Award Banner

A folk revival playlist

By Amanda Petrusich and Nathan Salsburg

When the Oxford American asked me to compile an annotated playlist of songs from the folk revival to supplement my story in the Spring issue on Ballads, Blues, and Bluegrass (a short documentary shot by the folklorist Alan Lomax in 1961), I got a little giddy: like anyone who came of age in the cassette/blank CD era, I've long regarded mix-making as a heavy, alchemical practice, capable of yielding untold transformations (self- and otherwise). I immediately enlisted the help of Nathan Salsburg—who, besides being the curator of the Alan Lomax Archive and a formidable folk guitarist, is the kind of pal who will thoughtlessly derail your entire week by sending over some obscure, heart-stopping masterpiece, and then (I imagine) snicker to himself for hours while you remain hunched over your stereo, weeping. We didn't have to dig too deeply for what follows—ten songs emblematic, in one way or another, of the folk music revival that flourished in New York City in the 1960s—but like all mixes, these songs represent their time and place, our time and place, and a few breathtaking points of intersection. —AP

 


 

Barbara Dane, "Ramblin'"

A stalwart champion of the unjustly marginalized, Barbara Dane came of age singing at factory gates and union rallies in Detroit; activism and music were her twin fixations, and each nurtured and ultimately expanded the other. Eventually, Dane became a key figure in the jazz revival that seized San Francisco in the late 1940s—a precursor, in some ways, to what would develop in New York two decades later—and released just one proper folk record, When I Was a Young Girl, in 1961. The lyrics to "Ramblin'" were written by Woody Guthrie, and the tune is borrowed from Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene," but Dane's version is singular, perfect: here, her sandy, twilight voice is weighted and nearly resigned, tied to her own restlessness and nothing else. —AP

Elizabeth Cotten with Brenda Evans, "Shake Sugaree"

The North Carolina-born singer and guitarist Elizabeth Cotten was working in a department store when she spotted a little girl wandering around, lost—it was Penny Seeger, the daughter of Ruth Crawford and Charles Seeger (and a sister of Mike and a half-sister of Pete). Cotten led Penny back to Ruth, who then hired her to work for the Seegers as a housekeeper and nanny; in the late 1950s, Mike Seeger realized Cotten was also an extraordinary guitar player, and he began recording her on reel-to-reel tapes in his bedroom. This version of "Shake Sugaree," from Cotten's 1965 Folkways LP of the same name, features Cotten's then-12-year-old great-granddaughter, Brenda Evans, on vocals—even now, their collaboration is almost unbearably sweet and graceful, and when Brenda announces "I'm going to heaven in a brown pea shell," there's nothing to do but believe her (wholeheartedly). —AP

Mississippi John Hurt, "My Creole Belle"

Mississippi John Hurt, one of the finest practitioners of the country blues, cut a few sides for Okeh Records in the late 1920s, but he didn't enjoy much commercial success until he was rediscovered by blues scholar Tom Hoskins in 1963, and recorded for the Library of Congress in 1964. Soon after, Hurt became an inadvertent accelerant for the folk revival, in part because his work is so devastating—so full of nuance and his own idiosyncratic charm—that it inspires everyone within earshot to do a little bit better. —AP

Doc Watson, "I'm Troubled"

The North Carolina flatpicker Doc Watson had been playing guitar and banjo for several decades before he was anointed by revivalists, but following a particularly spirited performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, he acquired a broad (and Northern) audience, and recorded his first solo record soon thereafter. "I'm Troubled" is a timeless lament, a paean to worry: "I'm troubled, I'm troubled, I'm troubled in mind / If trouble don't kill me, I'll live a long time." —AP

The New Lost City Ramblers, "If I Lose, I Don't Care"

If any band is fully emblematic of the folk revival, it's the New Lost City Ramblers, a folk trio formed in New York City in 1958, and comprised of two folklorists (John Cohen, Mike Seeger) and the guitarist Tom Paley. The NLCR's mission was scholastic, in part—they learned songs from old 78rpm records, and tried to perform them as authentically as possible, becoming a kind of living, picking archive. This Charlie Poole song, a grand shrug in the face of actual and/or moral bankruptcy, still feels timeless in both spirit and sound. —AP

