The tradition of the folk song has often been romanticized, as though it were a secret, even a mysterious process. When we speak of „traditional“ songs, certain images are conjured up. They are ancient songs, passed on from generation to generation until a folkorist „collected“ and printed them. There are those who think only such songs are folk songs. If that were so, there could be no new folk songs and the old ones would belong in a museum. But living traditions change in the face of changed living conditions.
Songs which we refer to as „traditional“ are nothing more than songs whose creator is unknown. Yet somewhere, sometime, someone thought up the lyrics and the tune. That often means the original lyrics and the original tune. Such songs, „belonging“ to no one, could be changed at will. Maybe someone added a verse, or a singer changed a line to make it easier to sing. At one time or another the oral transmission of the song was misunderstood and the mistake became part of the song. Perhaps a verse or two were forgotten and had to be replaced. Maybe entirely new lyrics were thought up because the old ones had become irrelevent. And how often were small changes made in the words? The best songs survived, lesser songs were improved, the others were forgotten. The German songwriter Wolf Biermann has called this process the „quality control of time.“ This process of change, refinement, adaption, the making of new from old is the „folk process“ and has always been an essential part of a living folk tradition.
The first American songs were created by adapting British songs to the living conditions of the New World. English, Scottish, and later Irish melodies took root in America and served as the basis for a new musical culture. Blacks and Whites borrowed elements from one another’s cultures in order to create something new, something truly American.
Later songwriters continued this tradition. Joe Hill took the melodies of old hymns or popular songs of his day and with his own lyrics created new songs. Some song collectors – John and Alan Lomax or Jean Ritchie – „edited“ various versions of an old song to create their own version, which often became the „definitive“ version. Blues musicians have always worked with elements from the entire treasure of blues songs in order to create „their“ songs. As long as there have been recordings of songs, these, too, have been part and parcel of the folk tradition. Woody Guthrie learned the songs his mother sang, but he also learned from recordings by the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Monroe Brothers. For his songs Woody took melodies where ever he found them, oft unconsciously, using several more than once. Bob Dylan also worked creatively with the with the tunes and poetry of others in creating new songs. All these people had both feet firmly planted in the folk tradition.
Only after the establishment of copyright laws did talk of plargarism make sense. The new conditions have changed the tradition. Today, if one wants to make use of the „intellectual property“ of another, one has to be careful. The „owner“ or his publisher could frown upon it. There is a positive as well as a negative side to this. The positive side is of course that the creators of songs and music are recognized and paid. The negative side is that today songs cannot be so easily improved. The product of a songwriter is more or less „frozen,“ unless he or she wants to changes it him- or herself. That affects the folk process, the folk song tradition. It is not, however, the end of that tradition. Several years ago someone came up with the term „roots music“ to describe music with roots in the traditions of the past. It is a good term which takes into account that music changes. From the roots new plants grow. A plant without roots will wither.
In the United States in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, there was a „folk music revival,“ which had of course begun much earlier. „Revival“ sounds as though the music had been dead. But the tradition in America had never died. Before the folk revival, the popular music industry had pushed folk music out of the public consciousness. People had, however, continued to play the music. Today folk music is more lively than ever though it is much different than earlier. The tradition is so lively today precisely because it has changed, because the „purists“ have never gotten the upper hand.
In America, there has never been a clearly defined line between folk songs and commercial songs. The two have always enriched one another. The songs of the minstrel shows, especially those of Stephan Foster , are today without question folk songs. The same is true for the tens of thousands of songs that were written during the Civil War, often the products of professional lyricists and composers.
With the invention of audio recordings, folk music itself became commercial, and the categories of music became all the more mixed up. The Carter family built a career on traditional songs. A.P. Carter sought out old songs, traditional as well as popular songs, and „worked them up,“ that is, altered them for use by the Carter Family. The Carter Family versions of those songs, more than three hundred of them, are the ones which have entered the tradition. The commercial potential of hillbilly and blues music was soon recognized. Hillybilly music became country music. Rock and roll grew out of a combination of hillbilly and blues. From the blues came soul and later rap. Out of rock and roll grew rock. To the question of when music ceases to be „traditional,“ ceases to be „folk music,“ ceases to be „roots music“ there can of course be no definive answer.
The songs in this collection cover the whole spectrum of the traditional American song: English ballads, old folk songs, commercial songs which became folksongs, blues, country and bluegrass songs as well as songs from Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen, and others. All of them have deep roots in the tradition. They are truthful songs. They are concrete songs about concrete topics, topics ignored in other song genre: our relationship to nature, environmental disasters and their consequences, the monotony of factory work, water treatment plants, unemployment, alcoholism, strikes, racism, how we treat the mentally handicapped. These songs are about people who really lived or live, not the famous heroes of history, but the single mother, a dishwasher, smalltime crooks and bad guys, the Irish immigrant woman who worked in a hotel in Butte, Montana.
These songs paint a picture of America as few people know it. Some people call it the „other America,“ but it is the one America which is far more complex than many assume or than others are willing to admit. Like the ballads of centuries past, which spread news of the day, these songs likewise have a second function beyond entertainment, that is, to fill in the gaps in our knowledge, in our consciousness. The history of the United States which we learned at school is like a skeleton, without flesh and blood. Songs like these deliver what we missed. They do not preach, but they have something to tell us.
Folklorists and song collectors laid the groundwork for the folk music revival in that they saved much which would have otherwise been lost in a changing world. The first major collection of songs to appear in the United States was the five volume English and Scottish Popular Songs (1882-1898) by Francis J. Child. The Harvard professor collected and classified, largely from printed sources, 305 ballads of English and Scottish origin, left out, however, those he considered to be of questionable moral content.
