All Hopped Up Music and Maps: Chapter 8
This Mix accompanies Chapter 8 of All Hopped Up and Ready To Go: Music from the Streets of New York 1927-77, “The Ballad of Washington Square Park.” It covers the folk explosion that took hold in Greenwich Village, in the years 1946-61, a particularly interesting chapter around which to compile a musical “mix tape.” For one thing, it covers a relatively large span of time. For another, it’s much less about the typical process of recording studios and record releases and much more about the process by which two parallel generations of folk musicians made their impact.
The older generation was epitomized in part by the “folk blues” and “country blues” artists, more of whom later, and also by the Weavers: Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, who had served together in the Almanac Singers (see notes accompanying Chapter 4), Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert. The Weavers’ transition from leftist rabble-rousers to national pop sensation took place, essentially, overnight, after a residency at the Village Vanguard saw them signed to Decca Records. Compare the bare-bones polemics of “New York City,” recorded in late ’49 as an endorsement for the American Labor Party’s (failed) Mayoral Election campaign, and barely noticed outside of Manhattan political circles, with the chart-topping rendition of “Goodnight Irene,” recorded just a few months later, with the luscious backing of the Gordon Jenkins Orchestra.
The Weavers had several subsequent hits over coming months, including the South African song “Wimoweh” (later to become a number one hit for the Tokens as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”), and a rewrite of Woody Guthrie’s “Dusty Old Dust.” But after being exposed as Communists by Red Channels and blacklisted from many ballrooms and State Fairs as a result, they were forced to take a lengthy sabbatical beginning in 1953. In the meantime, Moe Asch (again, see Chapter 4) released the six-album Anthology of American Folk Music on his new label Folkways. Compiled by Harry Smith, the Anthology served as a massive inspiration to a new generation of teenagers and young adults gathering who had been gathering, every Sunday, in Washington Square Park, since 1946 to sing and play folk songs. Its success inspired Asch to re-release the Almanac Singers’ Talking Union album he had initially put out on his Asch label in 1941. To lengthen the release to that of a full modern 33rpm record, Pete Seeger recruited “the Song Swappers” from Washington Square Park singers and the local “red diaper baby” schools (Little Red Schoolhouse and Elisabeth Irwin); Mary Travers and Erik Darling were among their number. The success, in 1955, of Talking Union and Other Union Songs led to Seeger and the Song Swappers recording a series of children’s and international folk records that same year.
By the late 1950s, the children of Washington Square Park were coming of age, and forming groups of their own. They were influential in doing so: The Tarriers had a major hit with “The Banana Boat Song” in 1956, after which RCA had an even bigger success of it with Harry Belafonte, including his version on what was widely regarded as the first million-selling LP, Calypso. On their own debut LP, The Tarriers then included “Tom Dooley,” a song that group members Erik Darling and Bob Carey had already recorded, a few years earlier, when part of Village act the Folksay Trio. Their LP was not a hit, but a Californian folk group called the Kingston Trio seized on its potential and took “Tom Dooley” to the top of the charts in 1958, making it as omnipresent a song as “Goodnight Irene” had been at the start of the decade. In a similar fashion, as “skiffle” – a bare bones version of rock’n’roll – took off in the UK, that country’s Lonnie Donegan had an enormous hit record there with “Rock Island Line,” another song closely associated with Leadbelly. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, a Brooklyn-raised cowboy (indeed) with a deep love for and infatuation with the now ailing Woody Guthrie, took advantage of the trans-Atlantic pollination to tour Europe singing Guthrie’s songs, including (as heard here from 1960’s Jack Elliott Sings The Songs Of Woody Guthrie) “This Land Is Your Land.”
With Leadbelly having died in December 1949, just before the Weavers recorded his signature tune “Goodnight Irene,” the Greenwich Village-based record labels (Vanguard, Elektra, Stinson, Folkways) sought to make the most of the surviving “country blues” or “folk blues” artists, generally perceived to be black and of southern heritage, though many had either relocated to New York City or regularly performed in Greenwich Village. This mix includes “Better Day” by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, “If I Had A Hammer” by Odetta (recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 1960), and “This Train (Bound for Glory)” by Big Bill Broonzy, though it could as easily feature Son House, or the Reverend Gary Davis. Coming from a different angle (Canada via Brooklyn), Oscar Brand occupied a key role in the Village scene as a broadcaster, performer, author and recording artist, and is featured here from one of his dozens of LPs over the era, singing “Limericks.”
The New Lost City Ramblers, a group of old-timey musicians formed out of the Washington Square Park Sunday singalongs, featuring John Cohen, Mike Seeger and Tom Paley, are included singing the Park staple “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” The Greenbriar Boys, including John Herald and Bob Yellin (and originally featuring the prodigious banjo player Eric Weissberg) also formed in the park; hear them here singing Josh White’s big hit, “Stewball.” And Dave Van Ronk, who served as agitator, cynic, enthusiast, journalist, organizer and commentator – roles that eventually earned him the unofficial sobriquet the Mayor of MacDougal Street – found himself with all kinds of record deals, and is featured here singing “He Was a Friend Of Mine.”
Finally, as the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, a couple of young female artists emerged from the scene, propelling themselves far beyond the limited sales and expectations of the older male Village artists. Joan Baez, who hailed from Boston but, like any other folk artist, regularly performed in the Village, was introduced at the inaugural Folk Festival addendum to the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, where, I write in the book, “her soprano voice with its trill vibrato and her plaintive beauty instantly made her a marketable female folksinger.” Eschewing the attentions of John Hammond at Columbia, and the managerial attentions of Albert Grossman, Baez signed to the independent New York label Vanguard (whose live recording of the Weavers’ comeback concert at Carnegie Hall over Christmas 1955 it was soon advertising as “the most successful folk album of all time”). Produced by Fred Hellerman at the Manhattan Tower Hotel in 1960, Baez’s debut album included thirteen traditional numbers, among them “House of the Rising Son,” which was fast becoming a staple of every folk act’s repertoire. Baez’ LP was such an immediate success that it inspired rival New York label Elektra to sign Judy Collins, who’d herself had a regular presence in the Village coffee houses since moving east from Colorado in 1958. Her debut album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow (title track included on this mix) proved equally successful upon release in 1961.
That was a pivotal year for the Village. As recounted in considerable detail in Chapter 8 of All Hopped up and Ready To Go, it was the year that (a new) New York Parks Commissioner decided to deny the folksingers their annual permit to sing in the park, leading to a violent confrontation at the start of the spring. The New York Times reported it on its front page as a “folk singers riot,” a phrase that, as I note it the book, “had surely, until that moment, been considered an oxymoron.” (It’s fascinating to note that the Parks Commissioner in question, Newbold Morris, was originally a member of the left-wing set, given a shout-out in the Weavers’ 1949 recording of “New York City.”) But with the proprietor of MacDougal Street’s Folklore Center, Izzy Young, championing their cause, and after much legal to-and-froing and repeated confrontations with the police, the singers were eventually allowed back into the park, enabling the tradition of Sunday music-making, albeit with less international influence, to continue to this day.
View 8) The Ballad of Washington Square Park in a larger map