AMERICAN MUSIC: Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival

By Adelstein, Rachel | Notes, December 2016 | Go to article overview

AMERICAN MUSIC: Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival


Adelstein, Rachel, Notes


AMERICAN MUSIC Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival. By Stephen Petrus and Ronald D. Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. [320 p. ISBN 9780190231026 (hardcover), $39.95; (e-book), various.] Illustrations, index.

The companion volume to an exhibit of the same name, which ran at the Museum of the City of New York between 17 June and 29 November 2015, Folk City tells the story of the American folk revival of the mid-twentieth century as it happened in New York City. The book's status as a companion volume is key to understanding its occasionally limited perspective as well as its approach to folk music as both a musical scene and a political movement. Stephen Petrus and Ronald Cohen maintain a tight focus on the folk music scene in New York. With the exception of the sixth chapter, "Political Activism and the Folk Music Revival," the action of the book takes place in New York City. Performers, music publishers, and performance venues come and go, leaving the city, especially Washington Square Park, as the constant factor. It is the story of a particular musical scene at a particular moment in history. Its intended audience includes educated general readers who are interested either in this particularly musical aspect of New York's cultural history or in the specific aspects of the American folk revival that centered on New York.

After a foreword by Peter Yarrow (of the trio Peter, Paul, and Mary) and a brief preface by John Heller, Folk City's eight chapters are arranged in an order that recalls its origins in a museum exhibit. The first chapter sets the scene, describing the rough, active, struggling city that greeted Oklahoma-born Woody Guthrie when he arrived in New York in 1940. It also lays out the fundamental paradox of the folk revival, especially as this book portrays it: "while folk songs evoked tradition and were largely rural in origin, New York stood above all for progress, growth, and efficiency, with seemingly barely a moment for the nostalgia, sentimentality, and romance associated with folk music" (p. 21). How did this self-consciously rural genre become so thoroughly associated with, and at home in, the largest city in the United States? Though Petrus and Cohen never answer the question directly, it informs the entire book.

The subsequent chapters appear chronologically, recounting the story of folk music in New York City between the 1920s, when New York-based record label executives sent crews to the Deep South to record folk songs to be sold as "hillbilly" or "old-time music," to the 1980s, showing the continuing life of the folk scene after the revival's peak. Although each chapter title states a theme, such as "The Village Scene in the Early 1960s" or "Political Activism and the Folk Music Revival," the narratives within those chapters tend to be weak. There are many illustrations, including photographs of performers and reproductions of record album covers and concert flyers. Petrus and Cohen seem to organize each chapter around its collection of images, devoting a few paragraphs to one illustrated topic related to the theme of the chapter before moving on to the next illustration and the next topic. The effect is much like wandering through an exhibit, looking at the artifacts on display and reading the information cards posted beside them, and then moving on. This museum-like approach to storytelling can be jarring to a reader who opens the book expecting a more traditional narrative structure that can be read straight through. However, it may also reward a more casual reader who prefers to dip in and out of the book, exploring different segments and stories at leisure.

Separate sidebars headed "Recollections" appear scattered throughout the book. These are short, first-person anecdotes about well-known folk performers or venues, usually told by a participant in the New York folk scene who is less well-known today. The authors include other folk singers, performers' managers, actors, music publishers, and producers. …

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