One of the first people, perhaps the first person, to collect American songs „in the field“ was N. Howard „Jack“ Thorp, who sought out songs of the cowboys and privately published them in 1908 as Songs of the Cowboy. Thorp, a working cowboy, considered himself a part of the tradition and included some of his own compositions, at least one on which, „Little Joe, the Wrangler,“ is considered a classic traditional cowboy song today.
In 1910, the collection Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads was published by John A. Lomax. Lomax was born in Mississippi in 1875, grew up in Texas, went to college in Austin, Texas, and got his masters degree in American literature at Harvard in 1907. There he met the Shakespeare scholar and folklorist George Lyman Kittridge. In 1904, Kittridge had, together with Helen Child Sargent, published a new edition of Francis Child’s ballad collection. He encouraged Lomax to pursue his hobby of collecting cowboy songs. Lomax bought an Ediphone, an early recording machine, and began to make field recordings of cowboy songs. His book, which included some of Thorp’s compositions, was praised and compared favorably with the Child collection. In 1918, a second collection of cowboy songs, Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp, was published before Lomax took a job with a bank.
Other collections of songs appeared. Cecil J. Sharp visited the United States in 1915 to prepare English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. In 1925, Dorothy Scarborough published On the Trail of the Negro Folk Songs. Of particular importance, because of the author’s fame and the books popularity, was Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag published in 1927.
As the result of a long illness John A. Lomax lost his job at the bank in 1932. His wife died in the same year. Suddenly, he had time to devote himself to songs. With his son Alan, he set off on another collecting trip to find songs for a new book. He loaded a 300 pound recording machine into his car and in four weeks father and son drove over 15,000 miles through the South. Among other things, they sought out songs in prisons. There Lomax hoped to find traces of the tradition out of which the blues had developed. His most important find was a singer and guitarist by the name of Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly. In 1934, with the help of Charles Seeger, -[see: Understanding Charles Seeger, Pioneer in American Musicology (Music in American Life) , by Bell Yung, Helen Rees. University of Illinois Press, 1999. ]-the harvest of their journey was published as American Ballads and Folk Songs.
John A. Lomax became an adviser to the Archive of American Folk Song, which had been founded in 1927, and in 1937, its director. During the thirties, John and Alan Lomax collected more than 3000 recordings for the archive. They published Our Singing Country in 1939 and in 1947, again with the support of Charles Seeger and his wife Ruth Crawford Seeger, Folk Song U.S.A. John A. Lomax died in 1948 near the place of his birth in Mississippi. He had again been searching for songs.
As important as John A. Lomax’s contribution to the field of folk songs was, his son Alan was to surpass him. Alan Lomax was born in Austin, Texas in 1915. After finishing college he became assistant archivist for his father at the Archive of American Folk Song in 1942. He broadcast radio programs in New York on folk music and during the war he worked for the Office of War Information and for the Special Services of the U.S. Army. After the war, Alan Lomax made more field recordings, among other places, in Haiti and the Bahamas. From 1947 to 1949, he was the director of folk music for Decca Records.
When the McCarthy Era began to cast its shadow, Alan Lomax left the United States and spent the fifties living and working in Great Britain. In the early sixties, he returned to the United States and released a 6-record collection of music from the South. Later the 18-record collection World Library of Folk and Primitive Music followed. In 1959, he wrote an article for Esquire magazine, „Bluegrass Background: Folk Music with Overdrive,“ which introduced the music to a large audience for the first time. It was Alan Lomax who made songs like „Streets of Laredo“ and „House of the Rising Sun“ known and made the earliest recordings of singers such as Fred McDowell, Son House, and Muddy Waters. In 1963, Lomax began working on a classification of the songs of the world, cantometrics, and the dances of the world, choreometrics. Rounder Records is in the process of releasing the „Alan Lomax Collection.“ In the end, it will include 40 CDs of field recordings of American and international folk music.
The Communist Party and Folk Song
Toward the end of the 1930s, the Communist Party of the USA discovered the folk song as a propaganda tool. After the October Revolution, the American Communists had adopted the practices of the Soviet Union lock, stock and barrel, among other things their propaganda songs. They idealized Soviet culture, but the social realities of the United States and the Soviet Union could not have been more different. Before the American Communists came across the music of the southern Appalachians, their music consisted of a mixture of songs from the radical union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Soviet choruses chorales, and compositions by Hanns Eisler and other European composers.
The late thirties was the era of the Popular Front and Moscow ordered the Americanization of the Communist Party of the USA. With regard to music, it as to be „national in form and revolutionary in content.“ Finally, the Communists turned to American musical forms as a part of their efforts to Americanize their image and their organization. Suddenly, Communisim was the „Americanism of the 20th century“ or the „Jeffersonianism of the 20th century.“ Communist songbooks and rallies were now opened by the national anthem instead of „The Internationale.“
It is no wonder that it took time before the Communists discovered American culture. Until the end of the thirties, the Communist Party was a party of immigrants. Only one seventh of the 20,000 American Communists could speak English. The party did not even have an English language newspaper.
The American Left got to know the protest song in the Southeast. The Depression had radicalized many people in the region and led to violent labor conflicts. The strikes in Gastonia-Loray in North Carolina and Harlan County in Kentucky were the beginning of the relationship between the Communist Party and folk music.
[Serge Denisoff, Great Day Coming: Folk Music and the American Left. Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1971. S. 17.] During the labor troubles in Gastonia-Loray, a woman by the name of Ella May Wiggins took the melodies of old ballads and wrote songs about the strike. Wiggins was murdered, but the Communists brought her songs north, where, after interest in the strike had waned, they were forgotten. Yet for the Communist Party, they were models for the use of music in strikes.
