The ‘60s Folk Revival Part II
In which we begin to discuss how folk music made its way to Greenwich Village, San Francisco and beyond….
(All performances and songs below belong to the artist and their publishers, and are used here with respect).
The Smothers Brothers TV show hosts Greenwich Village singer/songwriter Janis Ian. By the mid 1960s, mainstream media was giving air to controversial folk acts and controversial material: the Smothers Brothers were political folk singers who got their own variety show: Ian’s song is about mixed race romantic relationships, an incredibly taboo subject in 1967.
In part I of this rather rambling discussion we spoke about how several threads of folk music, social activism and the Beat scene converged on New York’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. That’s not to say this was the only place where stuff was happening, but it was certainly an epicenter. For this part, let’s look at Greenwich Village itself.
Greenwich Village began in the late 1600s as an area of farms, a prison and a cemetery, north of the Village of Manhattan (the area of Manhattan Island that is now Wall Street and Downtown). By the mid-1800s Manhattan Village was a very violent and congested area: gangs of American toughs, and Irish and Italian immigrants, prowled Little Five Points, the northernmost area of what was then Manhattan (as shown in the Martin Scorsese film The Gangs Of New York). A yellow fever epidemic in 1822 made Manhattan life even more squalid and dangerous. Those who could afford to do so moved further north on the island, many to rural Greenwich Village.
Street children and a dead horse on the streets of the Lower East Side, turn of the century Manhattan. Who wouldn’t want to get the heck out of there?
Greenwich Village had always been an area of cultural diversity: before the Civil War, the Village boasted many free people of color as residents. Now it welcomed those who could afford to leave the squalor of Manhattan. Of those who resettled in the Village, many were Italian immigrants, who retained a café/coffeehouse culture. We’re not talking about Starbucks, which is basically a restaurant that serves American coffee: cafes like the Figaro and Café Reggio are aesthetically awe-inspiring establishments: one walks in and is presented with marble floors, pressed tin ceilings and the pipes, knobs and dials of enormous brass cappuccino machines. These are again not Starbucks, where you order a grande iced sugar-free vanilla latte with soy milk to go: the feel and odors of the place are warm and inviting, welcoming you to stay for hours and sip Italian style espresso or cappuccinos.
Above: Sidewalk cafe patrons in 1960s Greenwich Village. Below: Cafe Figaro on Bleeker Street as seen circa 1960. Can you dig it? (Both photos taken from the Internet, neither is mine).
And stay for hours you are meant to do. Just as in Italy, customers of 19th century cafes would sit all afternoon, talking heatedly about politics, arts and culture. Since the Renaissance, cafes are the place where the intelligentsia gather to kindle thought and inspiration. In Greenwich Village these coffeehouses became a center for alternative theater and music, and a home for authors such as Edgar Allen Poe and Edna St. Vincent Millay. And by the 20th century, authors that included Arthur Miller, Jack Kerouac, William Burrows, e e cummings, Dashiell Hammett and Allen Ginsburg.
Poet Allen Ginsberg reading in Washington Square, circa 1960s.
Of Poetry And Cappuccino
Which brings us to the Beats, or Beatniks. By the late 1940s into the 1950s, Greenwich Village was the ‘bohemian’ area of New York City, boasting very cheap rents and many artists, authors, musicians, coffeehouses and bookshops. People involved with the ‘Beat movement,’ a movement that was heavily influenced by black culture, and that repudiated suburban values and commercialization, made Greenwich Village a center for their community, meeting and sharing ideas in the Italian cafes that proliferate the winding Village streets. Inspired by café culture, music venues sprang up around the Village that focused on Italian coffee and American folk music.
The Weavers became a staple Village act, starting out their career with a steady gig at the Village Vanguard club in the late ‘40s-early 50s. More clubs opened, including Gerdes Folk City, the Roach, and The Bitter End. By 1960, these clubs were featuring performers who would go on to become legendary: Richie Havens, Peter, Paul and Mary; Bob Dylan; Phil Ochs; Simon and Garfunkel; Janis Ian; Buffy Sainte-Marie; Maria Muldaur and a ton of others.
Above: Richie Havens, who was an iconic Greenwich Village performer throughout the 1960s, playing at Woodstock in 1969. Below: Village native Maria Muldaur performing with the Jim Kewskin Jug Band, and talking years later about the Greenwich Village folk scene.
By 1960, the Beat scene in Greenwich Village had taken a very strong stand on issues of civil rights and the growing anti-war movement in response to American involvement in Viet Nam. Groups of musicians would often gather in Washington Square, a fountain beneath a replica of the French Arch D’Triumph that sits in the center of the Village. They would play songs of resistance, social justice, and peace as local crowds gathered to listen. In 1961, the city began to grow wary of these gatherings, citing them as ‘beatnik riots,’ and several violent police actions broke out. Yet the ‘beatniks’ continued to gather in the square, and continued to sing, despite official banishment. These violent responses to peaceful gatherings continued to fuel ideas of social reform which would also be shared at the coffeehouse cafes, where the local folk musicians would also perform.
