For a small but vibrant minority of young people in the 1950s, the creature comforts of the Pax Americana were not enough to balance out the anxieties of the era. Raised in the aftermath of war, haunted by the specter of nuclear holocaust, weighed down by the burden to conform, facing a rapidly growing emphasis on consumer culture, these young people felt a kind of alienation. Some of them sought refuge in subcultures removed from the mainstream. For some among these young people, Folk culture offered a kind of artistic, cultural, and political “authenticity,” something seemingly more real. Like Punk Rock and, later, Grunge, Folk music offered a kind of alternative — it was a place to be, a way of thinking, a community: all sitting outside of the mainstream but somehow commenting upon it.
One historian describes the interest in Folk music as belonging, paradoxically, to a particularly modern sensibility: “Folk culture is a category that didn’t exist until there was a modern world to invent it… Which is to say, folk culture emerged as a concept when the modern world started shuttling forward in time and, along with the joys of progress, faced a growing anxiety, an anxiety about all that forward momentum. Folk culture suggested something outside of all that movement and industrializing, commercializing energy. It was William Morris’s fantasy of the Middle Ages. It was the Brothers Grimm collecting folk tales that had been passed along not through the channels of print but through oral transmission. In most cases, an interest in folk culture is, among other things, a kind of response to something that is going on — in music, it’s often a response to commercialization. It points to a past that feels, to the Folk enthusiast, more ‘pure.’”
With its spare melodies and acoustic instrumentation, Folk music indeed embodied a kind of purity. It evoked a simpler past, a non-commercial culture. There was romance in the common-man rambles of Folk heroes like Woody Guthrie. And the simple musical base of Folk music meant that it was easy to pick up and, further, provided a platform for lyrics that ranged across the political and sociocultural landscape. It gave ample room for commentary, political and social. If some teens in the 1950s connected with the Rock and Roll of Elvis and Chuck Berry, others who found Folk more immediate entered a Folk scene in which ideas associated with everything from existentialism to Civil Rights were being contemplated, and artists like Pete Seeger were sharing a world view that challenged the ideas of the American mainstream. When Rock and Roll evolved in the mid-1960s, no surprise then that a Folk-Rock hybrid would emerge as what might be called the conscience music of the Hippie movement.
This lesson introduces the Folk Rock phenomenon with a look at the genre’s roots in American Folk music traditions. Students will read a brief but colorful description of Folk music from the vantage point of American master Woody Guthrie and also view footage of Guthrie’s protégé, Pete Seeger, singing and talking about Folk music. Students will hear a later version of one of Pete Seeger’s most famous songs (co-written with Lee Hays), “If I Had A Hammer,” and assess the extent to which the “transitional” version of the song, performed by Peter, Paul and Mary, was true to the original spirit of Seeger’s version. Finally, a more fully formed version of the Folk Rock sound will be considered by way of a further comparison between Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” and a cover of the song by the Byrds, which went to No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart in 1965.