When We Were Good: The Folk Revival

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When We Were Good: The Folk RevivaL By Robert Cantwell. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996. Pp. 412, notes, acknowledgments, index. $24.95)

To read Robert Cantwell's When We Were Good is to relive an era. These days, it is easy to think of the folk revival as another age altogether, but the revival was a formative moment for many people of my generation. It also helped shape the academic study of folklore. Couple that with the fact that I know Bob Cantwell and admire his work, and this review becomes a challenge for me; how to maintain a tone of scholarly dispassion when the subject is so close to home? That said, I want also to say that this is a very fine book, indeed.

When We Were Good is not quite a history of the folk revival, although it has a historical bent. It is a mix of essays, roughly chronological. For Cantwell, the revival spans the time between the Kingston Trio's hit version of `"Tom Dooley" and the oft-cited moment Bob Dylan appeared on stage at the Newport Folk Festival with an electric guitar and band, the brash performance that many commentators claim shattered a world of innocence. Case studies make up much of the book. Several focus on what to Cantwell is the revival's roots. To others whose view of the revival is more encompassing these essays might not be so much about precursors as they are about early examples. Other chapters deal with iconic figures. Among the essays are pieces on the Almanac Singers, folk music and the Cold War, Harry Smith's landmark anthology of recorded sound on Folkways, and individuals including Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. Throughout, the essays examine the political and cultural movements in which the revival was seeded and grew. All of this comes to us in a voice that is both considered and committed. Autobiography runs through the musings. As Cantwell tells us about a key moment during his youth: "At last Pete Seeger came to Chicago's Orchestra Hall, and spread wide his arms as we sang to him, and it changed me. It was thirty years ago, and I have not changed back" (248).

How did it change him and thousands more? When We Were Good makes good the argument that the revival took thousands of people from bourgeois backgrounds, infused them with a vaguely left, populist politic that derived from earlier, much less vaguely left political and cultural work, and drastically changed their listening habits. …