The Communists also became involved in the labor struggles in Harlan County. [see: Bloody Harlan. United Mineworkers of America in Harlan County, Kentucky, 1931-1941, by Paul F. Taylor. University Press of America, 1990.]The miners looked upon the Communists who came to help as useful allies. It was less an ideological matter as one of human solidarity. The struggles in „bloody Harlan“ brought forth many songs and songwriters. The structure of the songs was traditional, but the content often reflected the contact with the urban radicals. The best example is Sarah Ogan Cunning’s „I Hate the Capitalist System.“ It was the meeting of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism and Appalachian culture.
The switch from the old propaganda music to the folk music of the Appalachians was a change from a musical form foreign to the urban workers to another to which they had just as little connection. The workers preferred strike songs written to the melodies of pop songs. That is to say, many of the union songs of the thirties and the forties were not written by workers, but by intellectuals for the workers.
Between 1939 and 1942, under the wing of the Communist Party, there was a small folk revival in leftist circles, though what was meant by „folk“ remained rather vague. The Communists preferred the term „People’s Music.“ The new „folk consciousness“ managed to create an audience among Communists and other Leftists in New York for several real folk artists, among them Aunt Molly Jackson, Lead Belly, Josh White and Woody Guthrie. For many folk singers in the thirties and the forties, Communist circles constituted their only audience. Other singers, such as Burl Ives, who had not grown up with a folk culture, also benefited from the new situation. Folk singers performed at benefit concerts for Spanish refugees, migrant laborers or radical unions, and the Daily Worker reported about them. The folk renaissance was, however, restricted to a sub-culture in New York City.
The most well-known expression of this leftist folk renaissance were the Almanac Singers, a group loosely organized around Pete Seeger. [ David Dunaway, How Can I Keep from Singing: Pete Seeger. New York : Da Capo Press, 1981. p. 117 ] Many singers, among them Woody Guthrie, worked with the group. The Almanacs were said to embody the new „proletarian culture.“ At first, they wrote and sang songs for the unions according to the Communist Party line, and the group was idealized in the party press. They were presented as purveryors of workers’ culture, yet most of those involved were intellectuals. The audience they reached did not extend far beyond the leftist circles from which they had sprouted. Some union men rejected them, their music and their „proletarian“ manner. The Almanac Singers were constantly plagued by financial problems because they remained isolated from the larger society. At the same time, folk singer Burl Ives, who was not ideologically fixed, earned a decent living and gained a modest level of popularity.
Under the influence of the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the changed Communist Party line, the Almanac Singers began to sing songs opposing an American intervention in the war, among them songs strongly critical of Franklin Roosevelt and his policies. Their first album of songs, Songs of John Doe, came out just a few weeks before the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The album, which had been sold primarily in Communist bookstores, was pulled from the market. After the invasion, however, the Almancs, again in line with the position of the Communist Party, sang patriotic songs and songs supporting American intervention in the war. The New York press branded the group „Reds“ who were only loyal to Moscow. The war as well as political differences split the group up.
On December 31, 1945, at the initiative of Pete Seeger, the organization People Songs, Incorporated (PSI) and their journal People’s Song Bulletin were founded. Seeger’s declared goal was to create a „singing labor movement.“ The organization got off to a promising start. After only two months, PSI already had a thousand dues paying members in twenty states, though the majority of them were in New York City. The membership later reached 2000. Among the sponsors were Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, John Hammond and Oscar Hammerstein II.
The mood of the times seemed to favor PSI. After the end of the war, massive labor struggles were the order of the day. Yet the unions were not as militant as they had been before the war. They did not want to change the system, they wanted higher wages and more vacation for their members. Initially, People’s Songs worked with the CIO and several locals of the AFL, but the unions soon lost interest. At the same time, the pressure on the „reds“ in the unions was growing. In 1946, the CIO passed an anti-Communist resolution. Seeger tried to get the Communist Party involved in his plans, but the party, which was racked by internal power struggles, showed no interest. From the beginning, People’s Songs had to struggle and was on financially shaky ground.
The climax as well as the end of the efforts of People’s Songs was its involvment in the presidential campaign of Henry Wallace, formerly Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture and vice president, for the Progressive Party. It was Alan Lomax who brought PSI and Wallace togther. Seeger’s and PSI’s support for Wallace widened the gap between them and the unions, which refused to support Wallace. After the election, which ended disasterously for Wallace, People’s Songs was at an end. On March 11, 1949 the history of the organization ended in bankruptcy. People’s Song Bulletin had, however, published 319 songs.
In the summer of 1949, more or less as a successor to People’s Songs, People’s Artists was founded, a booking agency for folk singers. Pete Seeger kept his distance to the new organization, which was led by Irwin Silber and Betty Sanders. In May 1950, People’s Artists decided to start a new magazine, Sing Out!, the name being derived from the song „If I Had a Hammer“ by Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes. In the early years of the magazine, the choice of songs published was determined more on political rather than aesthetic grounds. People’s Artists increasingly evolved into a cultural wing of the Communist movement and as a result became ever more isolated. The events of 1956, Khruschev’s speech about Stalin and the Hungarian Uprising, practically destroyed the American Communist Party and meant the end of People’s Artists. Sing Out!, however, survived, and after many transformations, is still published today.
