There But for Fortune

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(Pictured: the New Christy Minstrels perform at the halftime show of Super Bowl IV in 1970. As an indicator of changed times, you can’t do better.)

Since this is a week for potentially dubious historical theorizing, here’s something I wrote in 2012, with annotations.

Among the CDs in my archives is a Time/Life compilation called The Folk Years, released in 2002, which stretches the definition of the genre to snapping. One does not generally think of Otis Redding, Van Morrison, Sonny and Cher, or Nilsson as folk acts, but there they are, and so are Glen Campbell, Chad and Jeremy, and Dion. All of them may have once walked down a street with an acoustic guitar on their backs, but they’re not folksingers the way Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, and Pete Seeger are. [Although they were often folk-inspired.—Ed.] Some of this is because Time/Life repeatedly anthologizes whatever they can get the rights to, which explains why the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Mamas and the Papas are on every Time/Life set having anything to do with the 60s–-Classic Rock, AM Gold, The Folk Years, etc. Some of it is probably to make the set as commercially attractive as possible—Paxton, Tim Hardin, and the New Christy Minstrels won’t move late-night TV viewers to dial that 800 number as effectively as Peter Paul and Mary and the Spoonful might.

So The Folk Years is not anything like a comprehensive history of the genre in its heyday. But when you weed out the questionable inclusions, a couple of impressions remain about what’s left.

[And now to the theorizing.—Ed.]

American popular music repeatedly assimilated African-American forms into the mainstream, from slave-era songs adapted by blackface minstrels in the late 19th century to the development of jazz in the early 20th to the hybridization of blues and country that gave birth first to R&B and later to rock ‘n’ roll in the mid 20th. It occurs to me that folk gives us a glimpse of what American pop might have sounded like without those influences. Baez and Paxton had beautiful voices and the acoustic guitars that accompanied them glittered like diamonds, but there’s no Elvis anywhere in those records. (Elvis was a white guy, but you know what I mean.) Even though folksingers often adopted and adapted Negro spirituals and traditional songs, they sometimes bleached the soul out of them entirely. Example from The Folk Years: “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight” by the Limeliters, which wants to be a spiritual, but ends up so stiff you start to fear the singers will break a hip. [Compare the version by Joe and Eddie.—Ed.]

Although folk prized its rural roots in addition to its ethnic ones, you do not imagine the artists on The Folk Years singing on front porches; instead, you picture them in ramshackle coffeehouses found on gritty urban streets. The popularity of folk on college campuses in the early 1960s confirms this image. The songs may have celebrated roamers and ramblers, but most fans were neither. I suspect that for some—fans and singers both—folk was fashion, representing how they wanted to be as distinct from who they actually were. In their defense, however, although that sort of thing happened with other genres and fans, and it still does. . . .

Trying to be something you’re not might account for how painfully jive some of this stuff sounds. I’m thinking of the Limeliters again, trying to sound black and being unable to. One of the biggest hit singles of the folk boom, the New Christy Minstrels’ “Green Green,” is marred by Barry McGuire’s faux-gospel exhortations. Folk’s preoccupation with relevance can become wearying after a while (which is why the 1980s-vintage Saturday Night Live game show, “Make Joan Baez Smile” was so funny), but some attempts at levity were disastrous. The Serendipity Singers’ “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down” and “Beans in My Ears” sound like nothing so much as clueless adults trying to do something the kids will like [or: “like something a group of middle-aged middle-school teachers might do to sublimate an unmet desire to get laid”—Ed.]. . . .

All that said, however, folk musicians were capable of astoundingly beautiful music: “Today” by the New Christy Minstrels leaves me beautifully wrecked every time I hear it; “There But for Fortune” might be the greatest thing Joan Baez ever did; the version of “500 Miles” by the Journeymen, featuring future California folk-rock stars John Phillips and Scott McKenzie, just might be the definitive one.

As always, I crave your two cents’ worth, because this is just my opinion and I could be completely wrong.

5 thoughts on “There But for Fortune

  1. mikehagerty

    You’re absolutely right about everything in this column, J.B.

    Especially The New Christy Minstrels’ “Today”.

  2. LEO EDELSTEIN

    “Green Green” by the New Christy Minstrels brings back great memories. The tune was Jonathan Green’s theme song for 40 years on WTMJ Milwaukee. A real upper tune on Green’s fun and games late afternoon show, back in the days when people called in from phone booths, just so Green’s driving commuters got a chance to tell jokes or win prizes. And, TMJ personalities stayed forever, like Gordon Hinkley, Bill Carlson, Don Parcher, Ted Moore, Jim Irwin.

  3. Wesley

    To me, the end folk music craze was encapsulated by Hootenanny, a show on ABC from April 1963 through September 1964 hosted by the epitome of hipness, Art Linkletter’s son Jack. Part of an all-variety show Saturday night lineup by the network (it came on before The Lawrence Welk Show and the notorious two-hour bomb The Jerry Lewis Show in the fall of 1963), it died in part because of the rise of the Beatles but also of what jb mentions here about the Time/Life collection as having an overly broad definition of what constituted folk music, with performers barely associated with the genre like Trini Lopez, Stan Getz, Sheb Wooley and others popping up along with the real contenders.

    And of note only to myself probably, “Today” was one of the first “contemporary” songs I learned in elementary school in the 1970s, which alone attests to its durability in my mind.

  4. Brian L Rostron

    The stuff sold though, at least for a while. My father and mother graduated from high school in 1957 and 1961, and their LP collection from their college years seemed to consist primarily of Kingston Trio albums, Bill Cosby comedy recordings, and whatever holiday collections their local department and tires stores distributed at the end of the year.

  5. mikehagerty

    As with all things, what makes the charts is the most commercial tip of any artistic iceberg. Gordon Skene’s “Past Daily” website has several airchecks of live broadcasts from the late 50s on KRHM-FM in Los Angeles that showcase the folk acts that weren’t making the hits, but that were helping drive the cultural scene that record labels and TV were trying to cash in on.

    I was born in 1956 and the folk craze is just an early childhood memory of the songs big enough to make it on the radio and TV—but I just recently listened to the airchecks on Gordon’s site and I’m really impressed with the talent and intelligence that never made the big time during folk’s heyday.

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