The ‘60s Folk Revival Part III

The ‘60s Folk Revival Part III

In which we discuss how folk music made its way to San Francisco and L.A….

Comprised of members of two New York folk groups (The New Journeymen and the Mugwumps),  The Mamas And The Papas seamlessly blended New York folk styles with the California surf style of bands like The Beach Boys, with overtones of The Byrds (who helped them get their record deal, and with whom singer Michelle Phillips was…um…very close) to create a successful pop folk style.

When last we spoke, we were talking about New York’s Greenwich Village as the epicenter of the early ‘60s folk revival. But New York was not the only place folk-y things were happening: the West Coast was pretty energetic too, as was the west in general, and folk music was a big deal there as well.

By 1966, television was ready for folk music and complex issues… to a point. L. A.-based act Sonny and Cher were heavily rooted in European folk music blended with American pop, as this song clearly shows. Like many folk acts on TV, Sonny and Cher came under scrutiny for their anti-war politics. 

The East Coast folk music scene in Greenwich Village was about a certain ‘purity’ of the music: New York musicians were very committed to the idea, inspired by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, that the performance of the music on acoustic guitar and voice created a pure sound and an intimate, thought-provoking atmosphere that benefited both audience and performer. In fact, one of the most common criticisms of Dylan’s electric shows starting in 1965 was that he’d lost that intimate connection with the listener that acoustic music created. His audience felt that his concerts became a show rather than a dialogue.

But from its very start, West Coast folk music embraced eclectic influences, rejoiced in stylistic growth, and allowed itself to be combined with many genres, including rock and pop. While firmly rooted in the Beat ethic—one of the major figures in the San Francisco folk-rock audience was Neal Cassady, travel companion of Beat author Jack Kerouac— West Coast folk music took some major turns that helped create the ‘hippie’ scene that would become an iconic brand of the era. Unlike its New York counterpart, the folk scene in California (and western Canada) did not really take off until mid-decade, with its major acts recording from about 1965. Much of the scene began to take shape on California’s college campuses.

Harry Belafonte, circa 1960. Belafonte, and other Jamaican, Caribbean and Latin singers like Desi Arnez, were a huge influence on West Coast folk music.

We spoke about the post-World War II trend of college education. With college education and increased leisure time, young adults became much more aware of the ways in which the world they lived in presented hardships, violence and injustice, and yearned to know how these conditions could be changed by those with education. Just as in New York, Folk music was a medium by which college students began identifying with a movement toward social change.

The Kingston Trio sing Pete Seeger, 1966.

In 1957, well into the time the Weavers were struggling with black listing in New York, a band that would become one of the most successful folk bands in America hit the charts with an old Appalachian song, revived for a new era of folk. The Kingston Trio, a band from San Francisco by way of Hawaii, recorded the song Tom Dooley, a plaintive tune about an 1866 murder. While very much in a folk style, the recording became a pop hit, and reached number one on the Billboard chart in 1958.

The Kingston Trio perform a song they learned from the singing of Harry Belafonte. Note the fake Jamaican accents. 

The Kingston Trio were not committed to the purity of any one musical style, the way East Coast acts were: inspired by the Weavers and just as much by Harry Belafonte, they combined folk, Jamaican and Calypso styles to sing a mix of Appalachian, Caribbean and foreign language songs. Like the Weavers they focused on tight harmony singing, but their harmonies were much more polished and much less ‘folksie’ than their New York counterparts, giving them a more pop sound. They were also young and ‘collegiate’ looking, sporting blazers and crew cuts (unlike the Beat poets of New York). This sparked a rash of folk bands with the collegiate appeal, including such acts as the Chad Mitchell Trio, the New Christy Minstrels, and San Francisco based The Town Criers, whose singer later formed The Jefferson Airplane.

Another very successful collegiate duo was the Smothers Brothers. Tom and Dick Smothers started out as a college coffeehouse act, incorporating humor into their renderings of folk songs. They landed a show on network television, which they used as a platform to introduce up-and-coming folk singers, and social issues… enough social issues that they were ultimately canceled.