Other „folk scenes“
People’s Songs as well as People’s Artists represented an idealization of the proletariat which remained stuck in the 1930s and saw in folk music primarily a political weapon. Few people outside leftist circles in America and fiddlers’ contests, and the many local folklore organizations documented the traditions of their areas. When WSU in Nashville began broadcasting the Grand Ole Opry in 1925, the program featured traditional music. Up to the Depression, the record industry recorded many old musicians and singers in hopes of cconsidered folk music a weapon. Many folklorists rejected People’s Songs. It was felt that the organization had done more to hurt than help the cause of folk music. Both organizations had, like the Communist Party, agitated at the edge of society. Their lack of real influence was probably fortunate for the music because the idea of folk music as a weapon gradually disappeared from the public consciousness.
There had always been other „folk scenes“ which had nothing to do with the Communists. People in rural areas played the old music. In the churches, too, the old songs were sung. In the 1920s and 1930s, there were folk music festivalsapturing regional markets. In the end, that which we call folk music was a collection of different rural music traditions.
„Serious“ musicians decovered the music and incorporated folk songs into their repertoire. John Jacob Niles published several collections of old and new folk songs, Richard Dyer-Bennet, who accompanied folk songs on the lute, introduced folk music into circles which would otherwise rejected „primitive“ music.
Folksongs were also being made known to a larger public by way of the media. Influenced by the Lomaxes, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) collected regional folk songs and made recordings of several singers. During the thirties, Burl Ives hosted a folk music programm on CBS radio, „The Wayfaring Stranger.“ The program, in which John A. and Alan Lomax were also involved, introduced many people to folk music for the first time. The CBS series „Columbia’s School of the Air“ had a similar function. In 1939, Alan Lomax was given time in the series for the program „Wellsprings of America,“ designed to expose children to their musical heritage. During the forties, Alan Lomax produced two programs which broadcast folk music and gave folk singers occasional work: „Folk Music of America“ and „Back Where I Come From.“ In 1945, Oscar Brand initiated his „Folksong Festival“ on New York City’s own WNYC radio.
The Second World War did much to spread folk music. Men of urban and rural background were brought together and the city dweller often had their first opportunity to hear their country’s traditional regional musics.
Moe Asch and Pete Seeger
During the 1950s, two individuals were of decisive importance for folk music: Moses Asch and Pete Seeger.
Moses Asch had been born in Warsaw in 1905. In 1914, his father, the Yiddish author Shalom Asch, brought him to New York in order to escape the war in Europe. Moe was raised by an aunt who had been one of Maria Montessori’s first students. She had advised V.I. Lenin in educational questions. The family’s neighbor in Brooklyn was Leo Trotsky.
Fascinated by the idea of unlimited communication, Asch went to Europe to study electronics. In Europe, he heard his fellow students sing songs from all over the world, but he himself knew no American songs. While living in Paris, he came across Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads by John A. Lomax. Asch developed a second passion, the folklore of America.
Back in the United States, he informed a family friend by the name of Albert Einstein of his plans to found a record company in order to present the creativity and the music of the whole world. After two false starts, he founded Folkways Records in 1948. In the years that followed, Asch published music and the spoken word from all around the world, more than 1600 different records. His was an idealistic company. The decision to release a record was never dependent on its potential financial success. And all records which had been released always remained in the catalog regardless of how few copies were sold. The recordngs were accompanied by thorough documention, and Asch took full advantage of the new long playing record format.
The most important record release for the continuation of the folk tradition was the 6-LP Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952. Put together by Harry Smith, it was a collection of commercial recordings from the 1920s and 1930s and was the chief source for the repertoire of many folksingers of the 1960s. In order to make this collection available to the public, Asch chose to ignore legal restrictions.
After the death of Moses Asch in 1986, the entire Folkways catalog was taken over by the Smithsonian Institute and is available today on CD.
One of the most significant preconditions for the folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s was the success of the Weavers. They proved that there was a large audience for folk music. In November 1948, Lee Hayes suggested to Pete Seeger that they form a singing group like the Almanacs, but more organized. Through People’s Songs, the two met Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert. The group’s name came from a play by Gerhart Hauptman, The Weavers, which Hellerman was reading. After playing the Village Vanguard in New York City for six months, band leader Gordon Jenkins arranged for a recording contract with Decca Records. With regard to style and content, the Weavers were worlds apart from the Almanac Singers, although Pete Seeger was the heart of both groups. Lee Hayes explained, „What orchestra leader Gordon Jenkins did was to take our songs and package them with big orchestras and choruses, and immediately we had two enormous hits.“ Their recording of Lead Belly’s „Goodnight Irene“ sold almost two million copies. Unfortunately, Lead Belly had died in poverty shortly before the release. Between 1950 and 1952, the Weavers sold over four million 78-rpm records. At the same time, Harry Belafonte became popular with his recordings of folk songs and Tennessee Ernie Ford had a hit with the coal miner’s song „Sixteen Tons“ by Merle Travis.
In 1952, the Weavers disbanded after being denounced to the House Committee on Un-American Activities and being blacklisted. At Christmas 1955, their manager, Harold Leventhal, organized a concert at Carnegie Hall to attempt to break the blacklist and the group began performing again. The recording of the concert, The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, became a best-selling album. Pete Seeger left the group in 1957 to be replaced by Erik Darling, who himself was later replaced by Frank Hamilton and he by Bernie Krause. The Weavers officially disbanded after a farewell concert in Chicago in 1964.
Even after the Weavers disappeared from the major stages, they played an important role. Their presence, personally and by way of recordings, was especially felt on college campuses, where they awakened interest in folk music and served as models for similar groups. During the fifties, folk replaced jazz as the music one listened to out of protest against the mainstream culture. Even if directly political folk music could rarely be heard during the repressive McCarthy years, folk music still had something rebellious about it that appealed to young people. More and more folk festivals took place on college campuses and coffee houses were founded nearby which offered folksingers opportunities to perform.
