FOLK SONG SING-ALONG
Click here to read Mark's essay "Why I Like the Term Folk Music"
Week 1: “The Red Scare” Folk Songs of the ‘50s
Folk music, which often carried the stigma of left-wing associations during the 1950s Red Scare, was driven underground and carried along by a handful of artists releasing records. Barred from mainstream outlets, artists like Seeger were restricted to performing in schools and summer camps, and the folk-music scene became a phenomenon associated with vaguely rebellious bohemianism in places like New York City (especially Greenwich Village), North Beach, and in the college and university districts of cities like Chicago, Boston, Denver, and elsewhere.
Ron Eyerman and Scott Baretta speculate that:
[I]t is interesting to consider that had it not been for the explicit political sympathies of the Weavers and other folk singers or, another way of looking at it, the hysterical anti-communism of the Cold War, folk music would very likely have entered mainstream American culture in even greater force in the early 1950s, perhaps making the second wave of the revival nearly a decade later [i.e., in the 1960s] redundant.
The media blackout of performers with alleged communist sympathies or ties was so effective that Israel Young, a chronicler of the 60s Folk Revival, who himself was drawn into the movement through an interest in folk dancing, communicated to Ron Eyerman that he himself was unaware for many years of the movement's 1930s and early '40s antecedents in left-wing political activism.
In the early and mid-1950s, acoustic-guitar-accompanied folk songs were mostly heard in coffee houses, private parties, open-air concerts, and sing-alongs, hootenannies, and at college-campus concerts. Often associated with political dissent, folk music now blended, to some degree, with the so-called beatnik scene; and dedicated singers of folk songs (as well as folk-influenced original material) traveled through what was called "the coffee-house circuit" across the U.S. and Canada, home also to cool jazz and recitations of highly personal beatnik poetry. It was not long before the folk music category came to include less traditional material and more personal and poetic creations by individual performers, who called themselves "singer-songwriters". Two singers of the 1950s who sang folk material but crossed over into the mainstream were Odetta and Harry Belafonte, both of whom sang Lead Belly and Josh White material. Odetta, who had trained as an opera singer, performed traditional blues, spirituals, and songs by Lead Belly. Belafonte had hits with Jamaican calypso material as well as the folk song-like sentimental ballad "Scarlet Ribbons" (composed in 1949)
Archivists, collectors, and re-issued recordings
See also: John Lomax, Alan Lomax, Robert Winslow Gordon, Ralph Rinzler, Izzy Young, Archive of Folk Culture and American Folklife Center
During the 1950s, the growing folk-music crowd that had developed in the United States began to buy records by older, traditional musicians from the Southeastern hill country and from urban inner-cities. New LP compilations of commercial 78-rpm race and hillbilly studio recordings stretching back to the 1920s and 1930s were published by major record labels. The expanding market in LP records increased the availability of folk-music field recordings originally made by John and Alan Lomax and other collectors during the New Deal era of the 1930s and 40s. Small record labels, such as Yazoo Records, grew up to distribute reissued older recordings and to make new recordings of the survivors among these artists. This was how many urban white American audiences of the 1950s and 60s first heard country blues and especially Delta blues that had been recorded by Mississippi folk artists 30 or 40 years before.
In 1952, Folkways Records released the Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled by anthropologist and experimental film maker Harry Smith. The Anthology featured 84 songs by traditional country and blues artists, initially recorded between 1927 and 1932, and was credited with making a large amount of pre-War material accessible to younger musicians. (The Anthology was re-released on CD in 1997, and Smith was belatedly presented with a Grammy Award for his achievement in 1991.)
Artists like the Carter Family, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Clarence Ashley, Buell Kazee, Uncle Dave Macon, Mississippi John Hurt, and the Stanley Brothers, as well as Jimmie Rodgers, the Reverend Gary Davis, and Bill Monroe came to have something more than a regional or ethnic reputation. The revival turned up a tremendous wealth and diversity of music and put it out through radio shows and record stores.
Living representatives of some of the varied regional and ethnic traditions, including younger performers like Southern-traditional singer Jean Ritchie, who had first begun recording in the 1940s, also enjoyed a resurgence of popularity through enthusiasts' widening discovery of this music and appeared regularly at folk festivals.
