Important Albums of the 1960s Folk Revival

All About the 1950s-'60s Folk Music Revival Through Its Music

In the Coen Brothers' movie Inside Llewyn Davis, the characters navigate the music scene of the mid-20th Century in New York City's Greenwich Village. Inspired by the actual folk music boom that was happening in and around Washington Square in the 1950s and '60s (alongside a concurrent jazz, country, and blues boom happening elsewhere in the country), the Coen's pulled loosely from Dave Van Ronk's memoir of the time period. It goes without saying this film will likely open many new eyes to the vibrant and variant music scene that was swirling in the 1950s-'60s, when Babyboomers were picking up acoustic instruments and making traditional music from parts of the country they had never visited before. The result was a really interesting mainstream-ification of traditional folk music. 

So, if you're just becoming familiar with the 1950s-60s folk music revival, here's a look at some of the most important albums to come out of that scene and era, who would all serve as a great introduction to that period of the evolution of American folk music. 

Various - 'Anthology of American Folk Music' (1952)

Anthology of American Folk Music
Anthology of American Folk Music. © Folkways 1952

 You could argue (and many have) that the mid-20th Century folk music revival began even before the release of Harry Smith's but it's hard to argue that a distinct era of folk music playing and writing began with the release of this collection. Containing music from parts of the country many of the "revivalists" had never even visited the Anthology appealed to the Babyboomers' sense of adventure and discovery. There were blues songs, murder ballads, Cajun songs, country and western folk songs, love songs, gospel songs, and so on. This collection introduced to American music fans the idea of a vast and vibrant array of indigenous music styles far beyond the jazz and big band music they'd been listening to for years. And, to this day, any songwriter worth their salt has learned a thing or two from delving into the Anthology of American Folk Music

The Weavers - 'At Carnegie Hall' (1955)

The Weavers - At Carnegie Hall. © Vanguard 1955

The Weavers were the first folk band to crossover to mainstream pop success through their interpretation of traditional folk songs. From traditional tunes like "Tzena Tzena" to Pete Seeger and Lee Hays originals like "Wimoweh" and "If I Had a Hammer," the Weavers made folk music palatable to a very wide audience and influenced a generation of three- and four-piece harmony-driven acoustic folk bands. Earlier in 1955, both Lee Hays and Pete Seeger were called to testify about their involvement with the Communist Party. Hays pleaded the 5th Amendment, but Seeger pleaded the 1st. He was found in contempt and sentenced to jail time. So, when this concert happened on Christmas Eve that year, the band had just been blacklisted. Nonetheless, they delivered one of the most notable and memorable (for those who were there) concerts of the folk "revival" era. Despite the blacklisting, the album made it into the Top 25 on the Billboard Top 200 chart.

Harry Belafonte - 'Calypso' (1956)

Harry Belafonte - 'Calypso'. © RCA/Victor 1956

 Harry Belafonte was a very important force in the mid-Century folk revival, both for his wild popularity as a singer and actor, and the way he channeled his fame toward the civil rights movement, lending mainstream credibility to the movement (not to mention plenty of excellent music). It all started with this breakthrough album in 1956, which introduced American audiences to Calypso music, particularly the wildly popular "Banana Boat Song (Day-O)."

Odetta - 'Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues' (1956)

'Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues'. © Tradition 1956

 Speaking of great folk singers who helped amplify the civil rights movement (which had been brewing for decades by the time the Montgomery Bus Boycott cranked up the volume on it) simply could not find a greater musical voice in that era than Odetta. Martin Luther King, who was only just barely getting started on his path as the leader of the movement when Odetta released this album in 1956, would later call her his favorite folk singer. Incidentally, this is also one of the albums Bob Dylan later cited as a major influence for him pursuing folk music to begin with. You can't get more importan-to-the-50s-and-60s than an album that influenced both Dylan and MLK.

Joan Baez - 'Joan Baez' (1960)

Joan Baez - Self-Titled. © Vanguard 1960

Joan Baez's self-titled debut was notable because it introduced one of the most powerful voices of the folk revival. Baez became somewhat of a darling of the folk boom, rearranging traditional songs and delivering them with a certain entrancing contemporariness. She realized early on that her concerts were one place where African-Americans and white folks would come together, and she used her influence toward the movement for integration (and later against the War in Vietnam). But it was this 1960 release that introduced Baez's remarkable talent to audiences and introduced songs like the Carter Family's "Wildwood Flower" and "House of the Rising Sun" to much wider audiences. 

