January 14, 1965, Vol. X, No. 13
Blowin’ in the Wind: A Folk-Music Revolt
By Jack Newfield
On the frontier of every art form guerilla bands of prophets and crackpots are nourishing the orthodoxies and fashions of tomorrow.
A decade ago the frontier outlaws were men like Miles Davis, Paul Goodman, and Norman Mailer. Bereft of followers, holed up in private Sierra Maestras, they scrounged for economic survival. Today every branch of culture has its own tribe of far-out revolutionaries, pushing imagination to new limits of possibility. There are William Burroughs, Jack Gelber, Lenny Bruce, LeRoi Jones, John Coltrane, and Jonas Mekas. And they are no longer struggling merely for survival: they represent the organized revolt of one generation against the limitations of the preceding one.
Folk music is one of the battlegrounds where the hegemony of the established canons and values is being challenged by a creative cadre of insurgents, all city intellectuals and almost all in their early or mid 20s, who write and sing topical songs characterized by radicalism, wit, immediacy, and poetry.
Their leader up to until now has been the mumbling, ragamuffin genius Bob Dylan, as much the symbol of this generation as James Dean was of his. Dean was a rebel without a cause, but Dylan has been the rebel of a dozen causes.
Then there’s Buffy Sainte-Marie, who writes of her fellow Indians and their brutalization; or Phil Ochs, one of whose songs was inspired by a Louis Aragon poem; Gil Turner, the ideologue of the topical movement; Tom Paxton, who wrote his most famous song between sets in that cavernous crucible, the Gaslight; Len Chandler, who has a M.A. from Columbia but who is broke because, instead of staying in the coffee house circuit, he spent last summer working free for SNCC; Billy Edd Wheeler, chronicler in song of the stricken coal country; and at least a dozen more who carry the seed of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.
The songs they write are not just traditional protests against war, poverty, and injustice, though even on those themes they are less mawkish and more corrosive than many of the songs of the ’30’s. Some of the songs are intensely personal statements like Buffy Sainte-Marie’s hypnotic warning against codeine addiction. Others glow with sardonic wit like Paxton’s “Daily News.” Others muse on the meaning of tragedy like Och’s “The Thresher” or Dylan’s “Who Killed Davey Moore?” Still others take a try at levels of meaning and Brechtian overtone, like Chandler’s “Roll, Turn, Spin.” Others come out of the jails and churches of the South, given shape by both white and Negro song writers, like “Ain’t Gonna Let Segregation Turn Us Around” and “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus.” And finally, there are songs like Dylan’s “Hard Rain,” a surrealist, post-Bomb view of the world, with such images as “a black branch with blood that kept dripping,” and “I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken.”
Most afficionados mark the birth of the topical song movement with the publication in February, 1962 in New York of the magazine Broadside (though the seeds of the movement go far back into the ’50s), put together by Pete Seeger, the selfless patron of the movement, Sis Cunningham, its chronicler, and Gil Turner, its talent scout. The first issue contained five songs, including “Talking John Birch Blues” by a 20-year-old named Bob Dylan. Fifty-five issues and 500 songs later, Broadside is the mimeographed bible of the topical song apostles and their disciples, stretching from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters.
And after those three years the new-wave song writes are on the verge of dominating folk music. While threadbare tunes like “If I Had a Hammer” or “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” are now the property of the most commercial folk-singers and the most imaginative rock ‘n’ rollers, the repertoire of the most popular folk-singers — Seeger, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, or Peter, Paul, and Mary — is based on topical songs that a decade ago would have been blacklisted by every record company and radio station in the land. Even nightclub performers like Lena Horne and Bobby Darin have begun to incorporate topical songs into their acts…