The Folk Idiom Endures
The 1963 performances gracefully captured on the DVD, The Best of Hootenanny, are a product of the ‘60s folk revival. But they stun even today with their urgency. Acts ranging from The Carter Family to Johnny Cash take the stage to flash their fingers across their guitar strings and lift their voices in songs everyone already knows. Their aw-shucks, clean-cut demeanor is misleading. These performers were there taking part in the early stirrings of the ‘60s counter-culture revolution.
The folk revivals of the early part of the decade soon gave way to infamous rock festivals. By the latter part of the decade, West Coast rock was protesting Vietnam and the British invasion had brought blues-influenced rock back home from its grand tour abroad, the oddest sort of boomerang export-import. But here, Dylan hadn’t yet gone electric. And rafts of performers were out there thumping on the folk circuit, from Greenwich Village to California, playing their hearts out in the earnest belief that folk culture is the lifeblood of the country and that by turning to that wellspring passionately, they could achieve their own sense of truth and authenticity, they could embrace the popular in a way that the authoritarianism of Cold War culture could not.
Hootenanny was a weekly folk music concert broadcast on television, and these performances come from April 1963. Host Jack Linkletter, son of TV’s Art Linkletter, led an eclectic crew of folk artists but also gospel, jazz, and country singers as well as some intrepid comedians. The vibe is like the old barn dance, the kind staged in classic country music via radio and later TV broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry or of Town Hall Party. The old-school vibe is only amplified by the nature of the televised image here—it’s on kinescopes, films made from a television monitor.
All of the acts here are united by their use of the folk idiom and by their attempt to spark a love of folk culture in young audiences. Judging from the rapt and earnest faces of their cheering fans, the musicians hit their mark. In three discs that span six different performance nights, the DVD includes footage of the show as it criss-crosses college campuses around the country, from UCLA to the University of Florida, from the University of Pittsburgh to SMU.
As with many artifacts from the ‘60s, the footage is weirder and wilder than our nostalgic accounts of the era can do justice to. The sheer range and juxtaposition of performers is staggering. For example, the New Christy Minstrels follow Woody Allen, Judy Collins leads into The Clara Ward Gospel Singers, and Herbie Mann and His Sextet give way to The Southern Methodist University Ensemble singing, of course, “Kumbayah”. One evening opens with the young folk group The Travelers Three kicking into the “Hootenanny Saturday Night” theme song, lulling the audience into polished reveries. Yet later that same night, Bill Cosby breaks up the folk music with a bit where he’s tweaking UCLA football. Using his patented silly voices and slapstick, Cosby insists “football can be combined with history” since it’s a lot like war; he goes on to imagine “the redcoats and the settlers” tossing a coin to see who gets to kick off in the Revolutionary War.
In a show broadcast from the University of Florida, Johnny Cash, circa the drug years, comes out, not to be denied, and nearly busts up the decorousness of the proceedings with a disheveled version of Harlan Howard’s “Busted” and a heart-felt run through “Five Feet High and Rising”, his song about the flood that swamped his childhood home in Arkansas. As the microphone jumps during his first number, Cash jokingly growls “excuse me, mic, I’m busted.” He sings with authority about the trials and tribulations facing the rural poor. The roughness of his delivery is followed by two smooth, melodic folk numbers delivered by Leon Bibb, a black folk singer Cash introduces by saying he saw Bibb in “Greenwitch (sic) village.” As Cash tells the white UF college students in the audience about Bibb, calling him “one of our top favorites for about five years” and “one of the finest, most versatile entertainers,” you get a sense of their determination to have these concerts cross ‘60s racial barriers—and of the necessity of Cash making that case.
Bibb sings “Adieu Madras” and “Little Boxes”, the latter delivering a knock-out punch critique of bad housing for the poor and conformity for the rich. Later in that show, Josh White, Jr., a second generation black folk singer, delivers a very smooth version of the traditional murder ballad, “Delia’s Gone”. As the audience sings along with folk contentedness, joining in their knowledge of a musical fable, one can’t help but think of Cash’s ‘90s version of the same song that takes this kind of folk tradition and roughens it up, making the song a bitter, jangling, Southern gothic lament rather than a rousing folk sing-along.
Any DVD collection that can show you the roots of popular music forms like country music and the blues, played by some of the key musicians in the genres, is well worth the price of admission. The original Carter Family, of course, popularized country music as it began being marketed to a mass audience during the ‘20s, the same period when blues records were being marketed. One of the later incarnations of the Carter Family, Mother Maybelle and her daughters, pop up here singing “Fair and Tender Ladies”, while Doc Watson gives us “Deep River Blues”. Representing pioneers in another folk music form with rural roots, Flatt & Scruggs come out for “Reuben” and “Hot Corn, Cold Corn”, gracing us with bluegrass in all its hot-picking glory.
Our musical sounds send us around the world to land us with our rich American culture mixture, with Celtic- and African-derived musical forms taking us into Appalachia and the Delta. Much like Murray Lerner’s later documentary about the Newport Folk Festival, Festival (1967), this series gives us a window onto how folk music in the ‘60s was a form of social protest, communal identity, idealism, proof of American popular culture’s continuity even in the midst of discontinuities, and of its profound endurance.