The Folksong Revival

Bruce Jackson

These remarks were presented on 26 March l984 as part of "Culture, Tradition, Identity," a symposium sponsored by the joint Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, held at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, 26-28 March 1984, and are used by permission of the author.

A folksong revival occurred in America twenty-five years ago. Like many revivals, it appealed primarily to individuals who celebrated traditions not their own. Blues were popular in the folksong revival, but the audiences were mostly whites; rural songs and performers were popular, but the audiences were mostly urban; labor songs were popular, but the audiences were mostly middle-class students. Many of the traditional performers were in their 50s, 60s and even their 70s but the audiences were primarily under twenty-five. Scholars were involved but it was not a scholarly revival. Topical and political songwriters figured prominently, but by and large the audiences were apolitical. Walt Whitman provided a century earlier what is perhaps the best approach to the revival: "Do I contradict myself? I contradict myself then. I contain multitudes."

Many writers and festival fans claimed the revival provided an opportunity for millions of modern Americans to better understand their country's musical roots, as well as an opportunity to honor the musicians who still represented those traditions. Others--often disparagingly referred to as "purists"-- were certain the revival and its attendant commercialism would provide the death stroke for whatever fragile rural and ethnic traditions still survived.

In retrospect, the fears seem inordinate and the anxieties misplaced. On the whole, the movement was benign. I think the revival can be fairly characterized as romantic, naive, nostalgic and idealistic; it was also, in small part, venal, opportunistic, and colonialistic.

I do not include in the revival most ethnic or regional folklore celebrations or performances that went on within the communities or regions that were the source of the materials. It is not, in my view, a revival when a group of Arkansas musicians in Arkansas sings Arkansas songs for fellow Arkansans not unless these songs are self-consciously learned in order to put on such a performance. On the other hand, middle-class Italians in Buffalo, New York, using federal funds to hire Italian traditional singers from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to put on concerts for them, as happened recently, are part of the revival. The same performer might have at once been both inside and outside the revival. Instrumentalist and ballad singer Hobart Smith participated in the Newport and other large folk festivals; he also sang with his family and friends in Saltville, Virginia.

Blues performer Big Bill Broonzy performed for white students at the University of Chicago Folksong Club and, often on the same weekend, performed for blacks in ethnic southside Chicago bars. When he performed in the black clubs, he used an amplified guitar, but he used an acoustic guitar for the white university audiences because they let him know they thought the acoustic guitar more "folksy."

The complex of events called the Folksong Revival probably dates from 1958 and 1959. Like most social movements, the beginning boundary is soft and slightly arbitrary. The Weavers, an influential urban eclectic folksinging group, had hit records as early as 1950 and 1951, and even after they were blacklisted for being too far on the political left they continued for a while to perform on campuses. Their records were widely shared by folk music enthusiasts long after those records became unavailable in stores. But the great expansion in folksong activity happened toward the end of the decade.

Although university students and some faculty members were central to the revival, the revival had little direct impact on university teaching or research in the 1950s and 1960s. Many students, for example, who entered the Indiana University folklore Ph.D. program in those years (it was the only Ph.D. program in folklore in America at the time) were drawn to the field by their interest in folksinging, but that aspect of their lives was kept totally separate from their formal studies. Richard Dorson, who directed the program, was uninterested in music in general and he loathed in particular nonacademic popularization of folklore.[1] Nothing that went on in the Folklore Program gives any indication of the revival involvement by Bruce Buckley, Joe Hickerson, Neil Rosenberg, Ellen Stekert, Edward D. Ives and many others.[2] Typical of such student singers was Roger D. Abrahams, who did his graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania: . . . I began to study the background of the songs which I was singing (this leading to a study of folklore in general) ("Folk Songs" 1966:12). Some faculty members in other universities took part in some of the folk festivals--University of California professors D. K. Wilgus, Bertrand Bronson and Charles Seeger were all involved in the 1958 Berkeley Folk Festival--but so far as I know that enterprise was totally separate from any of their classes. It was like a mildly embarrassing hobby one tolerates in a friend who is otherwise virtuous.

