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Folk Roots of Rock

The Urban Folk Revival Roots of Rock Music

Folk music can mean different things to different people.

For most music historians, the true folk music of America is the music collected by anthologists such as John and Alan Lomax and Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), and the Anthology of Folk recorded by Harry Smith for the Folkways label (published by the Smithsonian Institute). Some of the “authentic folk” music is also called “country blues” or “blues” but is more traditional and down-to-earth than what we now call “the blues”.

The “urban folk” music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger started in 1941 and reached its peak in the early 1950s. This music was part of an “urban folk revival” in the late 1950s and early 1960s, featuring pop-folk acts such as the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, & Mary. This music is what is now referred to as “folk music” by most people, and epitomized by the music of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

But Dylan crossed many musical lines in that period, experimenting with rock ‘n’ roll as well as country blues and urban folk. He reportedly disagreed with the idea that popular folk of PPM and the Kingston Trio was actually folk music, calling it “Tin Pan Alley folk” and pointing out that the real folksinging of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and the black country blues singers was no longer supported by commercial radio.

Dylan is credited with leading the folk-rock revolution, but it is actually the U.K.-based Animals (Eric Burden and Alan Price) that first popularized a rock treatment of a folk song (“House of the Rising Sun” also covered as a folk tune by Dylan). It was the Byrds (featuring Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, and Chris Hillman) that first set a Dylan original tune to a rock beat. Dylan had in fact started with rock ‘n’ roll in his teens, and never considered himself a folk singer. “I didn’t know the term ‘folk music’ until I came to New York,” Dylan told Israel Young, an interviewer who ran the Folklore Center and produced concerts, back in 1961 before recording his first album. “I sing a lot of old jazz songs, sentimental cowboy songs, top forty hit parade stuff.” Dylan actually cut a rock single in 1962, “Mixed Up Confusion” (found on Dylan’s Biograph box set).

By 1964, Dylan recognized his future direction and the impact of the Beatles. “Everybody else thought they were for teenyboppers, that they were gonna pass right away. But it was obvious to me that they had staying power. I knew they were pointing the direction of where music had to go.” (From Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography by Anthony Scaduto). Many of the psychedelic bands of the mid-sixties, including the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, were also playing a revved-up form of urban folk, inspired by Dylan, the Kingston Trio, and more modern urban folk songwriters such as Tim Hardin and Fred Neil.

This playlist traces the start of Bob Dylan’s path from folk to rock, with the Byrds and the Animals reinterpreting his style. It offers several original and traditional urban folk songs by Woody Guthrie, Bonnie Dobson, Fred Neil, Tim Hardin, the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary, with versions covered by rock artists including Janis Joplin, the Beach Boys, Jeff Beck with Rod Stewart, and the Jefferson Airplane.

“Baby Let Me Follow You Down” (2 versions) by Bob Dylan (Traditional — arranged by Eric Von Schmidt and Bob Dylan)

We open with a Bob Dylan performance of a song by Cambridge folksinger Eric Von Schmidt (who says he heard it from someone else — a true folk song), which was first covered by Dylan as an acoustic folk tune on his first album, Bob Dylan (version 1), then converted to rock (version 2) during Dylan’s 1966 tour of England as an electric band (backed by the Hawks, a.k.a. later as the Band).

Listening to both versions, you can hear how folk arrangements could be hastily converted to rock. Dylan’s second live version points the way to the wild, uninhibited musical forms he would take in the future, based on conservative roots, such as “country rock” and “folk rock”. Amid the shouts and cries of “Judas!” and “Traitor!” from the folk purists who were angered by Dylan’s new rock performances, Dylan and the Hawks pull off an amazing, rocking version (Robbie Robertson on guitar, Garth Hudson on organ, Richard Manuel on piano, Rick Danko on bass, and Mickey Jones on drums).

The event often cited for Dylan’s turn to rock was the Newport Folk Festival of 1965 — it is part of rock history that the crowd booed Dylan and his new rock band. Despite the fact that Dylan had already released music with rock overtones and even outright rock songs (such as “Mixed Up Confusion”), and the fact that his Bringing It All Back Home (with rock chestnuts “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Maggie’s Farm” on it) was climbing the pop charts, the folk purists still hoped Dylan would play his usual acoustic folk music set at the festival.

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (with Michael Bloomfield), also managed by Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, were playing one of the workshop stages, and Dylan and members of this band (along with Al Kooper) had rehearsed just a few numbers the night before. During the Butterfield set, Grossman got into a fistfight with famed folk archivist and writer Alan Lomax because Lomax had introduced the group with the comment, “You’ve heard some of the greatest blues musicians in America playing for you, and all they had to do was come out and play. Now we’ve got some people who’ve spent fifteen minutes setting up, and now we’ll see if they can play the blues at all.”

