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THE GREAT FOLK REVIVAL – Some Issues, Debates and Controversies


© Malcolm J. Turnbull
[This article was previously serialised in Drumbeat and reprinted in Cornstalk Gazette]

Like countless other young aspirants, I discovered folkmusic through the radio and television. I was around 11 years old at the time, living in Hobart (a couple of years before my family transplanted itself back to the cultural void of Tasmania’s north-west).  I can still recall watching the British TV program Hullabaloo one Saturday night, and being struck by the eccentric manner in which the female member of a singing trio shook and tossed her long blonde hair as they performed. The trio was Peter Paul & Mary. The song was ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’, civil rights-style. Only a few months later, the trio toured Australia for the first time; they were at the peak of popularity. Their songs were played frequently on radio, and one of their concerts was telecast, over two weeks, by the prime-time youth-music show Bandstand. I still recall the thrill I felt as I first watched and heard them perform a gloriously stirring new song, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’, by one Bob Dylan.

    It was the height of the U.S.-led folk boom, the reverberations of which could be felt even in remote Tasmania. Folksingers and folksongs (ar least popularist versions of them) were everywhere – PP&M aside, local radio playlists encompassed the Singing Nun and ‘Dominique’, the Kingston Trio’s ‘Hope You Understand’, The Rooftop Singers’ ‘Walk Right In’, ‘The Love Come a-Tricklin’ Down’ by the Womenfolk, Pete Seeger’s ‘Little Boxes’, ‘Don’t Let the Rain Come Down’ by the Serendipity Singers, ‘Saturday Night’ and ‘Green Green’ by the New Christy Minstrels . Joe & Eddie surfaced several times on The Danny Kaye Show; the aristocratic Danish couple Nina & Frederik had a regular five minute segment on the ABC. There was even a half-hour weekly series from Canada, Let’s Sing Out, recorded live on college campuses and hosted by Oscar Brand. (Let’s Sing Out provided many young Australians with an introduction to legendary performers like Jean Ritchie, Carolyn Hester, Gordon Lightfoot, the Simon Sisters, John Jacob Niles, Josh White and Ronnie Gilbert).  Meanwhile the  record departments of Myer and Allans in Hobart had their popular folkmusic wares well on display. Browsing  amongst the record covers, one might find  relative esoterica like Vanguard’s Newport Folk Festival series, or albums by The Rooftop Singers, The Limeliters, Ian & Sylvia, Odetta and Joan Baez.
 Pretty early in the process of absorbing what was on offer from the American folk scene, I became aware – thanks primarily to television – that there were folksingers in Australia: antipodean clones of  The Kingston Trio and The Weavers, white disciples of Leadbelly and Josh White, would-be Seegers, Baez soundalikes, altos booming out Odetta standards, even a handful of Dylanesque folk-poets. (The singer-songwriter explosion was still to come).Tasmanians tuned in en masse to watch the final of the Starflight International talent quest on Bandstand in 1964, specifically to barrack for local girl Patsy Biscoe. Around the same time, a weekly series Jazz Meets Folk, recorded in Sydney, teamed jazz musicians with folk artists Marian Henderson and The Green Hill Singers. Lenore Somerset made an early appearance, singing ‘Banks of the Ohio’ and ‘The Ox-Driver’s Song’ on Adelaide’s Country and Western Hour, a show which would continue to provide a showcase for Australian musicians throughout the decade.  A talent quest televised live from the Hobart Town Hall, was won by a male duo singing and playing ‘500 Miles’; a sister act came in second, performing ‘Jesus Met the Woman at the Well’. (I think they called themselves ‘The Jones Sisters’). Bandstand, again, proved its worth by airing several Australian folkmusic specials in 1965, although there was not too much “Australian” about the content. Much the same might have been said about another series, Dave’s Place, which aired in southern Tasmania late in 1965, and was compered by Dave Guard, former member of the legendary Kingston Trio. For me, the most memorable of all the TV offerings of the folk boom was a two part program on the ABC consisting of highlights from the Newport Folksinging Festival, held at Newport Beach in January 1965. By the time the Newport program aired, The Seekers had become an international phenomenon. Their records were everywhere and, occasionally, records by lesser luminaries (Glen Tomasetti, Gary Shearston, Denis Gibbons and Lenore Somerset, and, a bit later, Doug Ashdown, Tina Lawton, Sean & Sonja and The Twiliters) also made their way into stores and libraries.