Dave Van Ronk, "Tell Old Bill"

The revival would have been a shoddy thing without Dave Van Ronk. Apart from the profound influence he had on a whole generation of younger players—Dylan perhaps first among them—he brought a depth of musical rigor, versatility, and sensitivity (as well as a vigorous, self-deprecating sense of humor) to a scene that was starved for them. Compare his "Tell Old Bill" to any of its pop-folk predecessors (eg., Chad Mitchell, the Kingston Trio); his ability to wring a gut-wrenching pathos from what is fundamentally a nonsense song is testament to his art. —NS

Hedy West, "Little Sadie"

Hedy West was a rarer breed of the revival, having learned many of her songs through the traditional "folk process"—namely, growing up in North Georgia in a family of old-time singers and players. But when her father, union activist and poet Don West, helped found the Highlander Folk School in Newmarket, Tennessee, she, like her peers John Cohen and Mike Seeger of the New Lost City Ramblers, took to song-collecting around the region. West picked up the murder ballad "Little Sadie," as she says in her introduction here, from Blind Hobart Bailey of Hippo, Kentucky. Unlike other characteristic and influential banjoists of the era—such as Virginia's Dock Boggs and Kentucky's Bill Cornett—Bailey never made any records, and his style endures only in echoes, through the music of folks like George Gibson of Knott County, Kentucky, and the late Ms. West. —NS

Buffy Sainte-Marie, "Rollin' Log Blues"

"Rollin' Log Blues" was originally composed and recorded by the Kansas City Butterball—a blues shouter named Lottie Kimbrough who made a number of impossibly good records in the mid- to late-1920s. Although the song was tackled by several of urban folkies (Eric Bibb and Maria Muldaur among them), Buffy Sainte-Marie succeeds against the odds in making it totally, convincingly her own. She's joined by Mr. Tambourine Man himself, Bruce Langhorne, on lead guitar. Some of the best and most enduring music of the revival was made by the duet of Sainte-Marie and Langhorne—a Cree Indian woman and an African-American man in a predominantly lily-white scene. —NS

Jean Ritchie, "The Unquiet Grave"

Jean Ritchie of Viper, Kentucky, was "discovered" in a New York City instrument shop not by Alan Lomax or some other folklorically inclined documentarian, but by the pop-music polymath Mitch Miller, who had never heard a dulcimer played before and stopped to listen. In a few short years Ritchie was making records for a half-dozen labels, performing prolifically, and writing her classic memoir, Singing Family of the Cumberlands. Her 1960 recording of the Child ballad "The Unquiet Grave," cut for Moe Asch's Folkways Records, is simply one of the most effective and affecting unaccompanied ballad performances ever put to tape. —NS

Clarence Ashley & Gwen Foster, "Rising Sun Blues"

The folk revival was, of course, more a rediscovery of American traditional music than it was a revival. The music didn't need reviving in many of the places from whence it came, especially Central and Southern Appalachia, where ballads were still being sung and string bands still played for Saturday night dances. But the revival was responsible for reviving a number of musicians' careers—musicians who had made records for commercial companies in the '20s and '30s before hanging up the largely unprofitable practice for more steady work. One of these was Clarence "Tom" Ashley, who had appeared on dozens of pre-war sides with the Carolina Tar Heels outfit and under his own name. His 1933 "Rising Sun Blues," cut with erstwhile Tar Heel Gwen Foster, was the first recording of a far-flung Southern mountain folk song that the world would eventually come to know as "The House of the Rising Sun." —NS

Bonus track

Visit the Alan Lomax Archive online for a young Bob Dylan's "Masters of War," followed by some (slightly boozy?) geopolitical commentary. Lomax recorded this performance in 1963 at the West Third Street apartment where Ballads, Blues, and Bluegrass was shot.

 

blog comments powered by Disqus
Connect:
  • Find Us on Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Flickr
  • YouTube
Somewhere in the South

Digital Editions

  • Zinio
  • Kindle
  • Nook

One year for only $19.98

Orders outside the US