Thursday, July 14, 2011

Folk For A Day

After mentioning folk singer Joan Baez in the recent Patriotic post, I realized I should devote a day to some of the other folk folks of the 1960s. This post is definitely on the mellow side but folk music was very significant to this decade as a social, cultural, and political force.

American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was first introduced during Folk Rock Week at The '60s Beat, when he "went electric" and influenced the sound of the '60s, even impacting the music of The Beatles. With a recording career spanning fifty years, he has explored various genres including folk, blues, country, gospel, rock 'n roll, rockabilly, even English, Scottish, and Irish folk music. Before he became known for his political, social, philosophical, and literary influence, Dylan's humble beginnings were that of a young (Jewish) folk musician from Minnesota, initially inspired by the songs of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, and the performance style of Buddy Holly. Released in August 1963, "Blowin' In The Wind" was described as a protest song, although it raises several questions about peace, war, and freedom, and since has been ranked #15 of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. With a voice sometimes as surprising as his lyrics, Dylan would go on to become one of the most influential figures (musically and culturally) of the 20th century. Here's a great quality, live performance in 1963.

Interestingly, Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind" was covered by another folk group and released just three weeks before his, however, this version became an international hit (listen here). The American folk-singing trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, were one of the biggest musical acts of the 1960s. After auditioning for manager Albert Grossman in 1961, Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers were chosen from the New York folk scene, becoming a successful and beloved group that helped revive folk music in America (which had been forced underground by McCarthyism in the late '50s). As folk music goes hand-in-hand with promoting peace, they performed "The Hammer Song" at the 1963 March on Washington, best remembered for Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. As "Blowin' In The Wind" was one of their biggest hits, they sang other Dylan songs like "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," which aided in the popularity of his second album. I'm sure you were expecting to hear one of their biggest hits, but I really love the group's rendition of this folk beauty. Initially released by the trio in 1963, here's a live performance of "Don't Think Twice" in Sydney while on their Australian tour in the late '60s.

Described as one of the most important female recording artists of the rock era, Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell was known for her distinctive voice and unique guitar style, as well as complex piano arrangements further into her career. First achieving fame as a songwriter in New York, then as singer with her debut album in 1968, she finally settled in Southern California (introduced to the L.A. music scene by David Crosby of The Byrds) and played a significant part in the development of rock folk. Her success really took off in the early 1970s, beginning with a Grammy Award win for Best Folk Performance for her album Clouds in March 1970, the first of many wins over the years. The following month, Mitchell's next album featured the folk rock tune "Big Yellow Taxi," a big hit in her native Canada that has since been voted #9 on CBC's list of the 50 essential Canadian tracks. Known for its environmental concern, this song is one of the most identifiable of Mitchell's music.

One of Joni Mitchell's most famous songs was made famous by fellow folk musician Judy Collins. An American singer and songwriter, Collins was inspired by the folk music revival in the early 1960s and began her career in the Greenwich Village folk music scene in New York City as well. She is known for recording a wide variety of other genres including folk, show tunes, pop, rock 'n' roll, and standards, as well as for her social activism (like most folk singers of the time). After signing with a record label in 1961 at the age of 22, Collins has continued a steady career of recording and performing, still touring today. Written by Joni Mitchell, Collins released "Both Sides Now" in 1968, which reached #8 on the Billboard charts and won her a Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance of that year. It has since become her signature song and is ranked among those 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. I was unable to find a live performance of this song from the '60s, so here's Judy Collins performing this beauty with the Boston Pops in 1976.

And we'll conclude with good 'ol Donovan, one of the leading British recording artists of his day who produced a series of hit singles and albums between 1965 and 1970. The Scottish singer-songwriter and guitarist is remembered for having developed a distinctive style, mixing folk, jazz, pop, psychedelic, and world music together. Since we've explored some of those "evolved sounds of Donovan" in past posts, we'll go back to his roots with his early folk sound, a time when he was even referred to as the "British Bob Dylan." Released in 1965, "Catch the Wind" was his first single, reaching #4 on the UK charts and #23 in the US. The single version featured Donovan's voice with an echo and strings, while the song was re-recorded for his first album without the vocal echo and string section. Here's a live performance of classic Donovan on the American TV show Shindig!.

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