So, by the time Dylan came on the main stage with some of the Butterfield band members and Kooper, there was considerable animosity brewing among the folk heavyweights such as Lomax and Pete Seeger (and others who had stopped liking Dylan when he abandoned protest folk songs for more personal folk songs in Another Side of Bob Dylan), and Dylan’s entourage and management. When Dylan launched into a bone-crunching version of “Maggie’s Farm” Pete Seeger, with an inconceivable anger totally uncharacteristic of him, had to be restrained from literally pulling the plug.

There is still speculation about why the crowd booed, or whether most of the crowd was actually booing or cheering. The mix was so muddy that people couldn’t hear Dylan’s voice, which was reason enough for the crowd to boo (even if they wanted to hear rock). But one thing is certain: news of the disgruntled folk heavyweights swept through the pop and folk music press, setting the expectation of booing so that, at subsequent shows in 1965 and 1966, many of folk-oriented audience members booed. Thus was born the legend that Dylan survived a hailstorm of protest for his conversion to rock, and this track from the 1966 extended tour confirms it.

“House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals (Traditional — arranged by A. Price)

The Animals record the definitive rock version of this folk song, also covered by Dylan on his first album. Dylan learned it from Dave Van Ronk. When Dylan heard the Animals version, he said, “It blew my mind.” It was the first of many catalysts that would propel Dylan into rock, and it was one of the first, if not the first, true folk song set to a rock beat. Every garage band of the early 1960s knew this song and perhaps covered it with some variant of the Animals’ arrangement. The Animals were a rhythm & blues band from Newcastle, England, at the same time as the Beatles were bursting forth from Liverpool. The group released this song in 1964, inspired not by Dylan’s version but reportedly by folksinger Josh White’s version. Other British bands covered the song at that time, including the Sundowners.

“Chimes of Freedom” by Bob Dylan and “Chimes of Freedom” by the Byrds (Bob Dylan)

The Byrds were credited with bringing the songs from the Sixties urban folk revival (mainly Dylan songs like this one) into rock for the first time, influencing even Dylan himself. Dylan wrote this tune on a rambling, crazed car trip through the South in early 1964, just a few months after JFK’s assassination, and put it out on Another Side of Bob Dylan. Bob toured Dealey Plaza in Dallas, visited poet Carl Sandburg, and partied in New Orleans. It is considered to be his first song about a mystical experience.

The Byrds included Roger McGuinn (originally named Jim McGuinn) on guitar and vocals, Chris Hillman on bass, Gene Clark on tambourine and vocals, David Crosby on guitar and vocals, and Michael Clarke on drums. The group’s first hit, “Mr. Tambourine Man” (also by Dylan) was recorded with Los Angeles’s finest studio session men, the fabled Wrecking Crew (former session men for Phil Spector), with Hal Blaine on drums, Larry Knechtal on bass, and Leon Russell on electric piano (and other keyboards, and possibly guitar as well). The rest of the album was recorded with the Byrds themselves on instruments (including this song).

McGuinn had toured briefly as a folk artist with the Chad Mitchell Trio, and then in a more rock vein with Bobby Darin, before meeting David Crosby, who had also briefly dabbled ni folk, at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Clark came from the New Christy Minstrels, and Hillman from a bluegrass band in which he played mandolin. Clarke, on drums, was inexperienced at the time but learned fast. The group would eventually move on to a new sound that would be called country rock, with Hillman and Crosby-replacement Gram Parsons leading the transition.

“The Coo Coo Bird” by Clarence Ashley and “Coo Coo” by Big Brother & the Holding Company w/Janis Joplin (Clarence Ashley)

As a young man, Doc Watson played banjo with Clarence “Tom” Ashley in the 1920s and 1930s. This recording occurred in 1929 and was first released in 1952 as part of the Smithsonian’s Anthology of Folk Music, produced by Harry Smith and issued on Folkways. This collection was widely heard by musicians and inspired the American urban and rural folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. “The Anthology was our bible,” 1950s folk revival artist Dave Van Ronk wrote in 1991.

If you trace back the origins of blues songs and stylings, you find the country blues of Robert Johnson, Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Charley Patton, mixed with some hillbilly music termed “folk” by today’s standards, including Elizabeth Cotten, the Carter Family, Clarence Ashley, and Cannon’s Jug Stompers.

Big Brother’s compelling rock version of the traditional folk song demonstrates the acoustic folk roots of San Francisco psychedelic music of the 1960s. Janis Joplin started singing with country and blues bands in Austin, Texas, after leaving her birthplace of Port Arthur. She joined the Waller Creek Boys and sang Woody Guthrie tunes as well as gritty blues songs. Chet Helms, the San Francisco proto-hippie concert promoter, was in 1963 a beatnik poet, and on one of his travels met Janis in Austin and convinced her to come to the S.F. North Beach scene to make it as a singer.

