Where American Folk Music began is lost to the past. It is a mighty Mississippi River of music with stories of sorrow and of victory. Appalachian Mountain music and gospel churches performed without formal training; songs passed down through families. Its roots are European and African, but it is distinctly American. Over the generations it has been called by many names, Hillbilly music, Country music, Bluegrass and folk music and now Americana. The folk Movement began in the late 1950s it was a visceral reaction to the 1950s and an I like Ike America.
The generation born after World War two was raised in unimagined prosperity and unimagined conformity. It wasn’t a question of style or preference this was iron gate conformity. Hair over your collar or a hemline too far above the knee would get you sent home from school. You played little league went to Boy Scouts, High School and off to college. You married the girl of your dreams. You got a job with the corporation bought a house in the suburbs and lived happily ever after. There was no gay or straight, the ghettos were black, and the suburbs were white, and never shall the twain meet. Little girls aspired to be housewives’ little boys craved the corner office as a senior droid in a giant faceless machine.
The modern Folk movement began as young people looking for something organic in a world of chromium steel and vinyl plastics. They were living in an America singing, “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” in three-part harmony and face palming themselves. They were the first Woke generation, well, maybe not woke but the alarm clock had gone off.
Mother Maybelle singing Appalachian country or Mississippi John Hurt picking Piedmont style country blues, it all merged and came together, it was real in a world of the fake, it was non-conformity in a world of conformity. I won’t listen to Pat Boone, he’s a square! You can’t make me. I won’t! It was the beginning of beat nicks as prototype hippies. The Coffee House generation discovered the world and said why?
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night.” – Allen Ginsberg
The music, the thought was focused on freedom and rebelling against societal conformity which is in its essence the formula for Rock and Roll. The Beat poets the writers like Jack Kerouac who went “On the Road,” while Woody Guthrie was “Bound for Glory.” The view from the seamy underside of the American Dream, drunkenness and debauchery, hard times lived absolutely free and unfettered from societal constraints of any kind.
George Wallace and Martin Luther King shared the headlines nearly every night along with Vietnam casualty figures. The fifties were a pressure cooker era that exploded into the 1960s of JFK, Civil Rights and Vietnam. The times were painful and plentiful, Columbia Records spent four-hundred dollars to make a record of a kid from Minnesota. The kid played Woody Guthrie folk songs and did a basic imitation of Woody. But the kid also wrote his own songs, different and more poetic that changed everything. In 1965, Bob Dylan was the biggest star in folk music, he walked on stage for his second set of the Newport Folk Festival. Then he committed a sacrilege; he plugged an electric guitar into an amplifier. The crowd reacted as if he’d thrown baby Jesus from the manger.
This just wasn’t done, the coffee house non-conformist offended by non-conformity had imposed a musical purity test and with one song and one electric guitar Bob Dylan had destroyed it forever and created a new genre of folk rock right before their eyes. Many questioned if Dylan’s career was over but the furor just faded away with so what? Shit, this was Bob Dylan and the new music brought as many news fans as he’d lost. The Folk Movement was dead — Long Live Rock and Roll!
The Folk Movement was dead but Folk music continued as a genre, but the bubble had burst. The river forked, beat poets of dirty Greenwich Village side streets and dark coffee house nights headed west to sunny Los Angeles. Funny, Woody Guthrie in his book “Bound for Glory” told of finding his future in California and the music industry followed him. Peter, Paul and Mary, Joni Mitchell, John Phillips with the Mama’s and Poppa’s. California was the new melting pot, the folk-rock stylings of the Eagles and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. America and a hundred other bands. The genre opened the format, Ritchie Havens to Creedence Clearwater Revival from Maybelle Carter to Stevie Nicks.
Jimi Hendrix once described his music as just amplified blues, the rock movement of the 1960s and 70’s was just amplified Folk music. In this era of easy money and low productions costs, record companies took chances on new talent. Who Knows? Maybe the kid’s great! The returns were lucrative, Buddy Holly once struggled to be his own producer and now record companies asked artists, “Okay kid, show us what you got.” It was a time when the earth still breathed and a time when anything was possible.