American folk music revival  

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The American folk music revival was a phenomenon in the United States in the 1950s to mid-1960s. Its roots went earlier, of course, since traditional folk music has thousands of years of history, and performers like Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, and Cisco Houston had enjoyed a limited general popularity in decades prior to the 1950s. The revival brought forward musical styles that had, in earlier times, contributed to the development of country & western, jazz, and rock and roll music.



The folk music revival is sometimes said to have begun with Pete Seeger. The Weavers, formed in 1947 by Seeger, had a big hit in 1949 with Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene". This hit was probably one of the first glimmerings of the folk music revival.

Although carried along by a handful of artists releasing records, the folk-music scene's development was still only as a sort of cult phenomenon in bohemian circles in places like New York City (especially Greenwich Village), North Beach, and in the college and university districts of cities like Boston, Denver, Chicago and elsewhere. It was hip, but not terribly widespread.

In the 1950s and after, acoustic folk-song performance became associated with the coffee houses, private parties, open-air concerts and sing-alongs, and college-campus concerts. It 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.

The Kingston Trio, while playing at a college club called the Cracked Pot, were discovered by Frank Werber, who became their manager and secured them a deal with Capitol Records. Their first hit was a catchy rendition of an old-time folk song, "Tom Dooley", which went gold in 1958. The following year, the group won the first Grammy Award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording category for the album The Kingston Trio at Large. At one point late in 1959 , The Kingston Trio had four records at the same time among the Top 10 selling albums according to Billboard Magazine's "Top Ten Albums" chart for the week of December 7, 1959, a record unmatched for nearly 40 years and noted at the time by a cover story in Life Magazine.

The Kingston Trio's popularity would be followed by Joan Baez, whose debut album Joan Baez, reached the top ten in late 1960, and remained on the Billboard charts for over two years. Her popularity (and that of the folk revival itself) would place Baez on the cover of Time Magazine in November 1962. However Baez, unlike the Kingston Trio, was extremely vocal about her often left-leaning political stances; though her first few albums were comprised largely of traditional Child balads, she began integrating her politics with her music, beginning in the mid-1960s, following the tradition of Seeger, Guthrie and others.

The contemporary-songwriter and folk-music scene during these times often had a facet of social concern. Young singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, playing acoustic guitar and harmonica, had been signed and recorded for Columbia by producer John Hammond in 1961. Dylan's record enjoyed some popularity in the Greenwich Village folk-music cult, but he was "discovered" by an immensely larger audience when a pop-folk-music group, Peter, Paul & Mary had a hit with his song "Blowing in the Wind". Their songs often shared in the humanitarianism and social idealism of the Weavers, and a few of the earlier folk-scene notables, and this and other songs by Dylan fitted the bill.

Dylan’s general popularity was soon so great that record companies began to sign, and distribute records for, many new, young, sometimes-scruffy singer/songwriters – Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Eric von Schmidt, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dave Van Ronk, Judy Collins, Tom Rush, Fred Neil, Gordon Lightfoot, Billy Ed Wheeler, John Denver, Arlo Guthrie, John Hartford, and others, among them. Some of this wave had emerged from family singing and playing traditions, and some had not.

Archivists, Collectors, and Re-issued Recordings

During these same years, the devoted and growing folk-music crowd that had developed in the United States began to want and to buy records by obscure older folk musicians, from the Southeastern hill country and from urban inner-cities. LP records made up of re-issue collections of ethnic and regional 78-rpm records (studio recordings) stretching back to the 1920s and 1930s were put on sale. Also becoming available were LP-record collections made from original folk-music field recordings originally made by ethnomusicologists. Many smaller 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 white Americans first heard country blues and especially Delta blues, that had been recorded by Mississippi folk artists 30 or 40 years before.

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.

Folk-music collectors like the great Alan Lomax worked assiduously for decades to find and record examples of almost every facet of native American, African-American and European-American folk music, and the work of these many scholars, enthusiasts and collectors preserved the sound of many legendary "folk" performers and thousands of hours of priceless song and music from the American folk music tradition.

