that didn't get much archival attention was the field the folkies were hoping to land-mine: first-generation rock. Oddly, they didn't see that the two forms had much in common. Both relied on simple melodies, catchy harmonies and a naive emotive force. (Folk music just had a lot more minor chords.) Both were updating, popularizing and pasteurizing heartland music. Couldn't the folkies tell that rock rhythm and blues and rockabilly was America's instant folk music? In songs by the Brill Building's young-married writing teams (Goffin and King, Mann and Weil, Barry and Greenwich), couldn't they hear the sounds of urban protest and longing?
Kids could hear it; I could. Just because I loved folk music didn't mean I stopped listening to Top 40 radio. I still bought records by The Everly Brothers, Smokey Robinson, Roy Orbison, The Drifters, Timi Yuro, Patsy Cline, The Ronettes, The Springfields, Cowboy Copas. And the occasional long shot. In Rosie and the Originals' "Angel Baby," Rosie Hamlin's solo triumphing over the inadequacies of a garage band so sick on fumes that the bleating sax goes flat and the drummer can't keep the beat has the artless power of a Lomax field holler or a cry for help. Rock, pop or folk, it all gave lift or depth to my spirit. It was just music to me, and that was plenty.
No doubt the folk artistes, with their studious bearing and pristine politique, thought themselves above the primitives who played on "Bandstand." A drum kit? A guitar you plugged in? Sacrilege! Folk music was something you could play in a power outage; you kept time by tapping your foot, thank you. It took another few years before Dylan (and, indirectly, the Beatles) dragged folk, whining and tut-tutting, into the electric age.
But there were other ways to adapt pop-rock to pop-folk, and one folk singer found it. I recall my surprise and delight on hearing, around 1962, a cover of a Buddy Holly song, "Lonesome Tears." The singer, Carolyn Hester, turned Holly's acrid jingle into one of her patented laments for careless, faithless love. No other folkie could cry tears with such sweet conviction.
In 1966, the Kingston Trio did its first cover of a song from the pop-rock catalog: "Norwegian Wood," John Lennon's early tribute to Dylan. Sonically the number fit the Trio's style, which hadn't varied since the first album. But everything else was different. They were already an oldies act. The next year they disbanded.
THE KINGS OF FAUX FOLK
The Kingston Trio even their name had a lovely calculation. It sounded vaguely Ivy League and Caribbean. In 1956-57, calypso had given Harry Belafonte some big hits: "Jamaica Farewell," "Matilda," "Banana Boat Song (Day-O"). Guest notes that some adults hopefully predicted calypso would supplant rock 'n roll as a teen craze. (Rock couldn't last, could it?) Anyway, the group's name seemed designed to be both redolent and inoffensive.
Some think that calculation was the Trio's motivating principle, from the striped-shirt uniforms to the formulaic mix of song genres in every album and, further, to the reputed tendency of Guard, the group's leader, to take Public Domain songs discovered by others and affix his name as author or arranger. This suspicion, undoubtedly stoked by resentment and jealousy over TKT's star status, led to all manner of rancor from the purer folkies. On the title tune of the Greenbriar Boys' 1964 LP "Ragged But Right," mandolin player John Herald breaks into Ralph Rinzler's lead vocal to ask cynically: "Since you folk singers are so busy ridin' freight trains and walkin' up the highway, how do you get so much time to fill out all them-there copyright forms?"
Calculations? Maybe, but they worked brilliantly. The uniforms suggested a genial, frat-house informality in a decade when even rockers wore jacket and tie. Guard might appropriate the odd folk standard, but he was a gifted sleuth. Many songs on the early albums had the scholar's pedigree of obscurity. And others, like the besotted ballad "Scotch and Soda," he wrote by himself. As for the album formula, why not? It worked.
Worked phenomenally. The Kingston Trio were big business: the Disney of folk music, in that they popularized an existing format and extended it in ways no one had thought of. TKT began with a #1 single, "Tom Dooley." That could have been a fluke. But then their first four studio albums went to #1. In December 1959 the Trio had four LPs on the Billboard Top 10, a feat never matched. They were also the first group in pop history to sell more albums than singles. That's just good business: albums bring in more money. It's fair to say that, for kids (okay, white kids) raised on the rock 'n roll singles market, TKT instilled the habit of buying albums a habit that paid off handsomely for rock groups from the Beatles era to today.