- Harry Belafonte, another influential performer, inspired in part by Paul Robeson started his career as a club singer in New York to pay for his acting classes. In 1952, he signed a contract with RCA Victor and released his first record album, Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites. His breakthrough album Calypso (1956) was the first LP to sell over a million copies. The album spent 31 weeks at number one, 58 weeks in the top ten, and 99 weeks on the US charts. It introduced American audiences to Calypso music and Belafonte was dubbed the "King of Calypso." Belafonte went on to record in many genres, including blues, American folk, gospel, and more. In 1959, he starred in Tonight With Belafonte a nationally televised special, that introduced Odetta in her debut to a prime time audience. She sang Water Boy and performed a duet with Belafonte of There's a Hole in My Bucket that hit the national charts in 1961.
- Odetta – Starting in 1953 singers Odetta and Larry Mohr recorded some songs, with the LP being released in 1954 as Odetta and Larry, an album that was partially recorded live at San Francisco's Tin Angel bar. Odetta enjoyed a long and respected career with a repertoire of traditional songs (e.g., spirituals) and blues until her death in 2009.
- The Kingston Trio was formed in 1957 in the Palo Alto, California area by Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds, and Dave Guard, who were just out of college. They were greatly influenced by the Weavers, the calypso sounds of Belafonte, and other semi-pop folk artists such as the Gateway Singers and The Tarriers. The unprecedented popularity and album sales of this group from 1957 to 1963 (including fourteen top ten and five number one LPs on the Billboard charts) was a significant factor in creating a commercial and mainstream audience for folk-styled music where little had existed prior to their emergence. The Kingston Trio's success was followed by other highly successful 60s pop-folk acts, such as The Limeliters and The Highwaymen.
~So Long, It’s Been Good To Know ‘Ya (The Weavers)
~Tom Dooley (The Kingston Trio)
~There’s A Hole In The Bucket (Harry Belafonte and Odetta)
Here's the last eight weeks:
Week 1: Songs of The Carter Family
The Carter Family was a traditional American folk music group that recorded between 1927 and 1956. Their music had a profound impact on bluegrass, country, Southern Gospel, pop and rock musicians as well as on the U.S. folk revival of the 1960s. They were the first vocal group to become country music stars. Their recordings of songs such as "Wabash Cannonball", "Can the Circle Be Unbroken", "Wildwood Flower", "Keep On the Sunny Side" and "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes" made them country standards. The latter's tune was used for Roy Acuff's "The Great Speckled Bird", Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life" and Kitty Wells' "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels", making the song a hit all over again in other incarnations.
The original group consisted of Alvin Pleasant "A.P." Delaney Carter (1891–1960), his wife Sara Dougherty Carter (1898–1979), and his sister-in-law Maybelle Addington Carter (1909–1978). Maybelle was married to A.P.'s brother Ezra (Eck) Carter, and was also Sara's first cousin. All three were born and raised in southwestern Virginia, where they were immersed in the tight harmonies of mountain gospel music and shape note singing.
Throughout the group's career, Sara Carter sang lead vocals; Maybelle sang harmony and accompanied the group instrumentally; on some songs A.P. did not perform at all but at times sang harmony and background vocals and, once in a while, lead vocal. Maybelle's distinctive guitar playing style became a hallmark of the group.
The Carter Family made their first recordings on August 1, 1927. A.P. had persuaded Sara and Maybelle the day before to make the journey from Milton, West Virginia, to Logan, West Virginia, to audition for record producer Ralph Peer, who was seeking new talents for the relatively embryonic recording industry. The sessions, part of what's now called the Bristol Sessions They received $50 for each song they recorded, plus half a cent royalty on every copy sold of each song for which they had registered a copyright. On 4 November 1927, the Victor Talking Machine Company released a double-sided 78 rpm record of the group performing "Wandering Boy" and "Poor Orphan Child". On 2 December 1928 Victor released "The Storms Are on the Ocean" / "Single Girl, Married Girl", which became very popular.
On Song"; and "Engine 143".
By the end of 1930 they had sold 300,000 records in the United States. Realizing that he would benefit financially with each new song he collected and copyrighted, A.P. traveled around the southwestern Virginia area in search of new songs; he also composed new songs. In the early 1930s, he befriended Lesley "Esley" Riddle, a black guitar player from Kingsport, Tennessee. Lesley accompanied A.P. on his song-collecting trips. In June 1931, the Carters did a recording session in Benton, Kentucky, along with Jimmie Rodgers. In 1933, Maybelle met the Speer family at the World's Fair in Ceredo and fell in love with their signature sound. She asked them to tour with the Carter Family.
