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Exhibition: The Forgotten Side of Folk Music

John Cohen Oct 8

“Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival”
Museum of the City of New York
Through January 10


To most people, especially those in New York, folk music has always had a political connotation. It was the soundtrack of political actions, the music heard on picket lines and at union meetings and rallies. It was identified as the music of the working class, the farmers and factory laborers. 

But conceptually, “folklore” was defined by professors and academics. The word “folk” emerged as a way for the upper class to demarcate the culture of the lower class and was used by urbanites to distinguish themselves from those in rural areas. The people whom the term “folk” defined never used it to describe themselves or their culture. The word has suffered under this origin ever since, and after several hundred years, “folk” as applied to music has become a confused tangle devoid of specificity. 

Entering “Folk City,” now on view at the Museum of the City of New York, we see that the exhibition doesn’t attempt to define folk. Instead, it plunges headfirst into how the idea of it was constructed in New York City between the 1930s and 1960s. One is inundated with images and the voice of Pete Seeger, reflecting his all-embracing contributions to creating the folk revival. The exhibition places great importance on the early “giants” of folk music: Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Starting in the 1930s they spread their messages of social justice with sing-alongs, guitars and banjos. After a successful beginning among a small coterie, their idea of folk music became widespread in the media (for example, The Weaver’s version of “Irene Goodnight,” a song composed by Lead Belly, was a nationwide hit). 

The folk revival movement came under attack during the Red Scare of the early 1950s and was almost brought to a halt by Congress and conservatives who blacklisted and censored left-leaning progressives and political radicals. But the momentum couldn’t be stopped: kids who grew up singing folk songs at summer camps led by the likes of Seeger became a new generation of college radicals. Folk songs reemerged and entered the 1960s counterculture, the civil rights, peace and anti-nuclear movements and even, more recently, the Occupy movement. 

Lead Belly's Guitar

The exhibition depicts the New York City folk music scene in great documentary form. It features film clips, 78 rpm record covers, posters and ephemera, including Lead Belly’s actual guitar. The catalog for the show devotes almost 15 pages to the Washington Square “Right to Sing” protest of 1961, and almost 30 pages to Bob Dylan. The exhibition looks especially at folk music in Greenwich Village in the 1960s — indeed, even its title, “Folk City,” comes from the name of a club in the Village that featured folk singers in those heady days. 

However, it fails to mention the Jug Bands, the blues revivals or the bluegrass scene that dominated Washington Square. Also barely mentioned is the impact of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, issued by Folkway Records in 1952, consisting of wonderful performances on commercial recordings from the 1920s and ’30s. This anthology opened the doors of the folk revival to great traditional music and inspired the blues revival and the old time music scene. 

“Folk City” conveys how the music became exploited as a commercial commodity by groups such as the Kingston Trio, the Limelighters and eventually Peter, Paul and Mary. Some critics have pointed out, rightly, that the exhibition’s comes up short by celebrating the musicians who found a way to monetize folk music while omitting most of those who didn’t. 

There is a small section about the Friends of Old Time Music and the New Lost City Ramblers, who were dedicated to performing the traditional roots of this music, learned from old hillbilly and blues records and from the field recordings at the Library of Congress. As a member of the Ramblers, I was involved personally. We reintroduced fiddles, mandolin and autoharp to the folk revival. We made field recordings of mountaineers, sitting at their feet and learning from them. We brought them to New York City for solo concerts. We were building bridges at the same time as the civil rights movement was examining and challenging differences. Both were part of the same broad picture, and the exhibition devotes a lot of space to the role that topical songs and the activists played.

Like a PBS Documentary

For years, the survivors of the folk revival have been discussing the idea of creating a folk music museum in New York City. The problems they faced were never were about music, but about real estate and financing — “just looking for a home,” as some old songs say. The exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York was organized and shaped by historians, not by musicians. With dramatic red walls and graphic displays, it ends up like a well-balanced documentary production for PBS. But in diligently covering such a wide spectrum and paying informed attention to all the chronology and issues, it leaves viewers knowing something about everything but not quite feeling the passion, commitment or challenge of it. 

Folk music thrives on disputes, assertions and challenges to the establishment, along with its traditional roots. Stepping back, the folk revival may be seen from today’s perspective as a tremendously vital tempest in a cultural teapot, which was and still is an integral part of New York City. In telling its story, “Folk City” is an intense show and a rare opportunity to see what went down. I am left wondering, though, if it will inspire anyone to pick up a guitar, banjo or fiddle and start singing.

John Cohen is a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers as well as a musicologist, photographer and filmmaker. Since 1958, the New Lost City Ramblers have brought the diverse sounds of rural American string band music to audiences throughout the United States and the world.