Dave Van Ronk - 'Inside Dave Van Ronk' (1963)

Inside Dave Van Ronk
Inside Dave Van Ronk. © Fantasy Records

Dave Van Ronk was never much of a recording star in the 1960s, but it would be irresponsible in retrospect to go very far into talking about the folk song revival of the 1950s and '60s without doing a study on Van Ronk's remarkable talent. He was an early adopter of the Anthology of American Folk Music, introducing many of the Greenwich Village up-and-comers to that collection, either by playing the songs himself or spinning the albums at his apartment. By the time he recorded this one in 1963, Van Ronk had been making music in the Village for several years, but this recording collects some of his most remarkable material - originals and traditional tunes alike. 

Doc Watson - 'The Watson Family' (1963)

Doc Watson - 'The Watson Family'. © Folkways 1963

 One of the things that happened during the folk revival of the '50s and '60s was that unknown artists around the country, who were stellar instrumentalists or songwriters or singers, were able to find an audience for their music in cities like New York and San Francisco. Fans in those cities became fascinated with the styles and sounds of music indigenous to places like Lower Appalachia, where Doc Watson and his remarkably talented family resided. Watson's family was recorded here by musicologists who traveled to take field recordings fo the Watson Family of North Carolina. This recording introduced a much wider audience to the flatpicking mastery of Doc Watson and his son Merle, wife Rosa Lee, and the rest of their family. 

Tom Paxton - 'Ramblin' Boy' (1964)

Tom Paxton - Ramblin' Boy. © Elektra 1964

As the traditional song revival grew and prospered, a subsection of folk revivalists discovered from Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie that there was a vibrant area of topical songwriting that could be used to amplify peace, justice, and civil rights movements - all of which were booming ever louder as the 1960s marched on. Next to Phil Ochs (see below), there was no better topical songwriter than the great Tom Paxton. Paxton was often topical to a fault - his songs have been criticized for having been so topical at the time, they don't hold up contemporarily. But for folks like Paxton and Ochs, the ability for future generations to understand the urgency of the songs wasn't exactly the aim. The aim was, instead, to wake up their peers to the issues of the day, through music.

Bob Dylan - 'The Times They Are A-Changing' (1964)

Bob Dylan - The Times They Are A-Changin'. © Columbia, 1964

 Of course, no list of heroes of the 1960s folk revival would be complete without some mention of Bob Dylan. After all, his arrival on the folk music circuit in Greenwich Village - and at festivals like Newport - certainly cranked up the folk song movement. Influenced by everyone from Woody Guthrie to Odetta and Doc Watson, Dylan brought a remarkable poetry to the craft and, with his help, folk music became forever intertwined with pop and rock music, as he began exploring the limits of rock and roll (what many consider the beginning of the end of the folk boom) the year after this album dropped. In many ways, this was the final album Dylan made that could be considered a folk record. And, if he was going to depart from folk music, he certainly went out with a bang, dropping one of the best songs he's ever written - "The Times They Are A-Changing". Many would say the prophecy of that song came true in part because Bob Dylan helped change the times. 

Phil Ochs - 'I Ain't Marching Anymore' (1965)

Phil Ochs - I Ain't Marching Anymore. © Elektra 1965

By the mid-1960s, the long-festering civil rights movement was booming just about everywhere (the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place in August 1963, for example). The United States entered into the conflict in Vietnam, which activated the draft and a subsequent movement against the war. It was only natural that the folk song community that had been evolving and becoming more popular at the same time, should turn its traditionally-influenced musical mind toward topical songwriting. There were, without a doubt, folksingers using their influence for these movements before Phil Ochs arrived on the scene. But Ochs' manner of songwriting - and, no doubt, his performances - did for the topical song movement what Dylan going electric did for folk-rock. There has been no better topical songwriter than Phil Ochs, who spared nobody and no ideology with his often biting editorial songwriting.

The decade or so between 1952 and 1965 held some of the purest contemporary interpretations of the form.