Roots of the Revival: American and British Folk Music in the 1950s

By Davies, Lawrence | Notes, December 2015 | Go to article overview

Roots of the Revival: American and British Folk Music in the 1950s


Davies, Lawrence, Notes


Roots of the Revival: American and British Folk Music in the 1950s. By Ronald D. Cohen and Rachel Clare Donaldson. (Music in American Life.) Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014. [182 p. ISBN 9780252038518 (hardcover), $85; ISBN 9780252080128 (paperback), $25; ISBN 9780252096426 (e-book), various.] Facsimiles, bibliographic references, index.

Folk song enthusiasts opening their copies of Carl Sandburg's New American Songbag would have found the following endorsement inside:

   American Music lovers owe Carl Sandburg
   a great debt for the ceaseless research
   which has rediscovered so much
   authentic American music for their enjoyment.
   This here Songbag is just loaded
   with old goodies. (Carl Sandburg, New
   American Songbag [New York: Broadcast
   Music, 1950], frontispiece, emphasis
   mine)

The same endorsement could easily be made of Ronald D. Cohen and Rachel Clare Donaldson's Roots of the Revival. Part reference work, part conceptual study, the authors have drawn together a wealth of primary and secondary literature to trace the development of pre-1960s folk music on both sides of the Atlantic. They identify the 1950s as a period that has been both overlooked and oversimplified. Although suburban living, emerging consumerism, and rising anticommunist fervor are generally thought to have restricted the immediate postwar folk scene, Cohen and Donaldson uncover a vibrant world of performance, criticism, and study that challenges our core perceptions of what "folk music" could be. The authors cast their nets wide, examining not just institutionalized folk song research and published criticism, but also the incursion of folk music into the popular mainstream via skiffle, calypso, and the Kingston Trio. Embracing folk music's popular manifestations is both significant and necessary. After all, Sandburg's Songbag was endorsed not by a dyed-in-the-wool "folkie" like Alan Lomax or Pete Seeger, but by Bing Crosby.

As Roots of the Revival proceeds chronologically, with similar themes and figures appearing across multiple chapters, this review will draw these together rather than accounting for each chapter in turn. Cohen and Donaldson examine how growing anticommunist fervor was set to impact left-leaning folk activities developed in the 1940s. Importantly, folk musicians and promoters came under scrutiny not for explicit acts of espionage or verbal criticism, but rather for a broader range of activities insinuated to be subversive (pp. 26-27). Themes of peace, subversive humor, or an international outlook--the latter especially common in left-wing circles--could attract suspicion. Even the Weavers' concert performances of "Rock Island Line" were heard to have a "red taint" (p. 36).

Cohen and Donaldson caution against overstating the restrictive effects of anticommunist fervor, however. While activities that expressly promoted the Communist Party could quickly become off-limits (p. 35), others that were more multivalent were able to continue. The authors' awareness of this allows them to consider the strategies employed to defuse political pressures, which is a welcome contribution to our understanding of folk musicians' activities in this period. Some, such as the Weavers and Josh While, eschewed overtly political engagements and asserted that their music was politically benign (p. 37). Seeger and others turned McCarthyism's overbearing patriotism on its head, citing their First Amendment rights to avoid incriminating themselves or their associates. "I have sung for Americans of ever)1 political persuasion," Seeger testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, "and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color ... or situation in life" (p. 79).

At the same time, Cohen and Donaldson argue that we should be wary of interpreting musicians' deferment to populism as a compromise. After all, many aspects of the Weavers's success arrived via decidedly populist means. …

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