Musicians gathering in Washington Square in 1962 (above), and today, (below). In the photo below, iconic Greenwich Village musician Gene Tambor holds his Gibson mandolin at the center of the photo. Tambor has lived in the same apartment on Bleeker Street since the 1960s.
Joan Baez is a Mexican-American folk singer and political activist who was already a mainstay in the Civil Rights movement, and a personal friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as the ‘60s began. Growing up as a Quaker, and bullied as a child for being Hispanic, Baez took to social activism at an early age. Musically she was heavily influenced by the Weavers, and especially by the songwriting of Pete Seeger. While the Village was full of folk singers with guitars who loved songs of peace and justice, in 1960 Joan Baez was the only one who sold out concerts and played at the Newport Folk Festival. She had also appeared on the November 23, 1962 cover of Time Magazine: no folk musician had ever been so honored before.
Above: the 1962 cover, featuring the “barefoot Madonna” folk singer, Joan Baez. Baez’ 1963 performance of ‘We Shall Overcome’ (co-written by Seeger) at the March On Washington became the anthem of the Civil Rights movement. Below, she sings the song during a TV appearance two years later.
Right behind Baez was Phil Ochs, who arrived in the Village in 1962. Ochs was perhaps the greatest anti-war songwriter (or as he would say, topical songwriter) of the very early ‘60s (Ochs shared that notoriety with Bob Dylan in the few years to follow). Ochs was primarily a journalist when he arrived in New York, but after hearing Pete Seeger and other topical folk singers, he turned his creative passion to songwriting. In just two years, he had gained amazing notoriety for his songwriting and performances. New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug, speaking before congress, said of Ochs’ songs:
“[his] original compositions were compelling moral statements against war in Southeast Asia.”
Phil Ochs with odd subtitles.
Ochs and Baez spearheaded a new generation of folk musicians whose aim was not simply to preserve the folk tradition, or even to use existing folk songs as tools for social change, as had been the goal of the Weavers, Lomax, and Lead Belly, but to add to it new songs of social justice and a sweeping revision of the American cultural landscape. These musicians found consistent gigs and consistent appreciation in the Village, at venues like Folk City and The Bitter End, and consistent inspiration at the Village cafes and in the gatherings of musicians at Washington Square.
Into this relatively tiny cabal of beat politics, folk music weaponry and civil rights suddenly came the voice that would become a focus of the movement, make the nation aware of its beliefs, and in the process, change the face of pop music for decades to come.
Who hasn’t heard of Bob Dylan? Who doesn’t know at least one or two Dylan songs (even if you’re not aware that Bob wrote them)? While Joan Baez and Phil Ochs were the top of the heap in the beatnik folk singer-activist movement of 1960-63, Dylan swooped in and showed the world how folk music could change lives. And not only in good ways.
Born Robert Zimmerman in Minnesota, Dylan played rock and roll music in his teens, performing in local bands and doing Elvis Presley and Little Richard songs. But when he heard the recordings of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, Dylan rethought his musical aspirations. He would later say:
“The thing about rock’n’roll is that for me anyway it wasn’t enough… There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms… but the songs weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”
A young Bob Dylan in Minnesota in 1960.
Dylan arrived in New York in 1961, with the intention of visiting Woody Guthrie, who was seriously ill and hospitalized. Dylan began playing in the Greenwich Village club scene, where he befriended Ramblin’ Jack Eliot and Dave Van Ronk, both of whom were well known Guthrie-style folk singers. Van Ronk taught Dylan a version of the New Orleans folk song ‘House Of the Rising Sun,’ which Dylan recorded on his unimpressive first album.
While Dylan’s first album failed to sell well, it garnered notice from some influential people. When Columbia Records moved to drop Dylan’s contract, Johnny Cash defended him (Cash would later have a country hit with Dylan’s song ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.’ Cash also gave Dylan a guitar as a sign of admiration). Another admirer was literary great Joyce Carol Oats, who wrote of Dylan:
“When we first heard this raw, very young, and seemingly untrained voice, frankly nasal, as if sandpaper could sing, the effect was dramatic and electrifying.”
But it was Dylan’s second commercial album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in 1963, that took listeners by storm. The song ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ became an anthem for both the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement, and was recorded by various acts including New York trio Peter, Paul and Mary, who had a hit with the song.
Blowin’ In The Wind: Bob Dylan (above) and Peter Paul and Mary below.
It was at this time that Dylan became quite involved with civil rights. He walked off the Ed Sullivan show (the television show that made the careers of several stars, including Elvis and the Beatles) over the show’s producers asking him not to sing a political song. Dylan also began both a musical duo and a romantic relationship with Joan Baez, who introduced Dylan to the established folk movement, and invited him to play at such venues as the Newport Folk Festival. This shot Dylan overnight into international stardom. Baez spoke of how she felt Dylan was writing the songs that expressed what the anti-war movement was about.
