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Desert Dancer Folk Music Revival Exhibit: NYC 2015 (12) RE: Folk Music Revival Exhibit: NYC 2015 24 Jul 15

The Young Sound of Old America; Greenwich Village drew so many folk fans that in 1961 the city banned singing in Washington Square Park.

The Wall Street Journal
July 24, 2015 5:19 p.m. ET

By Stephen Petrus and Ronald D. Cohen
Oxford, 320 pages, $39.95

The coffeehouses, clubs, public squares, concert halls, broadcasting and recording studios that nurtured the Greenwich Village folk-music scene in its heyday—roughly, from the time of the folk firebrands of the 1930s through the '60s commercial revival—have often been treated as little more than backdrops to the social causes with which participants aligned themselves or to the stars who emerged from the scene, from Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Pete Seeger through Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan. Meanwhile, few compelling answers have been offered to the question: "Why all the strumming and sing-alongs there—amid the sophistication of downtown Manhattan, of all places?"

How the most urban of American cities attracted far-flung enthusiasts of traditional, often rural, music—or at least of new music more or less like it—and how the resultant music scene developed, are the subjects of "Folk City," by Stephen Petrus and Ronald D. Cohen. Mr. Petrus, curator of the exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York on which the book is based, and historian Ronald D. Cohen, author of books on Woody Guthrie and Alan Lomax, provide a fresh, colorful, thoroughly illustrated portrait of the scene, from its origins to today.

The organized folk-music "movement" in New York, circa 1940, had much to do with the illusions of some idealistic folk-music lovers of the radical left that "the people's music," as they conceived and defined it, would be a powerful union organizing tool. (The workers they targeted, despite mythologizing since, generally preferred the same swing-band music as everyone else.) Yet the music-promoting organizations founded by Popular Front activists, the concerts they produced and the striking artists they introduced to the scene did much to establish folk music as a cultural, and sometimes countercultural, element in city life.

But there was more to the emerging folk scene than that. In the vicinity were the children of New York immigrants, who were already interested in their own Old World folk music and dance; folk-friendly performers who had come to the city in the 1920s to record for the big record labels before the Depression cut deeply into such sessions; and other performers attracted by the lure of network radio and theatrical musicals—a motley cadre of the interested who did not necessarily have politics in mind as much as enjoying music or making a living from it.

The book is particularly compelling in chronicling, from original documents and firsthand testimony, how the critical mass for the folk revival congregated in the city. It tracks how genuine performing talents such as the Weavers and Oscar Brand and small-record-label operators such as Moe Asch emerged from that initial 1940s folk influx, joined in the 1950s by growing throngs of college students—some from the nearby NYU campus, others who began to mass in the Village, attracted by the ambient cultural buzz of clubs and galleries and reports in new publications such as Sing Out! and the Village Voice.

The city locale that was the most powerful magnet for those young music makers was Washington Square. There were repeated episodes in the 1950s and early '60s, especially well-researched and vividly presented here, in which musicians in Washington Square Park tangled with Robert Moses-era city authorities who wanted to run a highway through the square, local residents annoyed by the weekend visitors, and Mayor Robert Wagner's parks commissioner, Newbold Morris. A founder of the City Opera and eventual chairman of the board of Lincoln Center, Morris saw these do-it-ourselves music makers, who he said "come from miles away to display the most terrible costumes, haircuts, etc. and who play bongo drums and other weird instruments, attracting a weird public," as a threat to order and high culture. In 1961, he attempted to shut down singing in the park entirely. But the Washington Square strummers, who from today's standpoint seem remarkably neat and trim for "weird" beatniks, would win increasing support in the city and the right to continue singing.

Folk preservationists such as the concert organizers known as "Friends of Old Time Music" systematically introduced urban audiences to blues, bluegrass and old-time country artists, such as Doc Watson, Maybelle Carter, Bill Monroe and Mississippi John Hurt, reviving those careers in the process. But this was New York, and, inevitably, there were also smart entrepreneurs who noted the growing passion for folk music among the allegedly weird and those less so and started businesses to cater to the resulting demand: Izzy Young, of the New York Folklore Center, a sort of clubhouse for the scene; musical promoter/artist-manager Harold Leventhal; uptown producers such as Columbia's John Hammond. Mini-portraits of these business personalities are provided by Messrs. Petrus and Cohen, though it would take whole books just to nail the combination of community feeling and rough-and-tumble music-business savvy that coexisted, not always peacefully, in these personages. Stars rose up out of the scene, too, of course—and in "Folk City" they are tracked as they emerge (Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, the New Lost City Ramblers), culminating in a look at the rise of Bob Dylan, who turned the whole scene on its head and, ultimately, much of its audience in other directions.

Messrs. Petrus and Cohen's book is an overdue and involving proof that "Folk City" was not just the name of a Village club, it was an earned description of a vibrant place.

—Mr. Mazor, author of "Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music," writes about country and roots music for the Journal.

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