Three commercial artists of the 1950s helped set the stage for the folk revival: Harry Belafonte (an actor who performed carefully arranged and orchestrated folk songs), the Kingston Trio (a slick group that took their songs completely out of context and sometimes parodied the traditions), and the Weavers. All were enormously popular, especially with white, middle-class audiences.

The folk song magazine Sing Out! began publication in 1950, but its circulation remained small for most of the decade. Like the Weavers, it was very indebted to Pete Seeger's inspiration. In its early years Sing Out! was heavily political. It published words and music to traditional songs, but there were also anti-Korean War peace songs, civil rights songs, anti-draft songs, Ethel Rosenberg's death song and songs from Soviet Bloc countries. Special issues were devoted to Paul Robeson, the Rosenbergs, Pete Seeger, IWW organizer Joe Hill, and the Progressive Party campaign. Toward the end of the decade, Sing Out!'s politics became less strident as its editors attempted to reach the large audience developing for folk music and topical songs. This audience seemed more willing to sing about political causes than it was willing to be involved in any of them. The first two issues of Sing Out! in 1959 had, in addition to many traditional and topical songs, articles on counter-tenor Richard Dyer-Bennett, commercialism and the folksong revival, folksongs and summer camp, and an article by Alan Lomax on "folkniks" with a reply by John Cohen. The revival had become self-conscious enough to begin looking at itself.

In 1959 and 1960, jazz concert producer George Wein and promoter Albert Grossman put on two commercial folk festivals at Newport, Rhode Island. The concerts featured what Wein and Grossman thought important stars of the revival, but both festivals were financial failures. The two promoters had missed the point: stars weren't enough to attract big audiences in this phase of the revival. Audiences were beginning to demand significant participation by traditional performers. The first University of Chicago Folk Festival, held in 1961, avoided name performers almost entirely in a conscious attempt to avoid the errors of Newport.

It is always, in cultural matters, difficult to separate causes and effects. How do we know if something starts a trend or is instead just an early representative of a trend already in motion? If an artist is spectacularly successful with something apparently new, we should assume that an audience was, for whatever reasons, ready to receive that something new, and that the "something new" fitted a slot or fulfilled a need already there.[3]

The Newport festivals would become central to the folksong revival, but not in the commercial form designed by Wein and Grossman and not before the occurrence of a spectacular and sometimes traumatic sequence of political and cultural events.

In 1959, the Cuban dictator Battista fled Havana and was replaced by Fidel Castro, then still a hero in America. In 1960, John F. Kennedy, young, charming, and literate, was elected president. In 1961, the Bay of Pigs fiasco occurred, the Berlin Wall was erected, the idealistic Peace Corps attracted thousands of volunteers and the cult novels Catch 22 and Strangers in a Strange Lund were published and became best-sellers, especially on college campuses. Freedom riders trying to integrate buses in Alabama were attacked by racist mobs. In 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world for the first time to the edge of nuclear war. William Faulkner, e. e. cummings, Eleanor Roosevelt and Marilyn Monroe died. The hit songs were "Days of Wine and Roses," "Go Away Little Girl" and Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." James Meredith, a Black, was denied admission to the segregated University of Mississippi by Governor Ross Barnett and U.S. marshals and 3000 soldiers suppressed riots on the campus. In 1963, civil rights leader Martin Luther King was arrested in Birmingham and President Kennedy was obliged to call out 3000 federal troops to restore order. 200,000 people demonstrated against racism in Washington, D.C. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a novel that demystifies the romantic world of spies and delineates the cynical inhumanity of bureaucracies on both sides of the Iron Curtain, was a best seller. The Guggenheim Museum in New York mounted the first major show of the anti-establishment pop art by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and others. Dr. Strangelove was one of the year's top movies. By year's end, 15,000 American advisers were in Vietnam, Diem and Nhu were overthrown and murdered in Saigon, and John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. Lyndon Johnson became president and the American congress was about to pass the most sweeping welfare and civil rights legislation in the nation's history. The list of most popular singers in America included folk revival performers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

And the new Newport Folk Festival, which until the establishment of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival four years later, would be the largest and most influential of the revival folk festivals, was born.