Rock subsumes folk

See also: Folk rock

After the darling of the young enthusiasts, Bob Dylan, began to record with a rocking rhythm section and electric instruments in 1965 (see Electric Dylan controversy), many other still-young folk artists followed suit. Meanwhile, bands like The Lovin' Spoonful and the Byrds, whose individual members often had a background in the folk-revival coffee-house scene, were getting recording contracts with folk-tinged music played with a rock-band line-up. Before long, the public appetite for the more acoustic music of the folk revival began to wane.

"Crossover" hits ("folk songs" that became rock-music-scene staples) happened now and again. One well-known example is the song "Hey Joe", copyrighted by folk artist Billy Roberts, and recorded by rock singer/guitarist Jimi Hendrix just as he was about to burst into stardom in 1967. The anthem "Woodstock" was written and first sung and accompanied on keyboard by Joni Mitchell while her records were still nearly entirely acoustic, and while she was labeled a "folk singer" receiving big airplay when Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded a groovy folk-rock version.

Technological aspects

The American folk music revival was revolutionised in the early 1950s by the new technology of magnetic tape recording, which for the first time allowed music collectors to make very stable, long-duration, high-fidelity studio and field recordings. The concurrent introduction of the LP audio disc format, which could hold as much as thirty minutes of continuous music per side, allowed many such "folk music" recordings to be released into the consumer market for the first time.

The availability of high-quality portable tape recorders was the key innovation that led to the inception of the two keystone labels in the world music genre. Folkways Records extensive archive of folk and indigenous music was launched in the 1950s. It was followed in 1967 by Elektra Records' influential Nonesuch Explorer Series.

These "folk" LPs—notably those of early 20th century blues music—were to bring about a radical change in the style and direction of late 20th century popular music. This process is exemplified by the huge directional change in rock music that came about when young British and American musicians (like Eric Clapton) heard the now-legendary recordings of an obscure Mississippi blues musician called Robert Johnson.


By the late 1960s, the scene had returned to being more of a lower-key, aficionado phenomenon, although sizable annual acoustic-music festivals were established in many parts of North America during this period. The acoustic music coffee-house scene survived at a reduced scale. Through the luminary young singer-songwriters of the 1960s, the American folk-music revival has influenced songwriting and musical styles throughout the world.

