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Desert Dancer Folk Music Revival Exhibit: NYC 2015 (12) RE: Folk Music Revival Exhibit: NYC 2015 19 Jun 15

The exhibit is now open, here's the NY Times review. Many nice images there.

~ Becky in Long Beach

Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival

By Jon Pareles
NY Times
June 18, 2015

A well-worn 12-string guitar that belonged to Lead Belly, scratched up from years of strumming, and the sounds of Pete Seeger picking a banjo and praising hard-working Americans greet a visitor to the new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. With photographs, documents, instruments, videos, manuscripts and plenty of songs for headphone listening, the show is a fond recap of the folk revival from its agitprop origins and idealistic fervor to its fleeting pop peak.

The exhibition itself, "Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival," touches very lightly on the many paradoxes and contradictions of the folk boom: the way rural music found its strongest champions in New York City, the way tradition was simultaneously venerated and tossed aside, the competing imperatives of politics, entertainment, musicality, authenticity and pop careerism. Those are explored more thoroughly in a companion book by the exhibition's curator, Stephen Petrus, and Ronald D. Cohen

But in its artifacts and matter-of-fact wall labels, the museum show captures the ambition, the ferment and the (sometimes contentious) sense of community that made a few blocks of Greenwich Village into a cultural bellwether in the 1950s and early 1960s.

One centerpiece of the exhibition is a group of penciled lyrics by Bob Dylan for four songs "Masters of War," "Blowin' in the Wind," "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Maggie's Farm" that represent both the height of the folk revival and Mr. Dylan's decision to move beyond protest songs. Next to the conclusion of "Masters of War" "I'll stand over your grave/Till I'm sure that you're dead" he drew a guitarist standing over two tombstones.

Overhead is the marquee-like sign for Gerdes Folk City though it's from the club's second Village location, from 1970 to 1987, at 130 West Third Street. It was rescued by a waitress during demolition after the club closed and stored in a garage in upstate New York.

And there are more guitars, also scratched and scuffed with use, from Judy Collins, Bob Gibson, Eric Andersen and Odetta. Odetta, who died in 2008, was a classically trained, deeply bluesy and utterly riveting singer. Her guitar, "Baby," is displayed in front of a dashiki she wore onstage in 1969 well after the folk revival, but fully emblematic. Alongside Mr. Andersen's guitar is the grease-stained napkin on which he first scrawled the chorus for his song about civil rights marchers, "Thirsty Boots."

Some memorabilia inspire a certain temporal envy. There's a $2 ticket for a Bob Dylan concert at Town Hall in 1963. A flier for the original Gerdes Folk City announces headliners from what was probably December 1962, with successive six-night stands for Doc Watson, Jean Ritchie and John Lee Hooker, traditional musicians who suddenly had New York City audiences.

"Folk City" finds the roots of the folk revival in what might be called a vast left-wing conspiracy: the Popular Front cultural efforts of the Communist Party and others during the Great Depression. (The walls of the exhibition rooms are painted red.) At the time, bulky but portable recording technology had recently made it possible to collect music performed outside professional studios by farmers, prisoners, fishermen, backwoods fiddlers and itinerant blues singers. Ethnomusicologists like Alan Lomax sought them out and brought back their music for study, radio broadcasts and album releases by record companies in New York City. Many of the tunes were old, durable and of unknown authorship: music made by ordinary people, not urban professionals.

Radicals who extolled "the people" rejoiced that they had found the people's music. Adding new lyrics, they sought to harness the old tunes for causes like the labor movement, civil rights and anti-fascism. The exhibition shows publications like the 1932 "Red Song Book," which included songs from the Soviet Union alongside Appalachian strikers' songs. Also on display is the 1939 album with Paul Robeson's patriotic orchestral history lesson, "Ballad for Americans." He performed it unimaginably nowadays at the 1940 presidential conventions for both the Communist and Republican Parties.

Performers with rural roots, like Woody Guthrie, Huddie Ledbetter (a.k.a. Lead Belly) and Joshua (later Josh) White were welcomed in New York and started collaborating. A neatly handwritten letter from Guthrie to Henrietta Yurchenko, an ethnomusicologist and radio broadcaster, extols Lead Belly, noting that they had been playing together: "It is a mistake for people in the radio world to leave Lead Belly out of the picture," he wrote. "It's like leaving the alcohol out of the wine or the spring out of the clock."

There are albums by the Almanac Singers, the politically minded group with a changing lineup that included Guthrie as well as Seeger and other future members of the Weavers. A wall label dryly notes, "The Left's policies shifted with those of the Soviet Union."

But the music would carry much further than the party-line politics. After World War II, folk songs reached the Top 10, albeit with sanitized lyrics and pop arrangements. The Weavers' version of Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene" was a No. 1 hit in 1950.

The Weavers became a casualty of the red scare of the early 1950s, which has its own section of the exhibition. A wry juxtaposition places "Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television" which in June 1950 named Seeger and many others as subversives alongside a poster for the Weavers' holiday concert at Town Hall six months later. A video documentary shows Seeger rehearsing his courtroom speech on the way to his sentencing for contempt in 1961 for refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee: "A good song can only do good," he argues. Gaining some rebel flavor, the folk movement became a precursor, musically unlikely as it seems, of punk. It was an anti-commercial, do-it-yourself, earnest alternative to another 1950s phenomenon, rock 'n' roll. College campuses were full of acoustic guitars, fiddles and banjos; record companies saw commercial potential. Harry Belafonte made a national hit out of a Jamaican work song, "Day-O," in 1956, and the apolitical Kingston Trio strummed and smiled through a murder ballad, "Tom Dooley," that sold three million copies in 1958.

Folk's political side survived the red scare. Songs were spread by sheet-music magazines like Sing Out!, which appeared in 1950 with "The Hammer Song" (later known as "If I Had a Hammer") on its first cover, and Broadside, which started in 1962. "We Shall Overcome," a rewritten spiritual, rallied the civil rights movement.

Greenwich Village became an even stronger magnet for artists of all sorts. The parks department granted permits for Sunday afternoon folk gatherings acoustic instruments, no drums in Washington Square Park until 1961, when permission was briefly withdrawn; a video shows the melee of the resulting protest.

The exhibition rifles through photographs and memorabilia of familiar names (Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Peter Paul and Mary) and nearly forgotten ones like Peter La Farge, whose "Ballad of Ira Hayes" a bitter song about a Native American who fought at Iwo Jima is among the recordings. Video from the folk revival's commercial apogee the ABC television series "Hootenanny" includes the Chad Mitchell Trio smirking through "The John Birch Society," a jab at the far-right organization. It's hard to imagine an anti-Tea Party song getting network exposure today.

The show concludes with video of songs from the Weavers' repertoire as remade through the decades, from respectful to raucous to absurd (Trini Lopez's "If I Had a Hammer," complete with go-go dancers). In the fast-moving 1960s, the commercial folk fad gave way to the Beatles, folk-rock, psychedelia and beyond. But the folk revival's legacy was more than its songs or even the sounds of acoustic instruments. It was the conviction often disappointed, but never quite erased that roots matter and that songs can change the world.

"Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival," runs through Nov. 29 at the Museum of the City of New York, Manhattan; 212-534-1672,

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