Various Artists

Washington Square Memoirs: The Great Urban Folk Boom 1950-1970

by Michael Stephens


Imagine all the earnest types with acoustic guitars that you have ever heard strumming away in the background at a party or keening incomprehensibly through a cheap PA in a coffee house; imagine if all those individuals were allowed to record one song each and then Rhino released a three-CD compilation, with about 80 songs on each CD, called Every Folker Who Ever Strummed. Basically tomcats, that’s what you get on Washington Square Memoirs.

The ‘60s fans of this type of music were the people who shouted “Judas” at Bob Dylan when he went electric, because they thought rock and roll was commercial crap and folk was the real music of the people. Washington Square Memoirs shows how clueless those ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s American folkies really were.

cover art

Various Artists

Washington Square Memoirs: the Great Urban Folk Boom 1950-1970


Don’t get me wrong. I love folk music. The Smithsonian Anthology of American Folk Music is the CD set I would most like to get for Christmas. But the music made by Pete Seeger, Malvina Reynolds, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Kingston Trio, and The Modern Folk Quartet in the ‘50s and ‘60s was not folk music.

The artists included on this collection were know-it-all types with minimal musical talent, beards and bad haircuts. And that was just the women. Remember Beavis and Butthead’s teacher, the guy who took the boys out into the woods to bond with them and then whipped out his guitar and began singing “Men Have Feelings Too”? The guy who got eaten by the bear? Well, back in the ‘50s, he’d have been singing along with Malvina Reynolds’s “Little Boxes”, a protest song about conformity that really makes you want to conform.

Malvina (what image comes to mind when you hear that name?) got her Ph.D in folklore from U.C. Berkeley in 1943 and then began writing “folk songs”. On the liner notes it says she was: “very opinionated and very political. It was easy for her to be confrontational. She lived in the Berkeley world”. That’s the impression you get from all these folkers. They may not all have had Ph.Ds in folklore, but they sound like they do. This is not folk music in the tradition of Doc Boggs, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Blind Willie McTell and Memphis Minnie. It’s folk music in the sense of a bunch of turtle-necked college kids with acoustic guitars and banjos trying to recreate the music of the swamps, the mountains and the deltas in some beer and pretzel hangout in Greenwich Village.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, the Rolling Stones were college dropouts playing blues. The Greenwich Village folkers were experimenting with many of the same elements that produced rock and roll. Why did their experiment fail? They failed to rock. Just check out the picture of the Limeliters on page 59 of the booklet. These guys are wearing tuxedos and bow ties while performing “The Wabash Cannonball” at London’s Festival Hall in 1963. The song comes “replete with a droll, pseudo-professional introduction by Lou Gottleib”. Folkers rocked not.

Where to begin with this gnarly heap of un-grooviness? Even having to mention the song titles makes me feel as queasy as if I were hand-washing my incontinent old granny’s skid-marked, urine-stained, flesh-pink drawers (sorry granny, even your drawers are not as bad as this music). What can you say about Hedy West doing “500 Miles”, or Ian and Sylvia warbling “Four Strong Winds”? Nothing good.

In case I forgot to mention it, this stuff is bad. I stress this point in case you get the idea that this collection might be a so-uncool-it’s-cool, musical Plan 9 from Outer Space. Do you really want to hear Bob Gibson performing “Fog Horn”? How about Koerner, Ray & Glover doing “What’s the Matter with the Mill”? May I interest you in hearing Eric Von Schmidt’s performance of “Joshua Gone Barbados”, featuring Eric impersonating a thick Jamaican accent to make this calypso about scabs in the sugar cane industry sound more authentically “folky”?

Instead of a box, the packaging is a booklet with a photograph of each artist and a write up about them by one of their contemporaries. More than once, under the picture of some folker you have never heard of, and will never want to hear again, it says something like: “He was more than just a second-rate Dylan impersonator”. No he wasn’t.

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