Once again, it was Pete Seeger who was instrumental in engineering what happened. Seeger knew about the financial disaster of George Wein's commercial folk festivals of 1959 and 1960. Seeger had the idea of starting over as a nonprofit foundation. Wein, Seeger and actor/singer Theodore Bikel developed Seeger's idea of a Newport Folk Festival that would be a forum for folk music programmed and directed entirely by performers (they later added one scholar), a festival which was not grounded in profit. If all performers worked for the minimum, Seeger said, there would be enough money to invite more traditional performers than any other festival had so far been able to afford. The big names would draw the crowds which would then be able to hear the traditional musicians. The festival was to be as much an educational as an entertainment event. In addition to the usual large concerts on a center stage, there would be smaller workshops where performers could have more time to perform and audience members could get closer. (The number of workshops steadily increased during the seven years the Festival survived. In 1964, no more than three workshops went on simultaneously; the crowds were large and electrical amplification systems were necessary. In 1968, twenty-two workshops went on simultaneously and microphones were banned in order to keep the groups around the performers as small as possible.) Year by year the directors increased the proportion of traditional performers. In 1963, there were about twice as many urban as traditional and ethnic performers; in 1967 and 1968, it was just the other way around.

The largest audience for a single Newport concert was slightly over 18,000 people. The largest profit after all expenses was about $70,000 The festival used all its profits to sponsor field work, produce regional concerts of folk music, and make grants that would be beneficial to what the directors thought were the revival's roots. Grants were awarded to The John Edwards Memorial Foundation, Foxfire, Highlander Research Center, Old Town School of Folk Music, the folklore program at UCLA, cowboy singer Glenn Ohrlin, public radio station WGBH in Boston, and other organizations and individuals. Newport profits paid for a Cajun festival in Louisiana (later credited with directly leading to a regional revival of Cajun music), a Georgia Sea Island Christmas Festival, Native American projects in New Mexico and Florida, and music programs for Resurrection City and the Poor People's Campaign. Newport profits bought guitars for blues musicians Skip James, Pearly Brown and John Hurt, and Ampex tape recorders for the University of Pennsylvania for copying archive tapes.

Newport wasn't the earliest folk festival in the revival and neither was it always the biggest. But it was the best known and it had in abundance the virtues and faults of the revival.

By 1966, the revival was booming. Sing Out! doubled its page size and began newsstand sales for the first time. Its circulation reached 25,000. Other magazines reached wider and wider audiences. Robert Shelton, folk music critic of the New York Times, edited Hootenanny: The National Folk Singing Magazine which started publishing in 1964. A nationally broadcast television show, Hootenanny, featured many folk performers (but not Seeger and others who were still being blacklisted).

Then political events overwhelmed the revival. By the end of 1967 nearly 500,000 US troops were in Vietnam and even the Wall Street Journal was predicting that the war could not be won. Riots erupted in the black ghettoes of Cleveland, Newark, Detroit and other cities. Anti-war demonstrations were held all over the country. Many of the kids who had formed the audiences for the folk festivals became eligible for the draft as student deferments were lifted. 1968 brought the Tet Offensive, Eugene McCarthy's astounding near-victory in the New Hampshire primary, Lyndon Johnson's surprise announcement in March that he would not run for reelection, and the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. American troop strength reached 540,000 and there were hundreds of student riots across the country. The top performers were soul-singer Aretha Franklin and acid-rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix. The romantic idealism so much a part of the folk festivals was, I think, inappropriate in the climate of continually escalating violence. For many individuals who had formed a large part of the festival audiences, singing about social and political problems was no longer adequate. The late 1960s and early 1970s were years of increasing political activism.

