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The American Musical Protestor as a Folk Hero

American Civilization I

Dr. Miller & Dr. Hanson

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Daniel J. Pool

“A folk song is a song that nobody ever wrote.”

–Author Unknown
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From coast to coast, though every valley and down every stream change and

protest were being sung by the masses. The fifties and sixties were times of great change and

conflict. In a period of time where your neighbor could be a Commie Spy and around each

corner was a nuclear war, unrest was just part of the day. In the mists of the chaos arose a new

hero, the folk-rock protest musician. These minstrels of new age came out of the campus

woodwork changing the face of American culture as well as the Earth’s culture forever. But just

who are these mystic figures of peace and harmony? To better understand the role of the modern

bard in the fifties and sixties one must first learn the history of folk music, how folk music

became popular, how troubadours replaced the heroes of times past, and their effects on politics.

Folk music was and is the ethnic music of a people, usually passed down by oral

tradition, and has either an anonymous or unknown authorship(s), as according to Folk music of the fifties and sixties grew out of the collapse of the big band

(from lack of funds and waning interest) and it’s combining with country and jazz music

(Forcucci). Folk music is as old as time and tells stories of life. As mentioned it was a time of

conflict; war in Korea, war in Vietnam, the threat of nuclear war with Russia, Communism

spreading across the globe, and civil right advocates being beaten to death in the streets locally

(Brinkley). The three main influences folk music were the labor songs (popular among African

Americans), topical or protest song which had been around for at least six-hundred years prior

with the songs of the Pleasants revolts of Europe (Fowke & Glazer), and the Tin Pan Alley tunes

of the North (Rodnitzky). From farmers to industrialists, every type of folk had their own folk

songs (Fowke & Glazer). With the mass mixing of cultural favors (such as boss nova music of

South America [Hanson]) and the clash between many layers of social division (Rodnitzky) the

people wanted revolutionary music to meet their revolutionary ideals. Pop-culture had grown
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tired of intellectual “cool” jazz common among groups of musicians, and rather longed for a

simplistic sound that they could relate to.

Folk music exploded across the nation on college campuses, in night clubs, and as part of

protests of the time. Music was not only a tool for imagination, but rather also a weapon for

protests to hold people together. Normal people such as Woody Guthrie of Okemah, OK

represented the morally right and truthful man to many (Hampton). Though to those that knew

Mr. Guthrie would laugh at such a thought, but that is how heroes are made. The stories of

Woody’s adventures on trains and living in slums were turned into immense rhetoric to relate

him to the “everyman” (Rodnitzky). The truth of matter being that he had a wanderlust that

caused him to skip out of town every couple of months to go perform (Hampton). Others

however, following in Woody’s footsteps soon arrived on the world stage such as Phil Ochs,

Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, and Bobby Zimmerman came to press on the ideals of the

simple balladeer.

This period is ripe with political scandal, the growing dissatisfaction with war, and the

advent of TV and radio popularity the heroes of the past fell along the wayside (Rodnitzky). In

the past a president or solider may have been an idol, but presidents had lied and soldiers had

become the personal police of the viewed elitists right wing. So musicians (who seemed perfect

at a distance and morally good) became the mainstream champion of the growing liberal middle

class (Hampton). Woody Guthrie had sung about making men equal and returning to the land

and supported Communism. With the horrors of war and the constant threat of McCarthyism,

Woody and most Folk musicians of the time had to make more patriotic songs during World War

II (Hampton). No matter what side of which fence the folk singers were on, they could sway the

feelings of the young and intellectual, the old and the simple alike (Rodnitzky), though it would

not be so forever.
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With music picked as the medium of protest (Forcucci) a growth in the number of folk

artists quickly grew, however this did not aid the style as a whole. With a bard on every street

corner, soon people became less attentive (Rodnitzky), so many were out trying to protest that

many of the folk singer’s words fell on deaf ears. Also, by in large, at the beginnings of the

seventies most protest music had lost its meaning. It was no longer profitable to play the

muckraking tunes. So folk music and protests songs abruptly fell out of mainstream music


Though not as popular, as in times past, folk music still influences how we think as a

culture. Using largely the same subject matter and many of the same ideas of its ancestors, indie

music could be argued to have taken up the folk music torch. Also the music of Woody Guthrie,

(his clone) Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez shaped what American music would become (Forcucci).

In closing, though the folk artists of the fifties and sixties did not bring about revolution,

American communism, or even really stop America from going to war it did; shape culture, help

give identity to hundreds of young people, and to continue the ever stubborn American spirit.
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Works Cited

Brinkley, Alan. The Unfinished Nation A Concise History of the American

People. New York: McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages,


Forcucci, Samuel L. Folk song history of America America through its songs.

Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall, 1984.

Fowke, Edith. Songs of Work and Protest. Minneapolis: Dover Publications,


Hampton, Wayne. Guerrilla minstrels John Lennon, Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie,

Bob Dylan. Knoxville: University of Tennessee P, 1986.

Rodnitzky, Jerome L. Minstrels of the dawn the folk-protest singer as a

cultural hero. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1976.