Through 1963 and 1964 She fell in with a folk crowd that included David Crosby, David Freiberg (founder of Quicksilver and future member of Jefferson Starship), Marty Balin (founder of Jefferson Airplane), James Gurley (founder of Big Brother), George Hunter (founder of the Charlatans), and Tim Hardin. She also played in some south-of-S.F. folk venues where she met Jerry Garcia (in a lineup that featured several future Grateful Dead members) and Jorma Kaukonen (as a blues purist before he joined Jefferson Airplane).

Eventually Janis joined the Big Brother combo just getting started in the Haight-Ashbury at the beginning of the Summer of Love. Their performance at Monterey Pop confirmed that Janis Joplin was a new force in rock, and at that festival, Dylan manager Albert Grossman took her under his wing and encouraged her aspirations to move on to a solo career, in which she made hits out of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” and her own “Mercedez Benz” before her tragic death by heroin overdose in 1970.

Check out the Big Brother & the Holding Company official site and the official Janis Joplin site.

“Goin’ Down That Road Feelin’ Bad” by Woody Guthrie

This traditional country blues song was a favorite of Dust Bowl refugees headed for California, and even appears in the film version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

The Oklahoma-born Woody Guthrie wrote some of America’s greatest folk songs and inspired a legion of urban folk revivalists including Bob Dylan and his own son, Arlo.

Pete Seeger and Lee Hays played with Woody Guthrie in the Almanac Singers, appearing at union rallies and establishing what is now called urban folk. However, for this recording, the players are Cisco Houston (the Cisco Kid) on guitar and Sonny Terry on harmonica.

“Medley: Come On in My Kitchen – Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean – Going Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” by Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett (Robert Johnson/Traditional)

This is supposedly the version (or one like it) that Jerry Garcia heard and decided to use with the Grateful Dead. The Dead and various other bands, including Delaney & Bonnie, were touring Canada in a custom train, and the Dead picked up songs from various sources, including “Me and Bobby McGee” from Janis Joplin and Kris Kristofferson. “Come On in My Kitchen” is, of course, Robert Johnson (for more, see Country Blues Roots of Rock).

Mystery question: What famous guitar player plays dobro on this medley? Answer: Duane Allman, before he started the Allman Brothers.

Robert Johnson, king of the Delta blues and writer of “Come On in My Kitchen”, was the main inspiration for a generation of country blues, folk, and rock. Johnson was cited as the main influence by Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Tim Hardin, Bob Dylan, and many others.

“Morning Dew” by Bonnie Dobson, “Morning Dew” by Jeff Beck w/Rod Stewart, and “Morning Dew” by the Grateful Dead (Bonnie Dobson)

Another Grateful Dead standard, first played live at the Human Be-In in S.F. in Jan. 1967, this original version by its Canadian folksinger composer, Bonnie Dobson, apparently was never heard by the Dead. This classic anti-nuclear song was recorded at Gerde’s Folk City in NYC for Folkways in 1962. Jerry Garcia didn’t remember the Dobson version, but it was covered extensively in the 1960s by folk artists such as Fred Neil, pop artists such as Tim Rose, and the next version, by Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart.

The Jeff Beck arrangement is based on the hit version by Tim Rose, but set in a hard rock format. Future Rolling Stone Ron Wood played bass, Nicky Hopkins played piano, and of course Jeff Beck played lead guitar. Jeff Beck had just left the Yardbirds, where he had played on hits such as “You’re a Better Man Than I” and “Shapes of Things”. Rod Stewart would go on to be, well, Rod Stewart.

The Grateful Dead’s early cover of “Morning Dew” on the band’s first album is one of the strongest arguments that folk music was one of the chief inspirations of psychedelic jam music.

“Reason to Believe” by Tim Hardin and “Reason to Believe” by Rod Stewart (Tim Hardin)

Tim Hardin considered himself more of a jazz singer than folksinger, and he was certainly a poet. He performed in Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene in the early 1960s and eventually released solo albums in the late 1960s. His songs were covered by many folk, pop, and rock artists, including this one, which was turned into a rock hit by Rod Stewart. (My friend Pete Sears backs up Rod Stewart on this famous album.)

“The Long Black Veil” by the Kingston Trio and “Long Black Veil” by the Band (Marjorie Wilkins and Danny Dill)

This sad folk song by Marijohn Wilkins and Dunny Dill was covered by a lot of folk groups, including the most popular folk group of the early 1960s folk revival, the Kingston Trio. The Trio give this original folk song an upbeat, hillbilly folk treatment, but it is undeniably the source for the Band’s version.