The 1969 festival was a financial disaster from which the Newport Folk Foundation never recovered. Nor did many of the other large festivals, The big successful festival of 1969 was Woodstock, with well over a quarter-million fans jammed into the fields of a New York state farm. Woodstock starred rock groups such as Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Joe Cocker, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and Jimi Hendrix, and former folk revival performers Canned Heat, Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez. The mixture wouldn't happen again: Woodstock was the only large rock festival in which folk revival singers were a major element. With a single exception, all the big music festivals of the '70s were rock festivals. The exception was the Smithsonian Institution's Festival of American Folklife, directed by Ralph Rinzler.

Rinzler, in a far quieter and less public way, is to the federal festival what Seeger was to Newport. Rinzler was a member of an excellent revival group, the Greenbriar Boys, then he worked for Newport as a fieldworker, talent coordinator, and as a board member. In 1966 and 1967, Newport "lent" him to the Smithsonian to do fieldwork. He traveled the country seeking performers for both festivals. The job at first was temporary, then it became permanent.

The first Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife was in 1967. It was free, it was accessible, it was broadly conceived--and it was a smashing success. The folk festivals of the earlier phase of the revival had appealed primarily to younger people; the Smithsonian festival appealed to people of all ages, and it seems to have been especially attractive to vacationing families. Unlike all the other festivals, the Smithsonian's never had to turn a profit and it never had to find grants; it just had to continue to make political sense to the bureaucrats in the Smithsonian and the congressmen on Capitol Hill. It was the only festival, then, that could afford to ignore the usual marketplace demands, and it therefore became the most traditionally based and responsible of all the large festivals. The Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife could not have developed as it did without the groundwork laid by Newport and the other festivals. It has been able to afford a depth of representation and seriousness of concern none of the others could ever attempt.

The federal government, through the Folk Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, controlled funding for many of the local festivals that went on in the 1970s and 1980s. Folk Arts was established in 1974 with Alan Jabbour as its first director. In 1975, the program awarded about a half-million dollars in grants. That amount doubled the next year. In 1979, Folk Arts gave $1.33 million, in 1980 $2.27 million, in 1981 $3.1 million, and in 1982, a year in which many agencies were suffering the first of the drastic Reagan cuts to the arts, Folk Arts gave away $2.64 million.[4]

Rinzler directed the Smithsonian festivals until 1984. Alan Jabbour became the first director of the American Folklife Center in 1976. Since its third year, the Folk Arts program has been run by Bess Lomax Hawes, the daughter of John A. Lomax and sister of Alan Lomax. All Folk Arts grants are voted on by a panel, but Hawes selects all panel members herself. Federal folklore power, then, has been wielded by a small group of people for more than a decade. (Hawes, by the way, was a participant in the 1963 Newport Folk Festival.)

As federal involvement increased, the folk revival changed form. The large festivals gave way to many more smaller festivals. So far as I can tell, most of these are without politics except in the sense that the nostalgia they articulate reflects a kind of romantic conservatism. It is a kind strongly endorsed by the Folk Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, which, as I noted earlier, provides funding for many of them.

I don't think the folksong revival of the 1960s died so much as it became ordinary. Much of the revival was fad or fashion, and it should be no more surprise that the youths went somewhere else than it was when disco came and went or when the recent fad of breakdancing is replaced by something else. The nice thing about the folksong revival is how much of it survived and became part of the general culture, how much of it is still accessible. I doubt that rock music would have developed the way it has were it not for the folksong revival. More folk festivals go on now than ever went on during the 1950s and 1960s, and many of them reflect real sensitivity and sophistication in programming. Many are directed by graduates of folklore Ph.D. programs--men and women who themselves had often been in the audiences of the folk festivals of the 1960s

.One of the best assessments of the revival was written by B. A. Botkin in 1964, well before the popular phase had run its course:

Every revival contains within itself the seed not only of its own destruction (in our mass entertainment the destruction proceeds from repetition and dullness as much as from catering to the lowest common denominator) but also of new revivals. Thus, the revival has already gone through British and native American balladry, gospel songs, and jug bands and has started on the blues, minstrel song and ragtime, and the popular songs of the twenties and thirties. What is being revived, in other words, or rediscovered, is not so much American folk music as the musical past of America, with the young folkniks running ahead of some of the professors who got stuck in the ballads, and behind other professors and scholars (Newman I. White, Robert W. Gordon, and Phillips Barry, for example) who were ahead of many of their colleagues in the diversity of their folksong interests. Any revival that can accomplish this kind of rediscovery has earned its name. (Botkin 1967:98)

There has been a great deal of journalistic writing about the folksong revival, but very little scholarly attention has been paid to it thus far. It did not fit the academic models of folkloric behavior fashionable in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps the revival was too closely linked to popular movements, perhaps it was too close to contemporary political and social events for the taste of American folklorists. One can read every issue of the Journal of American Folklore published between 1963 and 1983 and get no idea from them that the United States had for ten years in that period been engaged in a massive land and air war in Asia, so it is hardly surprising that what seemed a transient and popular phenomenon escaped scholarly notice.

Professor Alan Dundes has suggested that the folksong revival, since it consisted of performers and audience members who had little in common with one another outside the festival, wasn't a matter of folklore concern so much as it was an example of folklorismus.[5] I disagree. As the Broonzy anecdote I recounted earlier illustrates, the revival, over a period of years, developed aesthetics clear enough to influence performers from tradition. I would suppose that all the performers to some extent modified their presentations to fit their image of the festival context--a musical instance of what linguists call "code switching." The events involved three groups--performers, audience, organizers--but there was continuity in the membership of those groups over a period of years. I doubt that many performers, organizers or audience members were simple-minded enough to think they were seeing and hearing folk music performed in an original context. But they were seeing and hearing folk music performed in a real context, a real community: that of the folk revival. Transitory as it may have been, the folk revival community was as real and as legitimate as any other based on shared interest and knowledge. Performers and audience members learned songs and performance styles from one another; they exchanged narratives about folk music, folk revival music, revival performers, and about the revival itself. If the folklorists' models cannot account for that kind of learning, and for that kind of tradition, the defect is in the model, not in the event.

The social vision of American folklorists is broader now, and it is more catholic, but the moment when direct observation of the revival might have occurred is long past. Folklorists can examine the revival as an historical event, but not, alas, as the vital season it in fact was.


1. According to Roger D. Abrahams, Sandra Dolby-Stahl and Ralph Rinzler, Dorson's interest in and attitude toward revival folksinging, festivals, and popularization changed significantly near the end of his life. He published a popularizing folklore collection targeted for a general audience, America in Legend (1973), developed a few years after that an interest in the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife, and he began to enjoy parties where students performed musically.

2. Buckley subsequently became director of the graduate program in folklife at Cooperstown, Hickerson director of the Archive of Folk Culture in the Library of Congress, and Rosenberg, Stekert and Iyes became professors of folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland, University of Minnesota and University of Maine, respectively.

3. For an excellent recent study of the relationship between artists, technologies, audiences, and social and political contexts, see Becker, 1952. For an involved participant's autobiographical observations on the revival, see Brand, 1962. The anthology by DeTurk and Poulin (1967) contains many contemporary articles about the revival by a wide range of critics and commentators.

4. Bess Hawes told me more funds were available for distribution that year, but they were not given out because she and the evaluation panel didn't find enough worthy projects.

5. Dundes' suggestion was made after the oral presentation of this paper at the"Culture. Tradition, Identity" symposium


Becker, Howard S. 1982. Art Worlds. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Botkin, B. A. 1967. "The Folksong Revival: Cult or Culture?" In DeTurk and Poulin, pp 95-100.

Brand, Oscar. 1962. The Ballad Mongers: Rise of the Modern Folk Song. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.

DeTurk, David A. and A. Poulin, Jr., eds. 1967. The American Folk Scene: Dimensions of the Folksong Revival. New York: Dell.

Dorson, Richard M. 1973. America in Legend. New York: Pantheon.

"Folk Songs and the Top 40: A Symposium." 1966. Sing Out! (February: March). 12-21.