As for their romance, reflecting upon the first time he saw Joan Baez on television, while still living in Minnesota, Dylan said:
“I couldn’t stop looking at her, didn’t want to blink. . . . The sight of her made me sigh. All that and then there was the voice. A voice that drove out bad spirits . . . she sang in a voice straight to God. . . . Nothing she did didn’t work.”
Dylan’s next album was The Times They Are A-Changin’, a more political and more cynical album. Most of the songs were about social injustice and political issues: ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’ was about the assassination of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evans, while ‘North Country Blues’ spoke of the plight of miners. The title song warned of a political apocalypse. This album, and his affair with Baez, placed Dylan even more firmly on the landscape of the social justice and anti-war folk movement.
But Dylan was a radical in every sense: he treated his lovers, friends and supporters in the same way he treated the press or the Ed Sullivan show. By 1965 Dylan had ended his affair with Baez, a relationship largely responsible for Dylan’s success (on his 1965 English tour, Dylan invited Baez to fly to Britain to join him on stage, but when she arrived, never brought her up to perform with him). He then released the LP Bringing It All Back Home, which marked a huge change. First, Dylan had given up singing ‘topical songs’ and had settled on writing what he called free association lyrics, a style of songwriting influenced by the Greenwich Village beat poets. The songs written in this style became hits, and ‘Mr. Tamborine Man’ was recorded by the Byrds, beginning their career largely as a band that covered Dylan’s songs.
The Byrds covering Dylan. Note David Crosby, later of Crosby Stills and Nash, on guitar, and wearing a cape.
But more controversial was Dylan’s abandoning of acoustic folk music, performing his songs with an electric band that included musicians Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (both would also go on to record with Stephen Stills of Crosby Stills and Nash). Folk audiences of the time felt that rock music held no relevance, and only acoustic folk had the intimacy and power to convey the message of social change, the same feelings Dylan himself had expressed upon first hearing Pete Seeger. When Dylan performed on a Stratocaster electric guitar, with his electric band, at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, the crowd booed him throughout the set, and Pete Seeger reportedly said he was looking for an axe to cut the microphone wires. An angered Dylan walked off stage with his band. In the end, Baez and Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul and Mary convinced Dylan to finish his set with a group of acoustic songs. In the film No Direction Home, Yarrow can be heard bringing Dylan back on stage and stressing to the crowd “Bob’s coming back to do some songs on his ACOUSTIC guitar.”
But while it seemed that playing a Stratocaster and hiring Blues musicians might end Dylan’s career, in fact within a year Dylan was more popular than ever. His electric songs reached a much wider audience, and helped bring thousands, perhaps millions, more people into the political conversation of the mid 1960s. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ topped the pop charts, the first time a spot on the Billboard charts had ever been taken by a rambling, six-minute song. Dylan began touring full time with the electric musicians who would later record as The Band. Bands and singers from every corner of the world began recording Bob Dylan songs, including his jilted lover Joan Baez.
Above: Joan Baez singing Bob Dylan’s It Ain’t Me Babe.Below: Actress Marlene Dietrich singing Dylan.
John Lennon expressed his admiration of Dylan, and began writing much more folk oriented material like ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘You’ve Got To You’re your Love Away.’ Influenced in a completely opposite way, brilliant folk singer Donovan famously met Dylan on Dylan’s British 1965 tour, and the two had a very heated conversation: after that meeting Donovan, who had embraced a Woody Guthrie guitar style on his early LPs, changed his focus completely to the Mod folk-rock styles that defined such songs as Sunshine Superman and Hurdy Gurdy Man (We’re going to get to Britain’s folk revival in another post in what is quickly becoming my thousand-part discussion of the folk revival).
Dylan and Donovan have a bit of a woody-guthrie style songwriting showdown (above): after this meeting, Donovan changed his style drastically (below).
As awareness grew in America of Civil Rights and of the issues of the Viet Nam war, Dylan’s lyrics and embracing of electric music opened up an entirely new market in popular music. Acts like the Byrds, Sonny and Cher, and the Smothers Brothers were embraced by the music industry, which was now actively seeking folk music or folk-rock sounds and more controversial lyrics, lyrics that would inspire the growing anti-war movement, which had now grown well out of the Village and San Francisco and into mainstream America.
Above: Odetta was an iconic Village singer and activist. Here…well the album title speaks for itself. Below: Sonny and Cher were one of the first mainstream acts to speak out against the Viet Nam War. Here they perform a song that questions social norms on mainstream television.
And The Beat Goes On
And speaking of San Francisco. We haven’t talked about that yet. I really meant this discussion to be one, maybe two parts…. That’s not happening. Alright then, next time, the San Francisco folk movement, and beyond…. Then we’ll get to Britain, I swear… then James Taylor and Carol King. …They’re coming up too. Honest.