The most important link between the 1930s and 1940s and the folk music revival of sixties was Pete Seeger. After refusing to „name names“ before the Congressional Committee on Unamerican Activities, he was blacklisted. Still, Seeger continued to play and sing. He traveled across the country, sang at colleges, summer camps, and on occasional even for local radio stations. He also made records for Moe Asch. By 1955, Seeger had recorded 29 LPs and by 1962, more than a million copies had been sold.
Then Elvis appeared on the scene. His music had a rawer edge than the pop music of the fifties or the music of the Weavers. It was deeply rooted in the music of the South and helped open people up to folk music. Some rock and rollers recorded folk songs and enjoyed success with them. Lonnie Donegan had a hit with Lead Belly’s „Rock Island Line.“ After Elvis, rock and roll was less interesting. The superficiality of the songs created a hunger for something more.
The Folk Music Revival
In October 1958, the Kingston Trio had a hit with the old song „Tom Dooley.“ Other folk groups were founded, the Limeliters, the Brothers Four, the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Tarriers, and many more. Their music was smooth and conventional, but they got the ball rolling.
A major influence on the commercial folk music revival was the civil rights movement. It touched the conscience of many people and politicized them. It would be hard to name another political movement in which songs played such a vital role, and the songs came directly out of the musical tradition of Black America, to be precise, from the Black churches. At meetings and demonstrations, spirituals were sung, often with new words. They created a feeling of solidarity, helped calm tense situations, or gave people courage. Many white songwriters, among them Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Pete Seeger, wrote songs inspired by the civil rights movement, but their songs were written to be sung by individual singers for an audience. The songs of the Black tradition were sung communally. There was no audience. They were in no way commercial. Yet though the songs of the white songwriters played no major role in the civil rights movement, they did help create an awareness of the shared fate of Black and White in America. The civil rights movement was the cause célebré of the folk era.
The high tide of the folk revival was the year 1963. 37,000 people attended the Newport Folk Festival. All the major national magazines carried title stories on the subject. ABC started the program „Hootenanny,“ though it was boycotted by the best of the genre because Pete Seeger was not allowed to perform. On August 28, 1963, the March on Washington took place. Almost a million people heard Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Odetta, and Peter, Paul & Mary sing. Folk music, the counter culture of the thirties, forties and fiftes had suddenly become mass culture. Then came the Beatles and the phase of major commercial success of folk music ended.
The revival of the 1960s changed much in the area of folk music. Despite the many long since forgotten topical songs, the revival was largely non-political and entirely non-partisan. Folk songs were no longer weapons in the class struggle. The Guthrie-Seeger tradition was carried on, but under different conditions.
The understanding of folk music was widened. Folk was no longer limited to the tradition of the British ballads of the Appalachians and the political song. It included all traditional music cultures: blues, old-timey country, bluegrass, shanties, cowboy songs, cajun, zydeco, Tex-Mex, and more. Older musicians like John Hurt, Roscoe Holcomb and Dock Boggs were „discovered“ and enjoyed a second (for some a first) career. The folk music revival made people aware of the richness of American musical culture.
In creating this new awareness, Mike Seeger and the New Lost City Ramblers played a vital role. [Philip F. Gura, „Roots and Branches: Forty Years of the New Lost City Ramblers“, Old Time Herald , Vol. 7, issue 2.] Already during the fifties, Seeger had sought out older musicians like Elizabeth Cotton, the Stoneman Family, and Sam and Kirk McGee, recorded them and released those recordings. Mike Seeger was responsible for the first long playing record of bluegrass music. The New Lost City Ramblers brought traditional musicians to the stages of the big cities and folk festivals. Not only did they introduce older singers and musicians, they themselves performed an older, rougher style of music than most of the new folk groups which had been modelled of the Kingston Trio. The New Lost City Ramblers were the first „revival“ group to present an ensemble of guitar, banjo and fiddle. In September 1958, before the success of „Tom Dooley,“ they had had their first concert in the Carnegie Recital Hall and Moe Asch had recorded their first album.
The repertoire of the New Lost City Ramblers was taken largely from commercial recordings or recordings in the Library of Congress from the years 1925 to 1935. Mike Seeger felt himself drawn to these songs, many of them created during the Depression, because they were the songs of working people, who expressed themselves much more directly that the urban folksingers. The New Lost City Ramblers were aware of the political side of these songs though they did not present them as „political songs“ as such. For the New Lost City Ramblers, as for many others tired of the smooth folk arrangements of the fifties, the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music grew in importance.
An important aspect of the folk music revival were the singer-songwriters in the tradition of Woody Guthrie. For the young folksingers, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were role models and without the connection between folk music and the „old Left“ the many topical songs might never have been written. But the young singers were not influenced by the Communist Party, were not followers of any ideology. They were products of the post-war period and individualists.