The Smothers Brothers, a ‘collegiate’ folk duo who had a very popular TV show through the ’60s. While the show was a viewer favorite, it was cancelled in 1969 due to the Smothers’ statements of anti-war sentiments. In this clip, the brothers take a very tongue in cheek look at the switch from folk to folk-rock, ala Dylan; they also jokingly express some ’60s sentiments, such as ‘don’t trust anyone over 30.’ In all, this clip exemplifies their talent for framing serious subjects of the era in a very witty, hilarious dialogue.

Beginning around 1961, a west coast folk singer and piano prodigy was recording her first LP, A Maid Of Constant Sorrow (named for an Appalachian song). Judy Collins came to national attention over the next few years for her amazing voice, her guitar and piano skills, and for finding and recording songs by as-yet-unknown folk songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohan, Robin Williamson and Richard Farina (brother-in-law to Joan Baez). Here is one of Collins’ first TV appearances in 1966, singing Pete Seeger:

Judy Collins on the Smothers Brothers show, 1969, singing ‘Someday Soon,’ a country/folk song which Collins says she learned from Stephen Stills. Note that Collins was using Susan Evans on drums: female drummers in a mainstream recording band were unheard of in 1969!

In the following years, Collins would also be known for her political activism, during which time she famously supported the ‘Chicago 7,’ and for her romance with Stephan Stills.

At the same time that Collins was recording her first album, a young San Francisco folk musician was performing traditional Anglo-American folk ballads, such as ‘Matty Groves’ and ‘The Long Black Veil,’ around the city’s coffeehouse scene. Jerry Garcia was featured on KPFA radio in 1962, on a broadcast entitled “The Long Black Veil and Other Ballads: An Evening with Jerry Garcia,” a show recorded on the two-track tape recorder of jazz trumpet player Phil Lesh. (In case you don’t know, Garcia and Lesh would go to form The Grateful Dead three years later).

Banjo Jerry 1

A very young Jerry Garcia on banjo, circa 1963.

Garcia also loved hobo and jugband music, and in about 1963 he formed Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions with “Pigpen” McKernan and 15-year-old Bob Weir. The band played many of the same jugband and hobo standards as Maria Muldaur’s band, the East Coast-based Jim Kweskin Jug Band, though Mother McCree’s supplemented their repertoire with Southern blues songs brought in by McKernan.

After hearing the Beatles perform in 1965, Garcia, Weir, McKernan and Lesh decided to play electric, and formed The Warlocks, a name which was soon changed to The Grateful Dead.

The Grateful dead singing Bob Dylan.

The Grateful Dead, while primarily an electric band, kept many elements of Folk music alive in their style. They would often play long acoustic sets at their shows, performing songs by Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Dylan, and folk singer Elizabeth Cotten, whose songs had been recorded by Pete Seeger’s family in the 1950s. (On one recording, Garcia dedicates a song to Cotten). The Dead also embraced the intimate feel of performer and audience that acoustic folk music held. Dead audiences felt that they were an integral part of the show, and that the way the Dead performed on any given night had as much to do with the energy of the audience as it did with the energy of the band.

The Grateful Dead converse in song, across several decades, with folk singer Elizabeth Cotten. Above, Cotten’s song “Shake Sugaree.” Below, the Dead’s “Sugaree,” whose chorus is ‘shake it, shake it, Sugaree.’ Both songs are about a woman down on her luck, each told from a different perspective. The Dead often referenced or re-worked traditional folk songs. 

Immersed in West Coast Beat culture, the Grateful Dead became the house band for author Ken Kesey’s “Electric Kool Aid Acid Test” parties in San Francisco, which were frequented by several key Beat figures including Neal Cassady. Cassady had relocated to San Francisco, and became a member of author Ken Kesey’s entourage, the Merry Pranksters. Jerry Garcia dated and married a Merry Prankster, Carolyn Adams, aka Mountain Girl.


Jerry Garcia and Mountain Girl.

Cassady became a huge influence on the Dead, and the band wrote several songs about their friendship with him. One song, ‘Cassidy,’ describes the death of Neal Cassady in 1968 and the 1970 birth of Dead manager Eileen Law’s child, who was named Cassidy, and was born in the home Law shared with Dead guitarist Bob Weir. The song strongly implies that the soul of the Beat poet was reincarnated in the newborn child.

