FOLK-ROCK, which mixes the simplicity of folk music with the frenetic rhythmic heat of the electrically amplified sound of rock ‘n’ roll, caused one of the biggest controversies in American pop music last year.
Enough folk-rock recordings are at hand to begin a serious appraisal of what the new music is all about. Is it a genuine new style, or merely opportunism in the wake of the Beatles? Did electric instruments cause a power failure or a power success? Has the entry of folk musicians into the larger mainstream of pop music improved the content of pop music while leaving the body of traditional folk music intact?
Folk-rock was born when the Byrds, a rock ‘n’ roll group, recorded Bob Dylan’s ‘Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man’. But it got its biggest push by Dylan himself, who set aside his soft-spoken guitar for a boisterous amplified one, introducing the rock ‘n’ roll style into his socially conscious folk approach. Last summer he was roundly booed at the Newport Folk Music Festival and at Forest Hills by purists who resented the apparent commercial appeal. But there were cheers too.
Since then there has been a lot of hopping on the bandwagon, image-shifting and confusion about folk-rock. But from this corner the new music can generally earn praise as a healthy movement. No one says that every folk and topical performer need add a beat, long hair and outlandish clothes to his act. Those who feel more at home with this rhythmic “music of their generation” should have the right to experiment and reject, look for new forms of reaching new listeners; be free to make malleable their own form of communication.
A new single by Judy Collins, ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ (Elektra) buries a lot of misconceptions about folk-rock. It is not a protest song. The common idea that all folk-rock deals in social commentary is an inaccurate generalization. This song of love and affirmation by Bob Dylan, the leading force in shaping folk-rock, also puts an end to the canard that Dylan is now a spokesman only for alienation and personal hostility. As one of the best folk-rock performances yet recorded, ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ shows there can be depth, poetry and meaningfulness to electric-band arrangements.
Most of these defenses of folk-rock are in reply to a disturbingly narrow-minded view carried in the January issue of Sing Out!, the leading folk-music magazine in the United States, in circulation if not in influence. The many pages used to minimize folk-rock put this little publication in a very bad light. What is the function of the secular periodical if not to encourage experimentation, to help shape an avant-garde? Instead, Sing Out! fights for a musical rear guard and sounds increasingly like doctrinaire Soviet cultural organs denouncing the poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko for heresies, prodding him back to the pastures of orthodoxy.
Mostly, the Sing-Out! critics of folk-rock, and others who have dwelled on its inadequacies rather than its potential, take the naive point of view that hit-chart popularity is an evidence of compromise and poor quality. This attitude reveals the critics’ alienation from the masses of young American music-listeners, not the “crime of detachment” of Dylan or others who have the need and the nerve to experiment.
This apology for folk-rock as a style is not meant to defend all that has been recorded in the new genre. Some of it is laughably inept. Some of it is obviously insincere. (The most glaring irony was Glenn Campbell’s disavowal of pacifist leanings in an interview with Variety after his recording of ‘Universal Soldier’, a pacifist song, became a hit. Perhaps Mr. Campbell should restrict himself to singing songs he believes in, or he’ll end up with introductions saying: “Don’t believe a word I’m singing.”)
But we are defending a whole new area of rhythmic, up-beat music that couples the meaningfulness of folk lyrics with the vitality of rock ‘n’ roll. Here, in capsule form, are some commentaries on LP’s that loosely fall into the new style known as folk-rock.
Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia CL 2389; stereo, CS 9189) is the most trail-blazing work of our most adventuresome poet-singer. Notable for ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, ‘Tombstone Blues’, ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ and ‘Desolation Row’. The imagery is a series of surprises and explorations of the borderlands of poetic consciousness. It can occasionally confound comprehension while compelling attention. A study in composing on several levels that raises the standards of folk and pop writing to new heights.
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (Elektra EKL-294; stereo, EKS-7294). This Chicago electric blues band inspired a lot of people to get wired for sound a year ago. Butterfield is a harmonica player without equal in this bluesy area of folk-rock. Mike Bloomfield on lead guitar is imaginative and the entire aggregation swings and surges with a demonic energy.
Turn! Turn! Turn!: The Byrds (Columbia CL 2454; stereo, CS 9254) is by a West Coast group that took the Dylan sound and put folk-rock on the map in its second LP. The title song is Pete Seeger’s melody to a section of Ecclesiastes that was John F. Kennedy’s favorite bit of poetry. Otherwise, not so strong as the first Byrds’s LP, Mr. Tambourine Man, but still an effective program of folk-rock.
Barry McGuire: Eve of Destruction (Dunhill 50003) has a title song which made the biggest noise in folk-rock all year. Despite the réclame, Mr. McGuire leaves one quite unconvinced about either his involvement with his, material, his vocal skill or his hastily acquired new image. Maybe he is better in person.
P.F. Sloan: Songs of Our Times (Dunhill 50004) presents the composer of ‘Eve of Destruction’ in a whole album of his musical questionings about his world and times. His fresh, likable voice and a still-breaking-out-of-the-shell song-writing style make a favorable impression. Many of the musical poems are sophomoric, but a junior year in the music business might sharpen Sloan into a professional writer-singer of promise.
Mimi and Richard Farina: Reflections in a Crystal Wind (Vanguard VRS-9204; stereo, VSD-79204) is a beautifully wrought set of vocals and instrumentals to give to anyone who says that folk music or folk-rock has reached the end of the line. Wild, imaginative, poetic, surprising, a completely unusual use of all the resources, from rock to raga to dulcimer jazz, at the disposal of today’s young musicians.
The Dawn of Correction: The Spokesmen (DL 4712; stereo, 74712) is instant band-wagonmanship. Few musical faults to find here, if hopping on a fast-moving trend with no apparent credentials or baggage does not constitute a fault. Title song is either a parody or an answer to ‘Eve of Destruction’, finding hope and reason where ‘Eve’ was negative and emotional. Otherwise, a collection of undistinguished interpretations of Dylan and Donovan and Phil Ochs songs.
Look at Us: Sonny & Cher (Atco 33-177). This husband and wife team have dressed themselves so outlandishly that you could pick them out of a crowd of commuters at Penn Station. Amiable enough pop singers who rode a Dylanesque vocal sound (both sound like him) to high spots on the hit charts last summer and fall, they nevertheless lack substance here, unless you regard long hair as substance.
The Lovin’ Spoonful: Do You Believe in Magic (Kama Sutra 8050) is a powerful bluesy rock-band whose power is only hinted at on this disk, The group’s distinctive jug-band sound is barely revealed here, and its folk elements are diffused. But this may still be one of the better folk-rock aggregations around.
Animal Tracks: The Animals! (MGM 4305, mono and stereo). One of the more artistic British “rock” groups, the Animals seem thoroughly familiar with American rhythm and blues. The lead song, ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’, is a folk-rock gem overwhelming in its performance here. The song says more, with economy, than a dozen others in this genre. The irony of ‘The Story of Bo Diddley’ is another high spot on a strong album.
Have a Rave Up With the Yardbirds (Epic LN 24177; stereo, BN 26177) is another excellent British rock group with several folk-tinged songs, notably ‘You’re a Better Man Than I’. Excellent use of electric guitar is made as well as the spaces of silence and the clamorous rock ensembles.
The Surfaris: It Ain’t Me, Babe (Decca 4683; stereo, DL 74683). If you can’t buy a dozen folk-rock LP’s of young West Coast groups, this will give you an approximate idea of how the others sound. Probably purposefully imitative, the LP ends as a survey of last year’s folk-rock trends, once removed from the performers who made the song popular.
© Robert Shelton, The New York Times, 30 January 1966