The most prominent figure of the folk revival was Bob Dylan. Initially, he was considered the „new Woody“ and without doubt Guthrie was one of his most important influences. But he was not Woody II. Bob Dylan had not grown up in the Dust Bowl during the Depression, rather as a spoiled youth in a secure family in the post-war years. Woody had also not been his first idol. That had been Little Richard. Bob Dylan is a private person, who does not let himself be taken in. He extended the tradition and widened its horizons. Dylan revolutionized the American song and changed the lyrics of folk, rock and country songs. The songs became more lyrical. John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers felt that the emphasis in the folk song was no longer „social reform“ but „the search for human values.“
The songs of Bob Dylan were not or only rarely of a sort that invited singing along, seldom did they have a chorus. Of all the topical songwriters, it is only Dylan’s work that has not paled with the years. The best American poets of the 20th century were songwriters. Bob Dylan’s songs are studied in university seminars. Without the influence of Bob Dylan, there were probably never have been the great number of songwriters which we have. Many songs are being produced by the many singer-songwriters today and most will probably be forgotten, but, as Pete Seeger once described Woody Guthrie’s attitude toward songwriting, if you want to have a few good songs you have to write a lot of songs. The large number of singer-songwriters and their productivity is a treasure trove.
Folk after the revival
During the seventies and eighties, a folk music network consisting of local and regional organizations was developed which promotes the music and provides the musicians opportunities to perform. The people involved usually work for nothing or at most in exchange for reduced ticket prices to concerts. Most make music themselves. Small record companies, agencies and, mail order companies were founded to make the music available to a larger audience. The musicians don’t become rich, but some manage to live from the music. Many have day jobs. A few, like Nanci Griffith and Mary Chapin Carpenter, switch to the country field and together with bluegrass musicians see to it that more traditional sounds are heard. This network calls itself a community and Utah Phillips honored it when he had to stop touring for reasons of heath.
„I‘m leaving a trade which I love very much. When I left Utah over 45 years ago, I had only a slim hold on what folk music was, $75 in my pocket, a head full of songs and stories, and no prospects. When I landed at Cafe Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York, I found gradually that I had stumbled into a family that was in fact transcontinental. I found great numbers of people who, as part of their pattern of social responsibility, were committed to the task of making sure that folk music existed in their communities. I found singer-circles, camp-outs, picnics, concert programs, festivals great and small, celebrating a common heritage of song. And I found my community, singers and makers of songs, plying the axis from San Diego Folk Heritage to the Denver Folklore Center to the Ark in Ann Arbor to Lena‘s and beyond, eking out a bare living sharing what we had together, but, most of all, in each other‘s company. A family behaving like a family - good, bad, every shade in between. But mostly of all of sentiment in which people substantially cared for each other. Listen. For 25 years now I have been part of a family which has given me a living - not a killing. but a living -- a trade without bosses where I felt partners with those working in organized folk music, a trade in which I could own what I do, make all of the creative decisions, be free to say and sing whatever I chose to, courting criticism from peers and loving friends. Front porch, kitchen, back yard, drunk and sober, young and old, coast-to-coast folk music, a world in which I discovered that I don‘t need power, wealth, or fame. I need friends. And that‘s what I found and still find. You folkies out there! Comrades! We‘ve created together a whole small world of song, story, travel, love and food, face to face, in every corner of the land, mutually supportive and happening at a sub-industrial level, below the level of media notice. Hooray for us! Who needs the “entertainment“ industry? Who needs mass media? Small is beautiful! To hell with the mainstream. It‘s polluted. What purifies the mainstream? The little tributaries up in the wilderness where the pure water flows. Better to be lost in the tributaries known to a few than mired in the mainstream, consumed with self-love and the absurdies of greed. Please. Don‘t give our world up. It needs to grow, yes -- but subtly, out, through, under, quietly, like water eroding stone, subversive, alive, happy.“
The North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance, known for short as the Folk Alliance, was founded in 1989, 1700 persons and organizations are members. Folk music is clearly established and flourishing in the United States.
Since Bob Dylan, there has been a flood of singer-songwriters. Today more songs are being written than during the great folk music revival, and the songs have become more ambitious. Yet the temporal distance to the old tradtional musicians changes the music. Many singer-songwriters have grown away from the tradition. Utah Phillips describes the changes and the dangers he sees in this development.
„When the great folk-music scare, the commercial revival happened, it had its roots from the old Left, from the turn of the century on. You had the young singer-songwriters - Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Len Chandler, Phil Ochs - at folk festivals with the traditional elders - Roscoe Holcomb, Jim Garland, Almeda Riddle, Frank Proffit and all the rest. The young writers became the inheritors. They adopted those tune and verse models for their own music. Okay. Now, the songs that they were learning from had been around a long time. And today, people are still singing Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan because their tune models are simple...they‘re memorable.
The commercial revival faded, then there is about a 15-year hiatus, and then a new wave of singer-songwriters cropped up. But now the elders, the traditional music elders, are dead...or they‘ve gone home and are forgotten. And the tune and verse models are coming from rock ‘n‘ roll and pop music, you see, and the singer-songwriters are essentially writing ‚signature‘ songs. Dar Williams sings Dar Williams‘ songs, John Gorka sings John Gorka‘s songs ... and that‘s it.
Do you want your songs to last? Do you want them to stay in the world? That‘s what the tradition is good for. It can give you verse and tune models and ideas about how to make songs that people are going to want to take into their lives and take into themselves and use and change and adapt. Take the time to explore the tradition. Our traditional music is our inheritance – it’s like our national parks, something we all own together. It‘s going to perish, it‘s going to vanish, unless we stay together, unless we mulch it.
We lose old songs all the time. It‘s probably just as well, but we‘ve got to have new songs being put in at the top. If water goes out at the bottom, you‘ve got to put water into the top of the barrel. But nobody‘s putting water in at the top of the barrel - so that frightens me.“
There are however still songwriters drawing water from the well of tradition, still confronting American reality with their songs.
During a brief period of thirty or forty years, cowboys created a unique culture and their songs were a part of it. The cowboy song grew out of the peculiar life the men led. It was an isolated society of men from diverse backgrounds doing hard, dangerous, and lonely work.
