All About the Folk Revival

A basic introduction to the 1960s American folk music revival

Woody Guthrie, a father of the American Folk movement
Library of Congress / Public Domain

The folk revival of the 1960s is often the starting point of fascination with the style for many contemporary folk fans. One big effect of the '60s folk revival—thanks in no small part to Bob Dylan—was that it marked the beginning of folk singers, on a large scale, writing their own material. Many traditionalists believe that this diluted the very definition of folk music, while revivalists look at it as just another turn in the evolution of the genre.

Another result of the folk revival was the proliferation of bluegrass music and the popularization of old-timey music. In a lot of ways, there were two schools during the folk revival: the singer/songwriters who wrote their own words to traditional melodies and, in some cases, began writing entirely new melodies; and the old-timers, who simply stuck to traditional songs and styles, popularizing the music of Appalachia, Cajun music, and other traditional styles.

How and Why Did the Folk Revival Happen?

There were a lot of things that conspired to influence the folk music revival of the 1960s, but three major influences can be highlighted.

1. The Folklorists: During the early 20th Century, folklorists headed out across the country in hopes of documenting the musical styles traditional to various communities. John Lomax, for example, focused on documenting cowboy songs and the music of the African-American community (i.e. field recordings and prison recordings). The songs these folks collected—as documents and recordings—were a big part of the inspiration for the '60s revival.

2. The Anthology: Second was the anthology, compiled by filmmaker and record collector Harry Smith (the folklorists of the early 20th century are also to thank for many of the records on Smith's Anthology). This compilation featured artists ranging in style from banjo player Charlie Poole to the music of the Carter Family, folk-blues field recordings, and beyond. It gave budding folksingers a one-stop resource that exposed them to styles of music indigenous to communities they may never visit. Suddenly, musicians in Chicago could hear the music of Mississippi, for example.

3. Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie: Finally, was the work of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and the groups with which they performed during the '40s and '50s. The Almanac Singers and the groups they spun off into were a huge influence on the emergence of topical songwriting during the turbulent 1960s.

Who Are Some Important Artists From the 1960s Folk Revival?

Although the blues, Cajun music, and other styles were definitely involved in the revival, as stated above, the '60s folk revival can be separated into two most prominent camps: the singer/songwriters and the old timers/traditionalists/bluegrass pickers. Here are some important singers and songwriters:

Bob Dylan
Phil Ochs
Pete Seeger
Joan Baez
Dave Van Ronk

Here are some of the old timers, traditionalists, and bluegrass pickers most influential on the revival:

New Lost City Ramblers
Doc Watson
Bill Monroe
Flatt & Scruggs

How Did Folk-Rock Emerge From the 1960s Folk Revival?

It can be argued that folk-rock started with the Weavers, who started the folk-pop movement. Eventually, the advent of folk-pop, and the influence (and popularity) of rock bands like the Beatles, helped inspire folk revivalists to experiment with folk-rock.

However, it can also be argued that it all began when Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. While many other artists had hit the Newport stage with electric instruments, it was that Dylan went electric, that was so controversial. Many fans will never forgive him, and many of them booed throughout that performance (and booed during the concerts that followed, as Dylan traveled on tour). However, history has shown that as a defining moment in the evolution of folk-rock music.

What About the '60s Protest Song Movement?

The 1960s were a turbulent time in American history. The Civil Rights Movement, which had been stewing for some time, came to a head. The Cold War was at its height. The United States was going from a turbulent war in Korea to another in Vietnam. And, with the baby boom generation coming of age, there was a lot of change in the air.

Some of the greatest songs to emerge from the '60s folk revival were songs commenting on the issues of the day. Among them were:

"The Times They Are A-Changing"

"Oh Freedom"

"Turn Turn Turn" 
"I Ain't Marchin' Anymore" 

However, folksingers didn't just sing the topical songs, they also joined the activists. It can be argued that the peace movement of the 1960s, and that of Civil Rights, may not have been so organized without the voluminous soundtrack of folk and topical rock music.

Is the Folk Revival Over?

Hardly. Some people only think of folk music in the context of the 1960s, but, hopefully, the information on this Web site will convince them otherwise. American folk music has spanned the entire history of the country, although its popularity does fluctuate (as does the popularity of pretty much everything).

As we venture further into the 21st century, we find ourselves in another "folk music revival," as young people across the country are warming up to old time music and bluegrass, and solo artists—perpetuating a tradition that began in the '60s with artists like Bob Dylan—work hard to keep alive the spirit of the contemporary singer-songwriter. Some of the artists keeping the revival alive are:

Ani DiFranco
Uncle Earl
The Felice Brothers
Steve Earle
Dan Bern
Alison Krauss