Stephen Petrus and Ronald D. Cohen's Folk City

Reviewed by Christine Kelly

Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival  By Stephen Petrus and Ronald D. Cohen Oxford University Press, 320 pp. (150 photographs) $39.95

Folk City:
New York and the American Folk Music Revival

By Stephen Petrus and Ronald D. Cohen
Oxford University Press, 320 pp. (150 photographs) $39.95

Peter Yarrow, of the legendary folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, sentimentally reflects on the urban roots of American folk music and its capacity to inspire social change in the foreword to this new book. According to Yarrow: “Greenwich Village was, in many ways, the epicenter of the 1960s cultural revolution in America. Remarkable breakthroughs were made... but none more so than in folk music. Folk songs reached people’s hearts, inspiring them to challenge the established societal norms and break with antiquity.” While scholars have long acknowledged folk music as the unofficial soundtrack to much of the nation’s mid-twentieth century social transformation, comparatively few have fully explored the unique conditions in and around New York City which offered an ideal breeding ground for the rise of the American folk music revival -– a unique movement that fused reinvented folk cultural forms with commercial gain and progressive politics.

Authors and folk music historians Stephen Petrus and Ronald D. Cohen have mitigated the neglect, but clarifying a scholarly blind spot marks only the beginning of what they have accomplished. Serving as the companion to a multimedia exhibition of the same title which Petrus curated at the Museum of the City of New York -– and ran from June 2015 to January 2016 –- the book itself resembles a walk through a well-crafted museum exhibit, combining historical rigor with a wide-ranging aesthetic? appeal. The authors’ commentary, interspersed with large, grayscale images and reproductions of eyewitness accounts, takes its readers on a journey through “Bob Dylan’s New York,” especially Greenwich Village, a once-forgotten urban backwater that became a center for artistic experimentation and countercultural alternatives, alternatives which were defined in part by a new significance attributed to becoming a member of the “folk.”

In the first three chapters, Petrus and Cohen explain the long roots of the revival, the controversial path that some folk musicians took to making their music profitable, and the battles that local musicians and folk music aficionados fought to make Washington Square Park a central gathering-point to hear and play music. The authors open their account in the 1920s, arguing that the origins of American folk music are located in the rise of new mass media forms. New York dominated the radio and recording industries in the twenties, exploiting a newly emerging interest in ethnic and rural American music. Studios funded trips to the rural South, where musicologists recorded African-American blues music and white fiddle, banjo, and choral compositions -– later marketing the pieces as “race records” or “hillbilly music” to appeal to racialized consumer demographics. The word of opportunities to record in New York sent personalities there who had previously never stepped foot in such a setting -– including singers like Woody Guthrie, Mississippi John Hurt and Aunt Molly Jackson.

In the city they encountered a welcoming artistic community which by the 1930s valued their background and experiences as contributors to a new popular front ethos. These artists embodied an image of the hardworking American “common man,” a popular symbol in radical communities during the Depression and New Deal which attracted many aspiring folk singers. Later, in the 1940s, new groups like the Weavers found themselves with opportunities to profit handsomely from their songs, but were torn between whether their purpose was primarily to share the music of the nation’s heritage or to seek out financial returns on their recordings. The Weavers ultimately settled on an uneasy compromise between signing with Decca –- a major record label -– to gain more publicity. Other folk singers following in their path would have to make similar decisions.

By the 1950s, thousands of folk musicians and fans gathered in key locations – particularly Washington Square Park –- to share music on Sunday afternoons. The authors recount stories of massive protest when City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses proposed replacing the park with a roadway. The folk fans were ultimately successful, but the protests themselves suggest a telling class and generational divide between those who considered folk music a valid cultural form and those who found it simply “degenerate beatnik rabble.”

The final three chapters of Folk City explain the significance of the career-launching cafés and clubs of Greenwich Village, describe the participation of folk singers in local and national political causes, and survey the career of Bob Dylan and his unique contributions to the folk revival. In “The Village Scene in the Early 1960s,” Petrus and Cohen draw from original research to offer rich detail and a fresh perspective on the importance of local clubs, taverns, and coffeehouses on the formation of the revival. From dozens of Village Voice articles, they meticulously describe the social circuitry of the “Village Scene,” explaining that aspiring folk singers frequented some twenty clubs located within a five block radius, performing first at small “holes in the wall” in hopes of attaining a booking at more “big time” venues such as the Gaslight and Gerde’s Folk City. Waiting at larger venues may be managers, like the ubiquitous Albert Grossman, willing to sign on new talent. The authors offer something of a thick description of these locations – describing the personalities and performances which frequented these venues and explaining their wider significance. For example, they insightfully recognize the importance of Izzy Young’s Folklore Center, a tiny book, record, and instrument shop whose meager profits belie the fact that owner Izzy Young was practically giving away resources to young artists who would hang around his shop, cultivating a generation of influential performers in the process. It was at the Folklore Center, after listening to an Odetta recording, that Bob Dylan decided to launch his career in folk music rather than rock. When the authors describe the politics of the revival, they focus primarily on its role in the civil rights movement. They highlight the often overlooked role of Guy Carawan, the musical director of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, in urging urban citybillies to use their music to aid the cause.

The last chapter offers a sympathetic but complex portrait of Bob Dylan, explaining why folk singers and music critics like Tom Paxton and Irwin Silber opted to attack Dylan for his turn to rock and roll by the mid-1960s. By veering outside of the folk song community’s expected aesthetic preferences of unhoned voices and acoustic instrumentation, he exposed the fundamental inventedness of the entire folk project. Rather than offering unmediated access to a national repository of pure and recoverable folk songs and sounds, revivalists themselves developed their own ideas around what it meant to call oneself a singer of “folk” -– an act that reeked of opportunism and the inauthentic: in other words, everything the revival was supposed to vehemently oppose. Dylan himself was hardly invested in these debates but as the revival’s most popular and perhaps most experimental artist he unwittingly launched himself into the heart of them.

Petrus and Cohen’s Folk City offers a fascinating and highly readable account of the American folk music revival, which they effectively argue came about as an extension of New York City’s unique cultural scenery. Perhaps most compelling about their approach is their sophisticated analysis of urban space as a site of contested cultural meaning-making. They make clear the difference in interpretation of the Village’s many meeting places that existed between folk enthusiasts and New Yorkers, usually the city’s more well-to-do, who were uninvolved with the movement. Whereas to outsiders Washington Square Park harbored little more than poverty, crime, and a noisy menace, those who frequented the park navigated a complex constellation of beats, jazz artists, folk singers, and more, each of whom indwelled an arena of brimming cultural ferment. The authors also make deft connections between the local, the national, and even the transnational as they link the on goings of folk clubs with the civil rights movement and a transatlantic New Left. In so doing, they make their own contribution to what Pete Seeger called the “folk process” -– offering a new take on a previous generation’s cultural output in hopes of inspiring new artists, listeners, and fans. Together, the exhibition and companion have surely done just that.

Christine Kelly is a PhD Candidate at Fordham University.