Styles & Forms | The Folk Revival

Mention of the folk revival is generally applied to the late-1950s and early 1960s, when a new generation of enthusiasts earnestly set about exploring the history of folk music and recreating its passionate, social ideals.

There had been other folk revivals throughout history, but they tended to stem from the middle classes in search of a purer identity, resulting in the tendency to patronize real folk music. The folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, however, was a naturally organic affair generated by the musicians themselves, rather than the academic view of social culture that had been at the heart of previous revivals.

Its American roots began with groups such as The Kingston Trio, The Weavers and The New Christy Minstrels bringing folk, blues and country songs to the masses. Their arrangements may have been trite and sanitized, but The Weavers had massive hits with Woody Guthrie’s ‘So Long (It’s Been Good To Know You)’ and Leadbelly’s ‘Goodnight Irene’. They also opened the commercial door to a roots music that had previously been confined to its rural locality, be it the Appalachian mountains, Mississippi cotton fields or Texas bars. It was enough to inflame the curiosity of a new, young generation of guitarists and singers researching those roots, who were further spurred on by the political implications of the McCarthy witch-hunt and the refusal of Pete Seeger and others to bow to establishment values. Their guru was Oklahoma-born Woody Guthrie, whose own songs vehemently addressed issues close to him, including the human agony caused by the dust storms, or were created at singalongs for his own children. Though Woody himself was incapacitated through the wasting disease Huntington’s chorea long before his death in 1967, his legacy was a new generation of acolytes who were inspired by his simple tunes and abrasive lyrics and sought to embody his maverick lifestyle. Most famously, Bob Dylan visited Woody at his bedside and wrote his first song as a tribute to his hero, but a closer embodiment of the Guthrie spirit was represented by his friend Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, who travelled extensively with Woody, aped his voice and attitude and performed many of his songs. Yet Guthrie’s legend was best perpetuated by his own son Arlo Guthrie, who went on to achieve a commercial breakthrough that obliterated anything his father had done, with the long, autobiographical singing blues tome ‘Alice’s Restaurant’, which captured the anti-Vietnam War mood of the times so acutely it was made into a film.

Woody Guthrie’s legacy flowered in Greenwich Village, where a new breed of singer-songwriter with attitude, wordy songs and idealistic values descended to energize a new scene. With his sharp lyrics and revolutionary message, Bob Dylan was the most visible and successful of the new breed of folk star. But there were many others, too, including Dylan’s then-partner, Joan Baez. She was a highly rated singer of ballads, stridently political and often to...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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