The stereotype of the folksinger, intoning deep and meaningful songs, entered popular culture during this period. Then – and since – the image and the genre have come in for their fair share of satire, accusations of naivete and pretentiousness – even ridicule. Suggesting that folkmusic enjoyed great popularity “because its composition and performance required no talent whatsoever”, Australian comedian Barry Humphries invented the character Big Sonia, complete with Roman sandals, lank black wig and microskirt. Big Sonia entered the stage with a guitar, announcing that she would like “to sing you a little song that is still sung by some of the oppressed half-caste inbred inhabitants of the enslaved catnip spinners in south-west Kentucky”. The monologue concluded with a song, the chorus of which went: “It’s no joke, no joke Goin’ folk, Oh no” [A Nice Night’s Entertainment: Sketches and Monologues 1956-1981, p.104-106]. In 1964, at the height of the boom in Australia, Sydney journalist Charles Higham contributed a scathing (albeit – and in hindsight – quite amusing) survey of the national folk scene to the Bulletin [14 Nov 1964]. Taking his lead from a similarly snide assessment of the American folk scene which had appeared in Time a couple of years earlier, Higham mercilessly scrutinised the coffee-house scene and found it distinctly wanting. (Where Time had featured Joan Baez on its cover, the Bulletin used a photograph of singer Tina Date). He paid particular attention to the scene’s leftist political orientation. The article outraged the folk community and (temporarily, at least) united it – a rare event indeed, as the folk scene has been divided by debates, disputes and rivalries, major and minor, throughout its history. This paper is a (somewhat subjective) re-examination of some of the key controversies and issues which coloured the evolution of the revival during the 60s. 

At the outset, it should be noted that there has been (and is) considerable disagreement among scholars as to the duration and character of the phenomenon. The word “revival”, itself, is dismissed by some authorities, among them folklorists Ralph Rinzler and Sandy Paton, and French historian Jacques Vassal [Electric Children, p.89], who strongly prefer the term “folk arrival”, i.e. urban awareness of music which had never ceased to be “a vital factor in the lives of the rural folk …”. American music critic and historian Robert Shelton similarly employs the phrase “arrival – revival” while David DeTurk & A. Poulin have labelled the movement the “folk renaissance” [The American Folk Scene, p.28, 38]. “Only a corpse needs reviving … the Folk movement is certainly not dead”, once declared the late Scots-Australian songwriter Harry Robertson. The late Melbourne writer and musician Glen Tomasetti much preferred to talk of a “folk boom”, noting (correctly) that, before and after its period of mass popularity in the early 1960s, there was a constant core audience of folksong enthusiasts. U.S. academic Neil Rosenberg refers similarly to the “great boom” or “sonic wave”, arguing that it was only one phase (albeit the largest one) in a broad and ongoing process. Even so, he acknowledges the strong consensual view that the cultural movement of the late 50s/60s has come to be known as the revival. Rosenberg’s colleague Alan Jabbour suggests that the term “revival” has a deeper relevance, implying a revitalisation of “symbolic values” more than merely a revival of  “specific artistic artifacts”. In their enthusiasm for folkmusic (observes Jabbour), participants in that chapter of the movement:

… sought out – and created – a music to express simultaneously our quest for cultural roots, our admiration of democratic ideas and values, our solidarity with the culturally neglected, and our compulsion to forge our own culture for ourselves. In both the music we embraced and the passions with which we embraced it, our movement was not unlike a religious revival, which consciously selects and intensifies certain cultural values while casting its present endeavours within the framework of the traditions of the past [Transforming Tradition, p.xii-xiii, 2]    

