Friday, May 10, 2013

In My Humble Opinion: Competing Visions of the American Folk Music Scene

The Kingston Trio, performing in concert in 1965

The Conscience of the Folk Revival: The Writings of Israel "Izzy" Young, edited by Scott Barretta (Scarecrow Press, 2013)
Greenback Dollar: The Incredible Rise of The Kingston Trio, by William J. Bush (Scarecrow Press, 2013)

These two books, published at the very same day, by the same publisher, continue Scarecrow Press’ extraordinary series entitled American Folk Music and Musicians.  I’ve read five of them so far, and each one has been well-researched, carefully written, illustrated with fascinating photos, all bound together in attractive covers.  The two titles under review today are interesting because they present opposing views of folk music, in general, and of the Kingston Trio in particular.  In order to try to understand both sides of the story, I began by reading half of Izzy Young’s writings, then read Greenback Dollar cover to cover, before going back and completing The Conscience of the Folk Revival.   Then I picked up a CD called The Best of the Kingston Trio put it all in musical context.  I played Kingston Trio tunes in the car during a long drive home from Ottawa.

Who wins?  We’ll get to that!

Mr. Young, whose wrote articles for Sing Out! and various other sources, is exactly as presented.  He served as the Folk Revival’s conscience, a role he set for himself as a champion of traditional folk music.  He started off as a young man trying to pick up a girl.  She took him square dancing.  That’s right “SQUARE DANCING”.  You learn the steps, and the calls, and then you do what you’re told. It is traditional in its structure, and in its history. Young moved from square dancing to Morris dancing, an exercise with even older roots.   He then started listening to old songs sung in the olde ways by singers like John Jacob Niles, and a young Judy Collins.  There was a purity in their voices and in their presentation.  They didn’t write their own songs.  They didn’t so much interpret as deliver yesterday’s news today.  

When the folk clubs in New York City began to be populated by a different group of singers who wrote their own songs, Young reacted critically.  For some reason he liked Bob Dylan (at first, at any rate) and was the first person to present the young singer in concert at Chapter Hall (part of the Carnegie Hall complex in Manhattan).   When Young describes this concert he states in no uncertain terms, “I’m fairly easy going in my personal definition of folkmusic [sic].”  Dylan was one of the young folksingers that hung around the back room at the Folklore Center (which Young operated).  But Young does not always seem so ‘easy going’ when you read of his disappointments in Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul & Mary (whom he liked well enough separately but found fault with when they were put together as a commercial enterprise).  And there’s the rub for Izzy Young.  He never made much money in folk music, but the people who did, are suspect.  He watched for copyright infringement as carefully as an eagle watches her nest.  When a “pop-folk singer” claimed arrangement credit on a classic tune, Izzy made note of it in his regular column in Sing Out!

The Kingston Trio made a bundle, and they broke Izzy’s rules on copyright too.  The three college boys who started the trio never pretended to be folk singers.  Not really.  They were entertainers, comics, hackers, who happened to sing harmony beautifully, and play their guitars and banjo well enough to accompany themselves and sell the tunes.  Dave Guard, Nick Reynolds and Bob Shane got together as a nightclub act in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1958.  Their first big hit was an updated ballad called “Tom Dooley”.  It told the story of a Civil War soldier who was hanged for the brutal killing of his sweetheart.  It featured a memorable melody, and plenty of vocal hooks.  The record sold more than 6,000,000 copies and launched the 60s folk music revival.  When they headlined the 1959 Newport Folk Festival Izzy had this to say about them, “The Kingston Trio were supposed to close the show but they were put on before Earl Scruggs, probably to allow the kids in the audience who had come to see them to go home (the concert was running almost an hour overtime at this point).  The Trio put on a wild, frenetic performance of their hit tunes which was fantastic to see and ghastly to hear.  It took Oscar Brand a good fifteen minutes to restore order after they were finished.”   Another view is presented by Bush in Greenback Dollar: “The Kingston Trio mounted the stage like returning war heroes, and proceeded to break nine of the ten rules established by the Committee of Old Folk Farts.  They hopped and clowned about, sang joyfully, and generally entertained their fans.  With banjos and guitars a-blazing, and voices sounding out in reckless abandon, the Trio, like any popular act worth its salt, performed favorites like ‘M.T.A.’ and ‘Three Jolly coachmen.’  Who said that folksingers couldn’t put on a helluva show?  The only sour note rang out due to the absence of ‘Tom Dooley’.” 