While Beats were dropping certain psychedelic substances and dancing to the Grateful Dead in San Fran, folk-y stuff was happening well up the coast. In western Canada, three musicians who would come to play a huge part in the California folk movement were playing local gigs and learning their instruments. That would be Neil Young from Winnipeg, Joni Mitchell from Alberta, and Buffy Sainte-Marie from Saskatchewan. (What happened, Canada? Now you send us Avril Levine and Justin Bieber!, Oh, Canada).

Buffy Sainte-Marie was born on the Cree Indian reservation in Saskatchewan’s Qu’appelle Valley, and educated in Massachusetts. In 1963 and ’64, she became highly regarded as a singer and songwriter, with many musicians covering her songs ‘Cod’ine’ and ‘Universal Soldier.’  Many of Sainte-Marie’s songs conveyed her anger over the Viet Nam war, and over the treatment of native peoples

Above: After an introduction harping on the often-heard reason for folk music preferences among ’60s audiences, Buffy Sainte-Marie sings Cod’ine, a song she wrote about her struggles with her own codeine addiction. This song has been covered by many musicians, including Janis Joplin, below.

In 1964 Buffy Sainte-Marie was named Billboard Magazine’s best new artist.As well as a singer, she took the role of a mentor to aspiring song writers: for instance, she helped fellow Canadian folk singer Joni Mitchell get management, and covered several of Mitchell’s songs.

Another accomplishment for Buffy Sainte-Marie was being the first celebrity to represent Native America on the TV show Sesame Street: she taught children that “Indians still exist” over a five-year tenure on the show. On one ground-breaking episode, she nursed her son on the show: breast feeding had been seen as gauche for some time by white America, but Native Americans still believed it was healthier for babies. Of course this belief has now become widely popular.

Like the blacklisting of the Weavers, Sainte-Marie learned in the ‘80s that several American presidents had blacklisted her from inclusion on American radio in the ‘60s and ‘70s, due to both her outspoken stance on the Viet Nam war, and her Indian heritage.

Moving down the coast… By the mid-1960s, Los Angeles had become a major destination for folk musicians, many of whom had settled in Laurel Canyon, a wooded mountainous area just north of Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. The Strip itself, lined with such clubs as the Whiskey A-Go-Go and the Troubadour, became a huge scene for teens and young adults: so much so that, like the response to ‘beatnik riots’ in Washington Square, curfews were imposed, and L. A. police were assigned to patrol the Strip and control concert-goers, who were just kids having fun and listening to music.

cher sunset strip

Cher, above, and fashion, below, on the Sunset Strip in the mid ’60s.


One of the bands that moved from the Greenwich Village scene to L. A. was The Mamas And The Papas. Formed of  romantic couple John and Michelle Phillips and singers Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot, The Mamas And The Papas led the folk-rock movement in L. A. for a time, organizing such major rock events as the 1967 Monterey International Pop festival, which introduced the world to Janis Joplin and to Jimi Hendrix.

The Mamas And The Papas were seminal in blending the New York folk sound with such California elements as the Surf sound, and with more orchestrated arrangements, perhaps inspired by the Beatles. They held rock in high regard, but never truly gave up their Greenwich Village folk ethic. Their progress from New York folk musicians to L.A. folk-rockers was a subject of several of their songs: in ‘Creeque Alley,’ they chart their various journeys to becoming The Mamas And The Papas, naming musicians they played with along the way, including John Sebastian (The Lovin’ Spoonful) and Roger McGuinn (the Byrds).  In ’12:30 (Young Girls Are Coming To The Canyon)’ they reference their move from New York to L.A.’s Laurel Canyon.

It may be fair to say that romantic relationships were a motivating factor in the growth of the folk and folk-rock scene. In New York, the rocky relationship of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez was instrumental in both singers’ songwriting and performance. In L. A., relationships were a huge inspiration. Joni Mitchell’s love with Graham Nash; Stephen Stills with Judy “Blue Eyes” Collins; Janis Joplin with Pigpen McKernan. In the case of the Mamas And The Papas, relationships would both create and destroy the band. Michelle Phillips’ affairs with several members of the Byrds got them recording contracts, got her kicked out of the band, got her reinstated, and finally broke the band up. A later version of the band formed with the Phillips’ actress daughter Mackenzie (One Day At A Time) replacing her step-mother. (Another Phillips daughter, Chynna, formed the ’90s band Wilson Phillips).