The only one of the Trio's LPs not to hit the top of the charts was their "live" set, "...from the Hungry i." But that album was important in another crucial way. With brief banter introducing each song, TKT displayed its appeal as a musical-comedy act. Young people liked what they heard, wanted to see The Trio in person. Voilà! a new money geyser: the pop-group tour, at concert halls and on college campuses. Before the Trio, rock 'n roll acts would tour in packages, while the more traditional popsters played supper clubs. "There was no real concert circuit," Lehrer noted in 1984. "The Kingston Trio started all that."
If TKT was the Disney of folk, it was also the Elvis of folk. The Trio's amazing popularity in what was, for most audiences, a new music form naturally stoked a thirst for other folk acts. A lot of these performers simply cloned the Trio. Quite a few other folk singers were more authentic, more overtly political. Some were more skilled musicians. All might secretly grouse that the Trio sucked up too much of the available oxygen. But this misses the point. The Trio created the oxygen. Without the genre they popularized, most of the 60s folkies would have been selling insurance or teaching high school English.
And yet ... I've been dodging the big question, the one I've evaded in the 40 years since I stopped buying their albums (and, Muses forgive me, I bought the first 16): Were they good? A decades-later re-listen to the Trio's first few records convinces me that, yeah, they were pretty good. Their voices are vigorous, their intonation supple, their diction precise (their producer. Voyle Gilmore, sent them to a voice coach). Each member has his own vocal timbre and personality: Guard's is careful, Reynolds' clear and jaunty, Shane's dusky, knowing. Considering that their guitar and banjo were backed only by bass player David "Buck" Wheat, the records have a full sound, especially by the thin standards of the 50s.
Some of the humor is wearying today, as in the multiethnically offensive "Coplas," a burly Mexican tune in which Guard first affects a Speedy Gonzales accent, then shifts into vaudeville Japanese: "Hah so! You are surprise I speak your language. You see, I was educated in your country at U-C-R-A." But the group is effervescent on the "Hungry i" set, winning over a tough crowd that calls out in the wrong places and steps on Guard's jokes. They manage a sturdy workout on "Wimoweh" though less exuberant than Seeger's thrilling version and a scrupulously rowdy "Zombie Jamboree" ("Back to back and belly to belly, / Well, I don't give a damn' cause I done that already"). On their third album I still love Shane's mellow reading of the Lord Burgess ballad "The Seine."
You see? The Trio survived my stern retrospective, and so did I. Eventually I learned there were other roads to folk and followed them. So did other folk fans. As the TKT's luster faded, and they were succeeded as Capitol Records' top earners by the Beatles, they recorded early versions of songs ("A Very Good Year," "The First Time," "Seasons in the Sun") that became hits for other people. But, then, all pop fevers eventually subside. And the Trio's importance is less musical than historical. They were the trainer wheels for the folk cycle.
Carolyn Hester was my folk-song heroine. This beautiful young Texan with the wide, easy smile wasn't widely known. She never had a hit record perhaps because her taste in tunes ran to the morose and minor-key, and because the musical settings were so spare (often just Carolyn and her guitar). But a lot of music adepts think of Baez, Collins and Hester as the preeminent folkswomen, a holy trinity of purity and passion. She has inspired a second generation of folk singers, including Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffith, both of whom heard her songs in girlhood and made music with her decades later. Griffith has written: "Carolyn Hester's voice through my transistor radio gave me wings to fly and a place to be." I was lucky to hear that voice often in the aural flesh. And having played her early albums this week, I can testify anew to their splendor.
I first heard Carolyn at the Second Fret in 1961 or '62. She was promoting her LP on the Tradition label an album with superb song and an excellent showcase for her split-level voice. I know of no voice quite like hers; I know of few singers who used their vocal equipment with Carolyn's delicacy and power. Her three-octave range made her the Yma Sumac of folk. "Miss Hester has a broad vocal range," Robert Shelton wrote in a New York Times review, "from a rooftop soprano to some stunning alto chest tones." That soprano was translucent, seraphic. She might rely on it for an entire song say, "The Water Is Wide," with its confidence in love's power of propulsion like a pitcher with a great curve who doesn't need his fast ball.