Cowboys sang for their own entertainment. With drinking and gambling usually off-limits, there were precious few diversions. The men reworked old songs, adapting them to the realities of their life and their work on the prairie. Popular songs of the era, older English and Irish as well as sailor and lumberjack songs were used to make songs needed by the cowboy.
Probably the most popular of all cowboy songs, „The Old Chisholm Trail,“ was an adaption of Stephen Foster’s song, „Uncle Ned.“ „Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie“ came from the English popular song, „“The Ocean Burial“ or „Bury Me Not in the Deep, Deep Sea“ written in 1830 by E. H. Chapin. „Streets of Laredo“ derived from the old English broadside „The Unfortunate Rake.“ Songs such as „On the Trail to Mexico,“ „Buffalo Skinners,“ or „A Cowboy’s Life is a Dreary, Dreary Life.“ were adaptations of songs from the lumberjacks. „Git Along Little Dogies,“ descends from an old Irish song.
Ballads were sung in camp and in the bars at the end of the trail. They might be about any topic: the cowboy’s work, the cows, his horse, his sweetheart, bad food, some well-known cowboy or desperado, or the celebrations when the drive was over. Just as in other professions, be it the chanties of the sailors or the songs of the men who built the railroads, many of the songs of the cowboys reflected the rhythm of their work. Most of the authentic cowboy songs, that is, the songs created by working cowboys, were slow, almost like a lullaby, „as slow as a horse walks around sleeping cattle at night, and the majority of them were mournful.“ Singing was a part of their job, a tool used to control the herd.
One former cowboy reported: „The singing was supposed to soothe [the cattle] and it did; I don‘t know why, unless it was that a sound they was used to would keep them from spooking at other noises. I know that if you wasn‘t singing, any little sound in the night —it might be just a horse shaking himself— could make them leave the country; but if you were singing, they wouldn‘t notice it. The two men on guard would circle around with their horses on a walk, if it was a clear night and the cattle was bedded down and quiet, and one man would sing a verse of a song, and his partner on the other side of the herd would sing another verse; and you‘d go through a whole song that way.“ The night riders often sang church songs or hymns.
There were of course songs sung during a roundup, while driving the cattle, and at the end of the trail. They were not necessarily quiet affairs. There were songs of bragging and of course there were obscene songs, which the cowboys loved, but which did not make their way into too many collections of cowboy songs. Ballads were also intended for camp entertainment rather than singing to the cows. Not surprisingly, as most of the first generation of cowboys were Civil War veterans, the love ballad, „Lorena,“ which had enjoyed wide popularity on both sides during the war, was the most widely sung song d uring the trail drive era.
The amount of singing believed to be done by trail drive cowboys as well as the range cowboys in the early days may, however, be a bit exaggerated, a product of a romantic notion more than reality. Song hunters were rarely able to find former cowboys who knew more than a verse or two of any song.
Jack Thorp, a working cowboy after the trail drive era, remembered: „It is generally thought that cowboys did a lot of singing around the herd to quiet them on the bed ground. I have been asked about this, and I’ll say that I have stood my share of night watches in fifty years, and I seldom heard any singing of that kind. What you would hear as you passed your partner on guard, would be a kind of low hum of whistle, and you wouldn’t know what it was. Just some old hymn tune, like as not – something to kill time and not bad enough to make the herd want to get up and run.“ And he wrote: „A lot of singing on the range had nothing to do with cowboy songs as such. In different camps I encountered railroad, mountain, river, and granger songs, as well as sticky-sweet sentimental ballads like ‚Mollie Lou, Sweet Mollie Mine,‘ and ‚My Little Georgie May.‘“
The creation of cowboy songs was surely not a conscious process. „The cowboy hardly ever knew what tune he was singing his song to; just some old, old tune that he had heard and known as a boy. Very often familiar airs were used.“ The products, Thorp wrote, „weren’t ‚cultured‘ songs. Sometimes the rhymes didn’t match very well. Often the language was rough and had to be heavily expurgated for publication. But ballad-making and song-singing were living parts of cowboy life.“
Many songs about cowboys were composed in the years following the end of the trail drive and were absorbed into the oral cowboy song tradition. „Little Joe, the Wrangler“ written in 1898 by Jack Thorp, for example, quickly spread from one cowcamp to another.
Cowboy songs were not usually sung in groups, which might account for the loneliness expressed in so many of them. The bronco-buster and cowboy poet Harry Stephens remembers: „You‘d hardly ever hear cowboys singin‘ together much. Generally each one of them had such a different kind of a tune that each one would have to sing by himself. See, they all come from different places, they knew the songs different. So mostly they‘d kind of recite things. Some of them boys couldn‘t carry a tune less‘n they pack it over their shoulders in a gunny-sack. So they‘d kindly just say it or speak it off.“ Jack Thorp confirmed this, „Cowboy songs were always sung by one person, never by a group. I never did hear a cowboy with a real good voice; if he had one to start with, he always lost it bawling at cattle, or sleeping out in the open, or tellin‘ the judge he didn’t steal that horse.“ Instruments were few, but one trail driver wrote, „It was a poor cow outfit that did not have in its equipment at least one fiddle or banjo, and a man who could play the same. Some played well, and others not so good.“ Occasionally, a fiddle player might be played to calm the cattle at night.
Even after the end of the open range, the skills needed to work with the cows pretty much remained the same, but the life of the cowboy was nonetheless changed. Many songs survived, new ones were written under the changed conditions and many of these romanticized the cowboy past.