Backstage at the Newport Festival, Joan Baez was asking the Trio for advice about management, and record deals, song styles and so on, which the Trio gladly provided.  After all, they had become experts in the field overnight.  A couple of years later, Miss Baez denied ever having met them.  Such was the difference between purists and commercial performers.  To her credit, Bush tells us that Baez gives credit to the Trio in her memoir of 1987, but even then she maintained distance, “I loved the Kingston Trio [but] when I became one of the leading practitioners of ‘pure folk’ I still loved them, but kept their albums stuffed at the back of the rack.”

It’s at this point that I took a short break from reading, and listened to some Kingston Trio music to remind myself exactly what they sounded like.  It wasn’t easy finding a CD.  The racks were filled with new albums of Americana, and the modern folk bands like Mumford & Sons, but apart from Peter, Paul & Mary’s Live in Japan album and some Bob Dylan, there was not much classic folk music.  One lone Kingston Trio CD, entitled The Best of which featured 24 popular tracks.  “Tom Dooley,” “Scarlet Ribbons,” “A Worried Man,” and “All My Sorrows” mixed together with a rousing version of “Wimoweh,” a pre-Beach Boy “Sloop John B” (here called “The Wreck of the ‘John B’”) and more.  Sea chanteys, folk songs, and traditional tunes like “When the Saints Go Marching In” were all arranged for the driving guitars and banjo and the three powerful vocals.  The harmonies were tight, and everything raced by.  I recalled hearing these songs as a boy, though maybe not all in Trio renditions but certainly at folk clubs, coffeehouses and festivals.  The Kingston Trio made an impact on me, and I hadn’t even realized it.  I went back to the books a little wiser, and a lot more open-minded.

I browsed through the Izzy Young book again, and read his “Frets and Frails” columns (the largest section of the book), written for Sing Out! magazine between 1959 and 1969.  These are essentially lists of what was happening in the folk scene during the months around publication of the magazine.  Who was dating whom, who was performing where, who had stolen songs and copyright from whom: they make for fascinating reading.  The beginnings of many careers are noted there.  The New York City scene especially is documented.  There are wonderful asides like, “a film should be made of John Jacob Niles performing ‘Gallows Pole.’  His dramatic gestures and theatrical use of the dulcimer make the song an authentic folk opera.”  Young might then tell you where you can get dulcimer lessons, and even who is making dulcimers for sale.  He packs each column with addresses, subscription information and gossipy little details.  It’s a treat to be brought in to the 60s folk world.

William Bush never achieves that level of intimacy with his tale of the Kingston Trio, but then Greenback Dollar is a completely different kind of book.  He chronicles the rise, and changes of the Trio, their successes and their failures.  When Dave Guard left it was a huge blow; he’d been the de facto leader, choosing arranging the songs and receiving an extra 10% of the royalties for his efforts.  This led to discontent, and the eventual departure of Guard.  He went on to form the Whiskeyhill Singers (with Judy Henske) to much less success.  Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds found an eager replacement in singer-songwriter John Stewart, and continued their chart-topping ways.  Stewart had studied Guard’s playing and singing style as a fan, and fit in beautifully.  But nothing lasts forever, and soon the folk boom was over.  The Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion arrived, and folk music turned into folk-rock.   Strangely, Izzy Young claims to have fallen “in love with The Beatles and their music…” It sounds like he even surprised himself!  He goes on to state, “I’d rather hear the Beatles sing ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ than to hear the Kingston Trio sing ‘Tom Dooley’.  Strong words indeed!

Reading the two books I was struck by the passion that Bush and Young bring to their topics.  They might not agree, but they each shine a light on the dark recesses of the early 60s, a time which seems so far away, existing only in memory.  Read them with the soundtrack of a Kingston Trio album, or some early Dylan or Baez.  Or, maybe, between chapters pick up your acoustic guitar and strum “This Land Is Your Land” for old times’ sake.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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