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Left Coast / Right Coast: Folk Music

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Mike Gold living the dream in the Pacific Northwest. Photo credit: Nancy Gold.

By Mike Gold, a retired entrepreneur "living the dream in the Pacific Northwest."

I’ve written about music before. This week I thought I’d look into folk music. Sometimes folk music was music transmitted orally, music with unknown composers, or music performed by custom over a long period of time. The term originated in the 19th century.

When one talks about folk music – one has to include all the tribal music that was sung in many early cultures – including Native American and Music of Africa.  In these primitive cultures, the tribes would have folk music for many occasions. They might include songs to make it rain (for growing crops), fertility dances, music if the tribe was going to fight another tribe. The music was a deep and important part of their culture.

For our generation, folk music really blossomed in the 60’s as part of the change in society – including the rise of activism in our political discourse.

When I think of all those fraternity parties, there was always some guitar playing brother (we also had one professor who also played the guitar and sang at our parties). Of course, there is the classic scene from "Animal House" in which Bluto (John Belushi) expresses his opinion about the entire college folk singing scene. While I don’t recall ever having the guitar playing performer having his instrument smashed against the wall, I wonder if that was the beginning of rock and roll bands doing exactly that at the end of their performance.

As this was the Vietnam era, many of the songs were “anti-war.” Perhaps the best known anti-war folk singer was Joan Baez. "Where have all the Flowers Gone" is specifically about the young soldiers who died in that conflict is still one of the standards today. It was also performed by Pete Seeger, and by Peter, Paul and Mary. And of course, we can’t visit that era without the infamous Bob Dylan performance of "Blowin' in the Wind," one of the most heavily covered (that means performed by other artists) songs ever.

Pete Seeger was part of the group called The Weavers. As hard as it is for me to believe, this group actually preceded my interest in folk music – or music of any kind. Here is one of their signature songs: "Goodnight Irene." It brings a tear to my eye but my grandmother used to sing this song to all her young grandchildren including me. I can still hear her acapella version of this song and another popular one from the 50’s (and earlier) called, "You are my Sunshine" written in 1939. Look in this video how young Pete Seeger was. Of course, the group formed in Greenwich Village in Manhattan which was one of the hotbeds of folk music.

One of the clubs that was the center of this new music movement was The Bitter End, naturally located on Bleeker St. in the Village. Many was the night when we stood outside the club for hours waiting to get in. It was an early hangout for Bob Dylan – even before he started performing there (on occasion – most of the time he just hung out there).

Folk Music and poetry was one of the means through which our emerging “beat” generation (think Jack Kerouac) expressed their distaste for the “then” society in the US. Kerouac and other “beat generation” poets would read their work at parties or in folk music clubs. I remember that the audience would “snap” their fingers as the acceptable method of applauding.

But what I most remember is that entire folk music scene was just another example of “foreplay” through which boys tried to pick-up girls. Now whether that actually worked, well my lips are sealed – to protect the innocent.

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