The cowboy and the West have long been romanticized. Already in the 1870s, so-called dime novels appeared popularizing a fancifully romantic view of the West. One publisher alone, Beadle and Adams, published around 2,200 titles about the West. The Virginian, by Owen Wister, became a best-seller when published in 1902. With the 20th century came the movies. The Great Train Robbery premiered in 1903 and over the next sixty years at least a third of all the movies made in the United States were „westerns.“ Out of this popular hunger for the „wild west“ grew the singing cowboys of the movies. But the image of the cowboy with the spotless white hat, the shining silver colt, and the guitar had little to do with the reality of the work of the cowboy of the trail drive or later the ranch.
The beginnings of the cowboy song as an identifiable musical genre came with the publication in 1908 of N. Howard „Jack“ Thorp’s Songs of the Cowboy and John A. Lomax’s Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, incidentally using nineteen songs from Thorp’s collection, two years later. Jack Thorp had been a working cowboy and was himself a composer of cowboy songs, some of which were included in his books. Lomax was a scholar. They preserved much that surely would have otherwise been lost. Because in both collections, there were few musical transcriptions, it was impossible to tell which pieces were truly songs and which were poems which had been recited to the collector. In 1920, Lomax published Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp.
Carl Sprague, an athletic coach, who had worked as a cowboy as a young man, was the first cowboy singer to record commercially. In 1925, he recorded ten songs for Victor. One of them, „When the Work’s All Done This Fall,“ which had been written by the cowboy poet P. J. O’Malley in the 1890‘s, sold almost 100,000 copies and inspired other former cowboys such as Jules Verne Allen, Harry McClintock, the Cartwright Brothers to record songs they had learned as young men. The original cowboy singing had of necessity been largely unaccompanied. Though some of the singing cowboys still sung a cappella, most had themselves accompanied by guitar, fiddle or harmonica. After Sprague’s „hit,“ there were no further commercial successes. And most of these cowboy singers did not sing from memory, but used the versions of the songs which had been printed in the books of John A. Lomax.
In the 1930s, the term „hillbilly“ was connected with negative stereotypes, but the cowboy had a noble image, which was the seedbed from which the „western fever“ grew. Ironically, it was Jimmie Rodgers who drew attention to cowboy songs by way of his own western-flavored compositions such as „When the Cactus is in Bloom,“ recorded in 1931, and the cowboy hat he often wore. And it was Rodgers who introduced the yodel. The singing cowboys followed. Gene Autry, who began as a virtual Jimmie Rodgers imitator and made his first of over ninety films, „In Old Santa Fe,“ in 1934, was the first and most successful of them all. With Autry’s success, cowboy culture became an industry and brought forth numerous singing cowboys. Tex Ritter starred in over fifty movies, so-called „horse operas.“ Autry’s principle rival, though, was Roy Rogers, who had begun as a member of the Sons of the Pioneers, and after the end of the singing cowboy films, starred in a long-running television series. Other cowboy singers, such as Wilf Carter, known in the United States as Montana Slim, and Patsy Montana, gained popularity though they did not appear in movies. But the singing cowboys were anything but cowboys singing. Their smooth voices, the orchestral accompaniments and the fanciful songs, many written on Tin Pan Alley, made them popular, but they had nothing to do with the cowboy past. The longest-lasting cowboy singing group is the Sons of the Pioneers, who first began singing in 1933. Their smooth harmonizing has made them the epitome of western singing.
After the Second World War, cowboy styles if not songs were all the fashion in „country and western music.“ Hank Williams wore „western“ suits and cowboy hats and called his band the „Drifting Cowboys.“ Hank Snow was the „Singing Ranger.“ Johnny Cash recorded western songs. Many „western“ singers, however, were entering the country mainstream and despite Marty Robbins‘ album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs and Eddie Arnold’s hit version of „Cattle Call,“ the „western“ in „country and western“ soon disappeared.
Looking back, Tom Russell remembers that there were other, less mainstream singers such as Ramblin‘ Jack Elliott and Peter LaFarge who preserved the tradition of cowboy songs. Cisco Houston would also have to be added. During the sixties and seventies, interest in cowboy songs never died and led to publications of a number of song collections. Among them were: Songs of the Great American West, edited by Irwin Silber. The Macmillan Company, 1967; Songs of the American West, compiled and edited by Richard E. Lingerfelder, 1968; The Hell-Bound Train: A Cowboy Songbook, collected by Glenn Ohrlin, University of Illinois Press, 1973; Git Along, Little Dogies, by John I. White. (a collection of essays) University of Illinois Press, 1975; Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle, by Katie Lee, Northland Press, 1976.. But it was not until the eighties that a „cowboy renaissance“ began to blossom.
From January 31 to February 2, 1985, the first „Cowboy Poetry Gathering“ was held in Elko, Nevada. Hundreds of cowboys and cowgirls from most western states participated, reciting new and traditional poems, singing their own and older songs. The gathering was sponsored by the Western Folklife Center, which has its headquarters in Elko.
Michael Martin Murphy played an important role, when he turned from pop music to the cowboy genre. In 1989, he convinced Warner Brothers into recording an album of western music. Cowboy Songs was a commercial success. The result was the launching of Warner Western in 1992, a label devoted entirely to western music. The first artists signed were Don Edwards, cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell, and the Sons of the San Joaquin.
Out of the cowboy renaissance, a whole subcultural infrastructure has grown up with alternative retail outlets, a strong live music scene, and grass roots marketing. Robert Redford’s film Horse Whisperer, in which Don Edwards appeared, was also a great boost.
The Western Music Association was incorporated in 1989, and sponsors the International Western Music Festial every November in Tucson, Arizona. The Association has over 160 individual performers and groups in its membership.
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