The Byrds singing even more Dylan, with very cheesy intro and even cheesier sets. David Crosby on the left.

The Byrds were also blending rock with folk, turning many Bob Dylan songs into pop-rock hits. And while the Byrds, including member David Crosby, were covering Bob Dylan songs, Canadian songwriter, singer and guitarist Neil Young was forming a band with American Stephen Stills, which would be called the Buffalo Springfield. Though the band was short-lived, their hit “For What It’s Worth” brought to light a new genre of California protest folk-rock. Of course Young and Stills would join with David Crosby and British singer Graham Nash (of the Hollies) to become Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, perhaps the greatest American folk-rock band of all time.

The Buffalo Springfield on TV in 1967, doing a medley of two hits. Stephen Still sings first, followed by Neil Young.

Graham Nash and David Crosby both had strong feelings for a beautiful Canadian, Joni Mitchell. Though her recordings did not see light until nearly the end of the decade, Mitchell certainly became a voice of the ‘60s. Her songs were covered by tons of musicians, including Buffy Sainte-Marie, Judy Collins, and CSNY. Mitchell’s song ‘Ladies Of The Canyon’ was about the denizens of Laurel Canyon (the same subject as ’12:30′ by the Mamas And The Papas). And many of her songs of this era were inspired by her romance with Graham Nash, a romance somewhat reminiscent of Dylan and Baez.

Joni Mitchell on the Mama Cass TV special, with Mary Travers (Peter Paul and Mary) in attendance. OMG that voice! Joni Mitchell and Cass Elliot were both ‘ladies of the canyon.’

Above: Joni Mitchell on TV in 1969: Below: Crosby, Stills and Nash sing Joni Mitchell (with cheesy footage). Joni Mitchell had been romantic with both Crosby and Nash: her relationship with Nash was the subject of many of her songs in 1969-70.

Joni Mitchell also had much in common with Judy Collins. Both suffered from polio as children. In Mitchell’s case, this caused her to compensate for limited movement in her fingers as a girl by developing strange guitar tunings in order to achieve certain keys. She continued using those tunings throughout her career to get a unique modal sound. Both Collins and Mitchell also had trauma around their only child: Collins’ son committed suicide in 1992: Mitchell had given birth to a daughter in 1965, whom she placed for adoption. She says her song writing career was inspired by the experience of losing her daughter. In 1997, Mitchell was reunited with her daughter, Kilauren Gibb. After that, she retired from music, and dedicated herself to visual arts. Her Wikipedia entry has this to say:

“After the reunion, Mitchell said that she lost interest in songwriting, and she later identified her daughter’s birth and her inability to take care of her as the moment when her songwriting inspiration had really begun. When she could not express herself to the person she wanted to talk to, she became attuned to the whole world and she began to write personally.”

Above: Judy Collins covers Joni Mitchell. Collins’ commercial success with the song helped gain notice for Mitchell.  Below: Crosby, Stills and Nash sing about Stills’ love for Judy Collins. (Joni Mitchell joins them midway through the song, and hilarity ensues).

 Meanwhile up the coast in San Francisco, the Beat-inspired denizens of the Haight Street area were being termed ‘hippies,’ a term that would come to apply to anyone with long hair and values of peace and social resistance. There, audiences had moved well past their folk roots; unlike the rock music of the early ’60s, which folk audiences saw as vacuous and irrelevant, rock music of the Haight scene had grown to embrace issues of values and social change; it had also become extremely sophisticated, bringing in influences from folk, blues, gospel, Latin, and jazz. The leading bands were the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Love, the Mothers Of Invention and Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Full circle: Above: just as Harry Bellafonte, Desi Arnez and other Caribbean and Latin musicians had influenced folk in the early decade, Santana created rock based on Afro-Cuban folk music. Below: the Grateful Dead sing Desi Arnez.

In the next part of this long, long conversation, we’ll look at the British folk scene, and its influence on America. It’s going to be groovy!


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