In the winter of 1938–39, the Carter Family traveled to Texas, where they had a twice-daily program on the border radio station XERA (later XERF) in Villa Acuña (now Ciudad Acuña, Mexico), across the border from Del Rio, Texas. In the 1939–40 season, the children of A.P. and Sara (Janette Carter, Joe Carter) and those of Maybelle (Helen Carter, June Carter, Anita Carter) joined the group for radio performances, now in San Antonio, Texas, where the programs were prerecorded and distributed to multiple border radio stations. (The children did not perform however on the group's records). In the fall of 1942, the Carters moved their program to WBT radio in Charlotte, North Carolina, for a one-year contract. They occupied the sunrise slot, with the program airing between 5:15 and 6:15 a.m.
By 1936, A.P. and Sara's marriage had dissolved. Sara married A.P.'s cousin, moved to California, and the group disbanded in 1944.
Maybelle continued to perform with her daughters, Anita, June, and Helen, as "The Carter Sisters" (sometimes billed as "Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters" or "Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters"). Chet Atkins joined them playing electric guitar in 1949 until leaving in 1950. A.P., Sara, and their children Joe and Janette recorded some material in the 1950s. The Carter Sisters reclaimed the name "the Carter Family" for their act during the 1960s and 1970s. Maybelle and Sara briefly reunited, recorded a reunion album, and toured in the 1960s during the height of folk music's popularity.
A documentary about the family, Sunny Side of Life, was released in 1985.
In 1987, reunited sisters June Carter Cash and Helen and Anita Carter, along with June's daughter Carlene Carter, appeared as the Carter Family and were featured on a 1987 television episode of Austin City Limits along with Johnny Cash.
Revivalist folksingers during the 1960s performed much of the material the Carters had collected or written. For example, on her early Vanguard albums, folk performer Joan Baez sang "Wildwood Flower", "Little Moses", "Engine 143", "Little Darling, Pal of Mine", and "Gospel Ship". The Carter Family song "Wayworn Traveller" was covered by a young Bob Dylan, who wrote his own words to the melody and named it "Paths of Victory"; this recording is featured on Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. After writing that song, he wrote new words to the melody and changed the time signature to 3/4, thus creating one of his most famous songs, "The Times They Are a-Changin'”.
As important to country music as the family's repertoire of songs was Maybelle's guitar playing. She developed her innovative guitar technique largely in isolation; her style is today widely known as the "Carter scratch" or "Carter style" of picking (see Carter Family picking). While Maybelle did use a flatpick on occasion, her major method of guitar playing was the use of her thumb (with a thumbpick) along with one or two fingers. What her guitar style accomplished was to allow her to play melody lines (on the low strings of the guitar) while still maintaining rhythm using her fingers, brushing across the higher strings. Before the Carter family's recordings, the guitar was rarely used as a lead or solo instrument among white musicians. Maybelle's interweaving of a melodic line on the bass strings with intermittent strums is now a staple of steel string guitar technique. Flatpickers such as Doc Watson, Clarence White and Norman Blake took flatpicking to a higher technical level, but all acknowledge Maybelle's playing as their inspiration.
It has been noted by that 'by the end of the twenties, Maybelle Carter scratch ... was the most widely imitated guitar style in music. Nobody did as much to popularize the guitar, because from the beginning, her playing was distinctive as any voice.'"
—quoted in The Bristol Sessions: Writings About the Big Bang of Country Music (2005)
The Carter Family was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970 and were given the nickname "The First Family of Country Music". In 1988, the Carter Family was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and received its Award for the song "Will the Circle Be Unbroken". In 1993, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp honoring A.P., Sara, and Maybelle. In 2001, the group was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor. In 2005, the group received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Renewed attention to the Carter Family tune, When I'm Gone, has occurred after several covers of "the cups song" culminated with a short performance of it in the movie, Pitch Perfect.
The A. P. and Sara Carter House, A. P. Carter Homeplace, A. P. Carter Store, Maybelle and Ezra Carter House, and Mt. Vernon Methodist Church are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as components of the Carter Family Thematic Resource.