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Delanceyplace: Down The Highway

In the 1950s, amid the saccharine hits of The Chipmunks
and Doris Day -- and against the background of the payola scandal -- American folk music found its way to the top of the charts. Groups such as The Weavers and The Kingston Trio had hits, and college students flocked to the grittier offerings
of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Odetta, and even songs from isolated towns in the Appalachian mountains passed down from ancestors in the British Isles. One of these was a university of Minnesota student later known as Bob Dylan, writes Howard Sounes.

American folk music had been recorded as early as the 1880s, and was popular in
rural areas until the Depression, which killed the industry by rendering country
people too poor to buy records. Folk music started to recover in the 1940s, and
in 1950 The Weavers, a radical singing group featuring Pete Seeger, enjoyed an unexpected
folk hit when they recorded a version of Leadbelly's 'Goodnight Irene.' It was the
most popular song that year. By the end of the 1950s, partly as an antidote to the
anodyne pop music of the time, exemplified by artists like Doris Day, folk music
had begun its great popular revival. The payola scandal of 1960, revealing that
music labels commonly paid bribes to get pop records played on the radio, was a
further unexpected boost for folk music. In contrast to the pop charts, folk music
seemed refreshingly untainted.

A sign that there was a major change in the public's musical tastes came in the
fall of 1958 when The Kingston Trio, a clean-cut vocal group of three young men,
had a number-one hit with the folk standard 'Tom Dooley.' The record shared radio
time with bubblegum tunes like 'The Chipmunk Song,' by The Chipmunks, and 'To Know
Him Is to Love Him,' by The Teddy Bears. Although The Kingston Trio performed folk
songs, their style was too prissy for the tastes of the college students who hung
out at the [college coffee shops]. Students' musical heroes were grittier folk and
blues artists like Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie. Another favorite was
Odetta, a classically trained African-American vocalist with a formidable stage
presence, who sang traditional songs like 'Jack O'Diamonds' and 'Mule Skinner Blues'
in an almost operatic contralto. Odetta was one of Bob's [Dylan] important early
influences. 'The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta,' he
has said. 'I heard a record of hers in a record store. . . . Right then and there,
I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar.'

Those that followed or considered themselves part of the folk revival placed great
importance on an elusive quality in music that might be described as authenticity.
To be respected in the folk community, musicians had to perform traditional songs
in a manner true to the original, while also making the songs distinctively their
own. The starting point was to find and learn from the earliest and purest forms
of the songs. This involved a degree of musical archaeology. Folk societies, including
the Minneapolis Folklore Society, sent away to the Library of Congress for field
recordings of hillbilly musicians, convicts, farm workers, and cowboys. Many of
the recordŽings had been made by John Lomax and his son, Alan, the musicologists
who had discovered Leadbelly in a Louisiana jail in the early 1930s.

Some of the older songs sung by convicts, cowboys, and rural workers were known
to academics as Child ballads, songs catalogued by Harvard professor Francis Child
that originated in the British Isles and were still sung by descendants of immigrants,
particularly in the isolated communities of the Appalachian mountains. These songs
had endured through centuries, and across cultural and geographical divides, because
they dealt with primal experiences -- faith, love, and acts of violence -- and because
they were written in words both poetic and true. These were the timeworn songs Bob
heard when he began frequenting [a coffee shop near the University of Minnesota]
and saw student musicians get up on stage to sing and play acoustic guitar."

Author: Howard Sounes
Title: Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan
Publisher: Grove Press
Date: Copyright 2001, 2011 by Howard Sounes
Pages: 51-53

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