Major figures

  • Burl Ives - as a youth, Ives dropped out of college to travel around as an itinerant singer during the early 1930s, earning his way by doing odd jobs and playing his banjo. In 1930 he had a brief, local radio career on WBOW radio in Terre Haute, Indiana, and in the 1940s he had his own radio show, titled The Wayfaring Stranger, titled after one of the popular ballads he sang. The show was very popular, and in 1946 Ives was cast as a singing cowboy in the film Smoky. Ives went on to play parts in other popular films, as well. His first book, The Wayfaring Stranger, was published in 1948.
  • Pete Seeger had met, and been influenced, by many important folk musicians (and singer-songwriters with folk roots), such as Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. Seeger had labor movement involvements, and he met Woody at a "Grapes of Wrath" migrant workers’ concert on March 3, 1940, and the two thereafter began a musical collaboration (which included the Almanac Singers). In 1948 Seeger wrote the first version of his now-classic How to Play the Five-String Banjo, an instructional book that many banjo players credit with starting them off on the instrument.
  • The Weavers were formed in 1947 by Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman. A fifth member, Erik Darling, sometimes sat in with the group when Seeger was unavailable. After a period of finding themselves unable to find much, if any paid work, they finally achieved a performance slot at the Village Vanguard in New York. They were then discovered by arranger Gordon Jenkins, and were signed with Decca Records.
  • Josh White was an authentic singer of rural blues and folk music, a man who had been born into abject conditions in South Carolina during the Jim Crow years. As a young black singer, he was initially dubbed “the Singing Christian” (he sang some Gospel songs, and was the son of a preacher), but also recorded blues songs under the name Pinewood Tom. Later discovered by John H. Hammond and groomed for both stage performance and a major-label recording career, his repertoire expanded to include urban blues, jazz, and gleanings from a broad folk repertoire, in addition to rural blues and gospel. Josh White gained a very wide following in the 1940s and had a huge influence on later blues artists and groups, as well as the general folk-music scene. His pro-justice and civil-rights stance provoked harsh treatment during the suspicious HUAC era, seriously harming his performing career in the ‘50s, and keping him off TV until 1963. In folk-music circles, however, he retained respect and was admired both as a musical hero and a link with the Southern rural-blues and gospel traditions.
  • Harry Belafonte, another influential singer, started his career as a club singer in New York to pay for his acting classes. At first he was a pop singer, but later he developed a keen interest in folk music. In 1952 he signed a contract with RCA Victor. 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, etc.
  • Odetta - As an example of the more obscure among the early notables, 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. For Odetta, it began a period of great respect and a sort of underground reputation associated with a repertoire of traditional songs (e.g., spirituals) and blues covers.
  • Joan Baez’s career got started in 1958 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where at 17 she gave her first coffee-house concert. She was invited to perform at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival, after which Baez was sometimes called “the barefoot Madonna," gaining renown for her clear voice and three-octave range. She recorded her first album for a major label the following year – a collection of laments and traditional folk ballads from the British Isles, accompanying the songs with guitar. Her second LP release went gold, as did her next (live) albums. One record featured her rendition of a song by the then-unknown Bob Dylan. In the early 1960s, Baez moved into the forefront of the American folk-music revival. Increasingly, her personal convictions – peace, social justice, anti-poverty – were reflected in the topical songs that made up a growing portion of her repertoire, to the point that Baez became a symbol for these particular concerns.
  • Bob Dylan often performed, and sometimes toured, with Joan Baez, starting when she was a singer of mostly traditional songs. As Baez adopted some of Dylan's songs into her repertoire and even introduced Dylan to her avid audiences, a large following on the folk circuit, it helped the young songwriter to gain initial recognition. By the time Dylan recorded his first LP (1962) he had developed a style reminiscent of Woody Guthrie. He began to write songs that captured the "progressive" mood on the college campuses and in the coffee houses. Though by 1964 there were many new guitar-playing singer/songwriters, it is arguable that Dylan eventually became the most popular of these younger folk-music-revival performers.


Although singers such as the Weavers and Joan Baez occasionally included Spanish-language material in their repertoires, the folk-music revival in North America (as it existed in the coffee houses, concert halls, and radio and TV) was overwhelmingly an English-language phenomenon. In that sense, it bypassed a lot of ethnic folk traditions to be found in North America (e.g., Italian, French, Portuguese, German, Jewish-American, Polish, Russian) – except in a small proportion of instances where songs’ lyrics had been translated into English.


  • Robert Cantwell, When We Were Good: The Folk Revival (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996). ISBN 0-674-95132-8
  • Ronald D. Cohen, Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival & American Society, 1940-1970 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002). ISBN 1-55849-348-4
  • Agnes "Sis" Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, Red Dust and Broadsides: A Joint Autobiography (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999) ISBN 1-55849-210-0
  • R. Serge Denisoff, Great Day Coming: Folk Music and the American Left (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971).
  • R. Serge Denisoff, Sing Me a Song of Social Significance (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972). ISBN 0-87972-036-0
  • David Dunaway, How Can I Keep From Singing: Pete Seeger (1981; Da Capo Press, 1990). ISBN 0-306-80399-2
  • Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory & American Roots Music (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000). ISBN 0-8078-4862-X
  • David Hajdu, Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña (New York: North Point Press, 2001). ISBN 0-86547-642-X
  • Robbie Lieberman, "My Song Is My Weapon:" People's Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930-50 (1989; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995). ISBN 0-252-06525-5
  • Dick Weissman, Which Side Are You On? An Inside History of the Folk Music Revival in America (New York: Continuum, 2005). ISBN 0-8264-1698-5

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