An Exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York
by Mitchell Abidor
FIFTY YEARS AGO, on July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan appeared at the Newport Folk Festival backed by an electric band and set off a storm that’s hard to imagine today. Try to imagine (or remember) people booing, shouting, and writing screeds about and against a musician changing styles. The events surrounding Dylan’s apostasy are covered thoroughly, thoughtfully, and entertainingly in Elijah Wald’s new book, Dylan Goes Electric, which lays out the issues and events clearly. Dylan, wrongly considered the voice of protest, was viewed as a traitor, but in Wald’s view it was a matter of two conflicting visions, each valid: music as the voice of a common struggle (the Pete Seeger school) vs. music as the striving of the individual to express his own feelings (Dylan and his supporters). The issues were about the place of music and the musician in society.
Coincidentally, the Museum of the City of New York has mounted an exhibit entitled Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival (June 17, 2015 through January 10, 2016), which reminds of us New York’s centrality to the folk boom. Though we think it quite natural for New York to have been the hub of the movement, there is a certain irony in the fact that it was the country’s major city that served as the point from which roots music — both black and white, from the southeast, the Appalachians, the west — was spread throughout the U.S., and where so many guardians of the traditionalist flame lived from the Depression on. In fact, as Stephen Petrus, the exhibit’s curator explained to me, this was easily explainable: Not only was New York the country’s cultural center, with countless performance venues, but for people with leftwing politics, like Woody Guthrie and Aunt Molly Jackson, New York was a more accommodating and receptive (and safer) place than their native Oklahoma and Kentucky.
The exhibit walks us chronologically through the progress of the folk movement, taking us from the 1930s until the mid-'60s, the folk movement’s heyday. The intimate ties between folk music and the left were clear from the '30s, but not as clear as one might think. The Communist Party was, in the early '30s, less than enthusiastic about the folk music, feeling the songs of the miners, for example, were lacking in militancy — a line that would soon change, as a collection of tunes with a hammer and sickle on the cover attests.
Folk music of the 1960s was famous for its role in the political movements, but the exhibit contains one of the first albums that can fairly be described as a protest album, Josh White’s 1940 Chain Gang, an album that included Bayard Rustin as one of the backup singers in his Civil Rights days. Indeed, almost from the beginning, protest against the existing order coexisted alongside traditional tunes.
WOODY GUTHRIE, of course, features prominently, both as a solo artist and as a member of the Almanac Singers. His Dust Bowl Ballads is displayed, as well as a 1940 letter in praise of Leadbelly, in which Guthrie presciently noted that “some radio experts will say Huddie is too rough and just pass him up, but I say that he is just too good.” Also on display is a poster for the concert on March 3, 1940 at which Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie met, an event every bit as epochal as Dylan’s going electric.
The exhibit continues with New York as a center of recording and live performance, with record labels like Elektra, Folkways, Vanguard, magazines like Broadside and Sing Out!, and countless clubs: the Bitter End, the Café Au Go Go, the Gaslight, the Bottom Line. It was here that Jews played their largest role, far more than in the realm of singing. Izzy Young, Irwin Silber, Art D'Lugoff, Albert Grossman, Moses Asch, Fred Weintraub, the critic Robert Shelton, and so many other played a central role in promoting the folk boom without ever picking up a guitar. It should be said that if the number of Jewish musicians on the folk scene was relatively small, that number included Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, so quality certainly trumped quantity. And when Dylan took the stage at Newport in 1965, the six musicians, counting Dylan, included Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield, and Barry Goldberg: two thirds were Jews.
THE FOLKSINGERS were famously concerned with protesting injustice. Musicians like Guy Carawan recorded the songs of the freedom marchers in the South as they occurred, and Phil Ochs wrote songs torn from the headlines (All the News That’s Fit to Sing, his first album, from 1964, could have been the title of about a dozen records of the period), but they also organized to defend themselves against rapacious club owners, a fact testified to by the flyer for a benefit for the New York Folksingers Guild, led by Dave Van Ronk. And the degree of the musicians’ (and the public’s) exploitation is shown by a curious artifact: A menu for the Gaslight shows that a cup of coffee or tea cost 65¢ in 1965, which translates to about $5 today. One ice cream dish, the kitchen sink, would cost $55 today!
A detailed map shows the locations of clubs, magazines, hangouts, and homes that relate to folk music in New York, but we are also reminded that folk music was not restricted to the ghetto of Greenwich Village: Perhaps the oddest section of the exhibit, a display on the 1963-1964 TV show Hootenanny, shows how the folk craze had enough reach to be granted a Saturday night TV slot, and for there to be some truly bizarre marketing connected to it — a Hootenanny beach bag, Hootenanny paper dolls, Halloween costumes, and even Hootenanny hand cream!
The exhibit is full of treasures: Bob Dylan’s handwritten lyrics for "Maggie’s Farm," "Masters of War," "Mr. Tambourine Man," and "Blowin’ in the Wind"; the napkin on which Eric Andersen wrote the chorus to "Thirsty Boots'; Pete Seeger’s banjo, Odetta’s guitar and dashiki dress, Phil Ochs’ cap...
The organizers have also interspersed listening stations around the exhibit with representative tunes, as well as spots where you can dial up and hear singers tell their tales. Unfortunately, in the latter case the number to call appears to be written in 4-point type, so no one over 30 will be able to make the call.
Excerpts from a short film about the 1961 Washington Square Riot serve to demonstrate just how radically we have changed as a city and society, and how the same spot can represent two radically different ideals. Washington Square was where people from all over congregated to strum their guitars and sing together. The city tried to crack down on these gatherings, which were said to attract “degenerates, and demanded singers have a permit.” People went to the park and sang anyway, the police attacked them, and eventually the limitation on singing in the park was lifted. Jump forward fifty-five years, and Washington Square still has an individual with a guitar here and there, but it’s become a place for tourists and the bridge-and-tunnel-crowd to be entertained. Passivity has replaced activism, even in music.
Folk City reminds us that folk culture once mattered, that music once mattered, that the debate over electric or not, political music vs. personal tunes, mattered. Music was intimately tied to political struggles, so we should perhaps not be surprised that as the struggles faded so did the music attached to it. And it was the greatest of them — Ochs, Dylan, Andersen — who left political music behind. But that doesn’t stop it from being sad that such was the case. And so, in the end, Folk City is about so many things we once had, so many things that we’ve lost.
Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His recent books include an anthology of Victor Serge’s writings, Anarchists Never Surrender, and a translation of A Socialist History of the French Revolution, by Jean Jaurès.