The Legends of Folk Music..
American Folk Music, which had its origins in the mid-19 Century, didn’t actually create any musical legends until about the mid-20Th Century. It’s true. There was a span of about one hundred years, perhaps a little longer, from when Folk Music began on pre-Civil War southern plantations until the first great performers emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
And even then, Folk Music and its new soon-to-be great stars did not take off immediately. The process to fame and fortune – to becoming legends – began somewhat slowly. It started in the “Beatnik-inspired coffeehouses” that were prominent fixtures in New York’s Greenwich Village in the mid-1950s.
These early performers – poets – would talk before assembled audiences of coffee- drinking New Yorkers about life, fairness and unfairness, the essences of being and lots of other abstract subjects. New Yorkers, anxious to be “cool,” listened intently to the occasional gibberish being presented by the on-stage “Beatnik” performers.
And, over time – not too much more time – that “talking gibberish” spawned a new/old art form – Folk Music. It was right around 1960, perhaps a bit later than that, when “Beatnik talking messages” evolved into Folk Music with messages. Overnight, many new stars emerged, some of whom remain popular – and certainly legendary – today.
There were many great solo and group acts that recorded great hits and performed them, live, in front of thrilled audiences. Who are these legends? To name just a few, they are: Bob Dylan … Joan Baez … The Kingston Trio … Peter, Paul and Mary … Odetta … Pete Seeger … Arlo Guthrie … and so many, many more.
American society was in the early stages of monumental change when these solo and group acts became popular. Bob Dylan, always thought of as a poet, wrote and performed songs that held deep and meaningful messages for society. Of course, his message held a liberal’s point of view and was not well received by all Americans. Peter, Paul and Mary sang songs about the new, but fast-growing, drug culture. Odetta’s songs spoke of black disenfranchisement in the greater society.
The Kingston Trio often provided messages in their music, but also sang songs that were simply entertaining. And then there was Joan Baez. Blessed with a magically beautiful voice, her music was nevertheless a rant against the Vietnam War which was raging at that time. Pete Seeger wrote, and sang, songs about the trials and tribulations of ordinary men and women. Arlo Guthrie did the same thing.
Many of these “singing sensations” had to compete against the fun, non-message music of pop stars like Elvis Presley and the incredible performers of Motown Records. But, because American society was changing, they were able to do it successfully.
Today, few, if any, of these stars still perform. But that overlooks the real point: they, and their music, have transcended the ordinary in musical entertainment. The songs, and the stars who sang them, have become timeless and legendary. Their music and their names will not fade from the public consciousness for many years to come.