The original Trio — Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds and Dave Guard — started in 1957 in Palo Alto, CA, and quickly became part of the national obsession with folk music at that time – especially on college campuses. They played the Purple Onion in S.F. at the height of the beatnik period in North Beach. The Trio had several pop hits including “MTA” (that song about the Boston subway), “Tom Dooley” (1958) and “Greenback Dollar” (1962). In 1961, after two Grammy Awards and numerous gold records, Dave Guard left the group and John Stewart was introduced, maintaining the Trio for another six years.

Now listen to the stately, gospel feel of the Band’s version of this song. The Band set a new standard of excellence for hillbilly/gospel rock and American roadhouse rock.

The Band started out as Ronnie Hawkins’ back-up (the Hawks) in the bars around Toronto, Canada, then became Levon and the Hawks, playing roadhouses around the U.S. Eventually Bob Dylan hired them to back up his first electric rock tour, and they moved with Dylan up to Woodstock, NY, to record the album Music from Big Pink (cover art by Bob Dylan).

“Sloop John B” by the Kingston Trio (Lee Hays and Carl Sandburg) and “Sloop John B” by the Beach Boys (Lee Hays and Carl Sandburg, arranged by Brian Wilson)

The Kingston Trio learned this song from their mentors, the Weavers (featuring Pete Seeger and Lee Hays). Lee Hays and Carl Sandburg wrote this song, and the Trio recorded it in 1958.

The Beach Boys’ Al Jardine was a folk music lover and he urged the boys to cover this song, which he had learned from the Kingston Trio. The Beach Boys took vocal styles made popular in folk music (such as the Freshmen, the Brothers Four, and the Kingston Trio) and brought them to surf music, pop, and eventually rock. See also The Beach Boys Smile Sessions.

“Let’s Get Together” by Jefferson Airplane (Chet Powers)

Dino Valenti (a.k.a. Chet Powers) was a folk singer who wrote this song. He migrated to rock as part of the Quicksilver Messenger Service, but gave this song first to Jefferson Airplane, who released it as a single and on Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. The Youngbloods made a hit with it.

The original lineup for Jefferson Airplane was Marty Balin (vocals), Paul Kantner (guitar), Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitar), Jack Casady (bass), and Skip Spence (drums), with Signe Toly Anderson (female vocalist) — very similar in makeup as the We Five. Skip Spence left in the middle of the second album (after writing “My Best Friend”), to be replaced by Spencer Dryden, and Signe left after the first album, to be replaced by Grace Slick of the Great Society. This song was recorded between Dec. 1965 and March 1966 in Hollywood at RCA Studios.

You can read more about Jefferson Airplane as part of Monterey Pop 1967 SongsSan Francisco Psychedelic Rock, and Haight-Ashbury in the Sixties. Also, check out the Jefferson Airplane official site.

“The Other Side of This Life” (3 versions): by Fred Neil, by Peter, Paul and Mary, and by Jefferson Airplane (Fred Neil)

Fred Neil is an influential songwriter from Coconut Grove, Florida, who migrated to New York in the urban folk revival of the early 1960s. Besides this song, he also composed Nillson’s top 10 hit in 1969, “Everybody’s Talkin'” (the theme from the movie Midnight Cowboy).

This song was covered by Jesse Colin Young as well as by Peter, Paul, and Mary, Lovin’ Spoonful, the Animals, and Jefferson Airplane. John Sebastian on harmonica, Pete Childs on second guitar and Dobro and Felix Pappalardi on bass are featured accompanists on this recording, with Fred playing 12-string guitar. (Sebation would later cover this song with the Lovin’ Spoonful.)

With Bobby Gregg on drums, Ernie Hayes on piano and Bill Lee on bass. Peter, Paul and Mary were the most popular of all the pop-folk groups of the early 1960s, making hits out of Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, and Gordon Lightfoot songs as well as originals by Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey. By the time they covered this song, PPM were moving into folk-rock and would later have a hit with “I Dig Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane”. “Other Side” was also covered by the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Animals, with a similar arrangement.

Jefferson Airplane took the song to an entirely new level of excitement with this live rock jam version. At the time of this version, Jefferson Airplane consisted of Marty Balin (vocals), Paul Kantner (guitar), Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitar), Jack Casady (bass), Spencer Dryden (drums), and Grace Slick (vocals).

You can read more about Jefferson Airplane as part of Monterey Pop 1967 SongsSan Francisco Psychedelic Rock, and Haight-Ashbury in the Sixties. Also, check out the Jefferson Airplane official site.

For the songs in my playlist, see below.

Overall Copyright (c) 1996-2018 by Tony Bove (for Rockument.com). Individual art, music, and video clips are copyrighted by their respective owners.