    Graeme Smith is one of a number of analysts who divide the great revival/ arrival in Australia into two parts – the period from c1950-1963, characterised by widespread collection and preservation of folksongs; and the “second wave”, after 1963, characterised by performance, generally in coffee houses, pubs and concerts [Meanjin 44(4), 1985, p.486; see also Smith’s Singing Australian, p.23-40]. At an international level, some writers bracket the era with the chart success of The Weavers’ ‘Goodnight Irene’ in 1950 and Bob Dylan’s final (electric) performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Elsewhere the folk years are seen as having started with either Harry Belafonte’s Calypso hits or (more usually) the success of the Kingston Trio’s recording of ‘Tom Dooley’ in 1958, and having concluded with the advent of folk-rock in the mid 60s. In some instances, the term “urban folk revival” has been limited to the period (usually defined, in Australia, as 1963-65), when popular folkmusic was at its most conspicuous on radio hit-parades and television, and when that popularity was substantiated by the proliferation of places offering folksinging as entertainment. Bruce Pollock [When the Music Mattered, p.9-10] locates what he wryly dubs “the urban folk scare” firmly within the time-frame 1960-63 (encompassing the Kennedy administration), although he stresses the ongoing vitality of the folk scene with the expansion of the peace and civil rights movements and the flowering of folk-poetry. (Indeed, Joe Klein [Woody Guthrie: a Life, p.430] identifies the emergence of political singer-songwriters, working initially in the Guthrie tradition, as a second wave of the “great boom”). My own research favours a more comprehensive time-frame. In my view it can be argued that the Australian urban folk revival encompassed the period from 1960 (a milestone internationally with the election of President J.F. Kennedy) to 1972 (and the election in Australia of the Whitlam Labor government, the end of conscription, and the repatriation of the last of the Australian troops who had been sent to support Uncle Sam in Vietnam). “[A] decade so full of change, protest, acceptance and an awakening of consciousness, a decade perhaps without parallel in the previous history of humanity” [John Molony, Penguin Bicentennial History of Australia, p.248-9].

For Australians, on one hand it was a time of national prosperity and the ascendancy of political conservatism. The Liberal-National coalition Government, led by Prime Minister Robert Menzies since 1949, would continue in power (under Harold Holt, John Gorton and Billy McMahon) throughout the period under review, aided significantly by fundamental splits within the opposition Labor party. DLP preferences would ensure Australia endured conservative rule for a record 23 years; Menzies et al were also aided immeasurably by persistent economic well-being. The post-war housing shortage was over; work was plentiful; suburbs were expanding with four-fifths of the white population (10 million) living in cities or larger country towns. Television had arrived in 1956 (in time for the Melbourne Olympic Games). Even what Australians ate was becoming more varied, while a more relaxed approach to living in general was reflected in liberalised hotel opening hours. As Geoffrey Blainey has observed: “The contraceptive pill … gave sex a new freedom … Cheaper cars brought a new mobility to the young and the prosperity enabled them to leave home earlier” [A Shorter History of Australia, p.213].By 1965 the national birth rate was at its lowest since the middle of World War II. By the end of the decade the concept of Equal Pay for Equal Work had been formally ratified by the Federal Arbitration Commission.

The years 1960-1972 were also, of course, marked by youthful militancy and increasingly violent attacks on, and questioning of, the conservative status quo. In 1963 Charles Perkins led a series of Freedom rides through outback NSW in a bid to alert the wider public to the plight of the aboriginal population, and in 1967 a Referendum finally enshrined the right of Australian aborigines to vote; four years later Neville Bonner took his seat in the Federal Senate. The Women’s Liberation movement gained momentum, with expatriate Germaine Greer becoming one of its most publicised spokespersons internationally. Bans on novels like Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Lolita were lifted but wowsers had a field day over the satirical magazine Oz. The Voyager disaster claimed 85 lives; drought devastated the eastern states as did bushfires in Victoria and Tasmania. Victorian Premier Henry Bolte sanctioned the judicial murder of Ronald Ryan. Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen declared a state of emergency in response to anti-apartheid demonstrations over the South African rugby tour. Over-riding all other issues were intensifying concerns over conscription and Australia’s involvement in Vietnam, peaking with mass attendances at moratorium rallies in 1970/71 and the election of Gough Whitlam in 1972. It was against this panorama of conservative complacency on the one hand, and increasingly vigorous assaults on injustices and inequities on the other, that the Australian folkmusic industry evolved. As an alternative to “packaged culture”, folkmusic provided the vehicle through which baby-boomers could comment on current events and issues, or express their dissatisfaction with “the bland, comfortable, safe suburban lives that their parents had created for them”. [Robert Cantwell, When We Were Good, p.319]

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