But for contrast, she also had that amazing alto voice down-and-dirty, sultry, sooty. The soprano saw the beauty in life, even in enduring it; the alto felt the pain, and found no catharsis. The soprano enunciated carefully; the alto drawled with the hard "r"s of Carolyn's native Waco. Two spirits inhabit the same body, antiphonally debating matters of love and death. One voice was soul, the other flesh. One sang hymns, the other the blues, and often in the same verse. In the familiar ballad "Dink's Song," the soprano sings the soaring first line, "If I had wings like Nora's dove." Then the alto cuts to the chase with "I'd fly up the river to the man I love."
Carolyn had come to New York to pursue an acting career, and her studies served her well. She had no trouble locating, and inhabiting, the melodrama inherent in "House of the Rising Sun" and the Gershwins' "Summertime" songs with swooping melodic lines. But she dealt in subtlety, and trusted her audience to see the shadings. In Carolyn's rapturous rendition of "Virgin Mary" a smile breaks into her voice as she spies the infant Jesus and sings, "Oh oh, pretty little baby." For me, it's one of the warmest moments in folk. But, honestly, she had me with "Lonesome Tears." How many other folkies were also Buddy Holly fans? Probably lots, in the closet.
Her grace radiated in her stage presence, in the informal intros to the songs. I must have come up to Carolyn after that first show, and found her as natural and welcoming off-stage. We became friendly as friendly as a star-groupie, or singer-stalker relationship could permit! I would drive down to Baltimore or Washington to catch her club dates there, and when in New York I'd visit Carolyn in her tiny apartment on 12th Street. At 26, she was a dear to indulge a callow 19-year-old fan.
As well as I knew her repertoire, that's how little I knew of her. Carolyn was the first folk thrush to get a major-label contract: Columbia in 1962. For her debut session, she brought along a harmonica sideman, fellow Villager Bob Dylan; it was his first studio gig, and Columbia signed him soon after. And the choice of "Lonesome Tears"? In June 1958, at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, N.M., Holly had backed Carolyn on four sides: his own "Take Your Time," plus "A Little While Ago" and, don't ask me why, two Christmas songs.
She also, without telling me, had a life! She'd been married to Richard Fariña, who had left her when he fell in love with Joan Baez' sister Mimi. He died in a motorcycle crash three years later. With a different dealing of the cards, Carolyn and Richard might have become a folk duo and, 40 years on, have been played by Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara in "A Mighty Wind."
ROCKING FOLK'S WORLD
In the mid-60s, a mighty new wind tested Carolyn Hester and other serious folk singers. Rock was no longer low commerce; the Beatles had brought the message of pop-rock to the musical snobs. Dylan got wired and made the singles charts. It was suddenly okay to go electric. Pretty soon it was mandatory. Ex-folkies merged to become The Byrds, The Mamas & the Papas, The Lovin' Spoonful. My favorite urban-bluegrass group, the Greenbriar Boys, recorded a ballad by Monkee Michael Nesmith, "Different Drum," that the Stone Poneys covered, giving Linda Ronstadt her first chart success. The sweetheart of Waco went slightly psychedelic with the Carolyn Hester Coalition.
As folk joined the mainstream, the great river of 60s popular music swelled to meet folk and swallow it up. Bobby Darin covered Tim Hardin and became a kind of folk singer. Kind-of folk songs the kind people wrote went to #1. "The First Time," which Scots folk singer Ewan MacColl had written for his wife Peggy Seeger (Pete's half-sister), was the top-charting song of 1972. The next year, Terry Jacks' rendition of "Seasons in the Sun," was the second best-selling single. Folk went rock. Rock got folked. So who won?
Well, rock, of course. But I think that's the wrong question. Looking back on New York's folk surge, and tasting the cornucopia of styles in the box set "Washington Square Memoirs: The Great Urban Folk Boom, 1950-1970," I'm pleased to think of the young-folkie years as a savory mix of urgency and banality, terrific music and not-so-hot. Growing up is hard to do, and fun. Those crazy kids, rock and folk, tried to ignore each other, then fell in love, eventually broke up. But while they tangled, in an arm wrestle or an embrace .... well, as The Weavers used to sing ... Wasn't that a time?
Last Sunday I walked through Washington Square. There were the banjo and guitar players, the pick-up vocal quartets, the sense of dedicated folks making friendly music. It gave me an old lift, and an idea...Now the old anthems have stirred my tired blood. I may yet pull my tenor guitar from the closet, see if I can still hack "The Universal Soldier," maybe add a few new lines about the Iraq adventure. A warning to all Corlisses out there: Cancel this year's reunion. Your worst nightmare that mighty wind, the family folkie is back.