Published Dec. 16, 2003
“A Mighty Wind” blew through my house last month. Nothing was damaged, but records, books and CDs are strewn about my library.
“A Mighty Wind” is a mockumentary made by the folks from Second City in Chicago and is a dead-on satire of the early 1960s folk music boom. It follows three music groups who gather for a tribute concert, and it is especially convincing because the actors sing and play their instruments, with no dubbing. Sham album covers and bogus ’60s-style television performances contribute to the realism, and someone who doesn’t know this is all a send-up could be absolutely duped.
The parody is convincing by virtue of its accuracy. The New Main Street Singers copy the choral harmonization and squeaky-clean looks of The New Christy Minstrels, complete with a look-alike Hawaiian singer and the catchphrase “Easy now,” as proclaimed by Barry McGuire in the hit “Green, Green.” Mitch & Mickey are a parody of Ian & Sylvia, who started with traditional folk songs and later moved into topical, personal material, and the Folksmen imitate the good-time music of the Kingston Trio.
The groups of the early ’60s enjoyed immense popularity when folk music was a chart-topping genre. The hootenanny was the place to be for the in group, which is described in “Hootenanny Tonight!” by James Leisy as a musical shindig where the audience joins in.
The word was a southern term with the same meaning as whatchamacallit and later came to mean an impromptu party. It then was applied to political fundraising parties that featured entertainment and was adopted by Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie for their Sunday afternoon singing sessions in New York.
Seeger and Guthrie are the seminal figures of the 20th-century folk scene. They recorded labor and pacifist songs in 1941, with Lee Hays and Millard Lampell, as the Almanac Singers. Guthrie was also an influential solo artist, and Seeger gained fame in the Weavers in the ’50s. Most of the repertoire of the early ’60s groups was traditional folk songs, the ballads of the British Isles and the railroad songs, sea chanteys and spirituals of America’s youth. The songs were given a 20th-century twist, adding blues influences and driving rock ’n’ roll rhythm on guitar, which was becoming the bedrock instrument of the century.
By the mid-’60s, the traditional songs and cheesy panache of the Minstrels were giving way to introspective and topical songs and electric guitars. Singers began writing new songs or recording songs written by professional songwriters, and some have said this is not true folk music because the songs were not passed down via the oral tradition. That seems to be nitpicking, because all songs were written by somebody at some time, and many songs that are considered traditional were written by professionals for music halls or movies. Songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” stand alongside stalwarts like “Yankee Doodle” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as part of the folk tradition.
While most people went electric with Dylan, some were inspired by traditional music. They traveled to the Appalachians and to the pubs and farm houses of the British Isles to immerse themselves in the music of their ancestors, to seek the fiddlers and singers who had learned the music from their parents and grandparents, a direct connection to the 19th century.
Other musicians moved forward. Bluegrass is the 20th-century grandchild of British ballads, and it came down from the mountains in “O Brother Where Art Thou?” Bluegrass, old-time country music and blues accompanied Everett McGill and cohorts on their comic epic journey across the Mississippi farmland and sparked a renewed interest in acoustic music. The movie led to two CDs and a concert featuring the soundtrack artists. More importantly, entertainment moguls, afraid to stray from the popular mold, learned that acoustic music is a viable art form after the “O Brother” soundtrack was voted top country album despite no radio play. Acoustic music may find meager support on the airwaves, but it thrives in the byways, a bona fide mighty wind that speaks to the soul.