Civil Rights and the New England folk revival.
Mississippi John Hurt came north in 1963 at the age of seventy-one, four decades after he had recorded a few blues songs in a studio in New York. In the congregation of memorable personalities that gathered together in the national folk revival, John Hurt stood out like a kindly bishop; his impact is as profound in memory as it was in person. He was everything that a young person could hope to encounter in an elder during a time when it was easy for youth to feel cut off from age and experience. Wisdom, kindness, and a wry sense of humor were all his hallmarks; a laugh from this wonderful old man seemed to convey healing benediction to all those around him.
John Hurt appeared to be a diplomatic representative from a more benevolent and dignified world than most young white folks might ever have encountered. He was, like many other traditional artists, a perfect natural performer who had never sought “stardom” or seen himself as a “personality,” even when he suddenly found himself transported from a Mississippi cotton field to a sea of faces at the Newport Folk Festival. Hurt played locally at Boston’s Unicorn, Club 47, the Moon Cusser, and the Turk’s Head, and on tours that eventually took him to concert halls around the country.
At one point, Hurt sat for a portrait at the photography studio of folk guitarist Ed Freeman on Fallon Street in Cambridge. As he was preparing to take the old man’s photograph, Freeman asked him, “You know, a year ago, you were working as a sharecropper for, like, $28 a month, and now you’re making $2,000 a night, and everybody’s applauding every note you play. It’s incredible; your life is completely changed, you know? How does it feel?” The old singer responded by looking at him squarely in the eye and slowly replying, “Well, I guess it just don’t make too much difference now, do it?”
The folk revival in America coincided with both the national observance of the centennial of the Civil War and the maturation of the Civil Rights Movement in this country. By the 1950s, when young black students began singing “freedom songs” and leading the fight for justice in the dime stores and bus stations of the South, the ugly reality of segregation in modern America had become undeniable to those who had previously felt able to overlook it. The country suddenly did not appear to be nearly as free as most white folks had assumed that it was.
Even in the North, many white people grew to college age without ever meeting people of color, much less talking to or sharing friendship with them. Yet, since both African American culture and a belief in equality had been defining components of the national identity since the 1600s, the mounting evidence of persistent segregation was a flaw in the national character as deep and obvious as the crack in the Liberty Bell.
It is important to view the development of the “topical song” in the context of the times. From about 1959 to sometime in 1962, progressive tunes were very much “community property” in the Boston- Cambridge scene, often sung in group hoots led by singers such as Rolf Cahn. Boston’s Broadside featured a regular singer-songwriter column, where Tom Paxton’s “Ramblin’ Boy” and Phil Ochs’s “All the News That’s Fit to Sing” columns appeared, along with songs by Dayle Stanley and Richard Fariña. Bob Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1962, and by the time Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version hit the airways and the Top 40 charts a year later, both the country and folk music had undergone a profound transformation.
“How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?” became a personal challenge to the hearts of millions of thoughtful young people throughout the nation. Even in the birthplace of abolition, in New England, no politicians were asking questions like that, but these were the concerns that resonated in the region’s coffeehouses and concert halls. Freedom lyrics were being set to variations on the old slave tunes, and New York’s Broadside and Sing Out! published riveting topical songs by Bonnie Dobson, Phil Ochs, Len Chandler, Tom Paxton, and many others. Led by Bernice Johnson, the Freedom Singers from Albany, Georgia, played to rapt audiences on a concert tour in early March 1963 that took them to Brandeis University, Club 47, the Concord Baptist Church, and the Community Church Arts Center in Boston. Between 1963 and 1966, more than a score of folk music benefit concerts for civil rights organizations were held in Boston.
In the summer of 1963, thousands of middle-class youths experienced a sort of camp-meeting baptism in the Civil Rights Movement at the Newport Folk Festival. The Festival was the creation of Boston entrepreneur George Wein, a World War II veteran and Boston University graduate who owned Storyville, the jazz club in Kenmore Square that he named after the New Orleans red-light neighborhood where Louis Armstrong was born. In 1954, Wein was hired by tobacco heiress Elaine Lorillard to create a jazz event in Newport, held first at the Newport Casino and later at Freebody Park. In 1959, Wein enlisted help from the unlikely team of Albert Grossman and Pete Seeger in organizing a Newport Folk Festival, which in its first two years featured primarily old-line folk performers from New York such as Theodore Bikel, Oscar Brand, Cynthia Gooding, and Ed McCurdy.
New leadership of the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, including its young board member Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary), connected the rapidly progressing trajectories of the Civil Rights Movement, youthful interest in folk music, and the careers of both Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Although there were many other memorable moments at Newport that year, a climax came on Sunday evening as an integrated group of performers—including the Freedom Singers; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Joan Baez; and Bob Dylan—took to the stage and led an audience of thousands in singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “We Shall Overcome.” In the moment, it seemed as though the combination of artistic inspiration, folk tradition, and idealistic solidarity might actually bring peace and justice to the forefront of the national agenda.
In the course of a few years, traditional music had gone from being a neglected backwater to the source of anthems that accompanied the nationwide civil rights crusade sung in the voices of a generation of young people who saw clearly that bigotry was a form of treason. Events moved swiftly: exactly one month after the Sunday night fervor of the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, folk singers who had been playing in Kenmore and Harvard Squares were now singing freedom songs on the National Mall following the immortal speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The hope was abroad that, despite the fact that it had been a long time coming, peace and freedom might yet prevail in the American land.
The idealistic promise of the summer of 1963 was shattered in gunfire, first when Medgar Evers, the NAACP Mississippi field director, was murdered by a sniper in Jackson, Mississippi, and a few months later when President John F. Kennedy was shot in the back by an unknown assailant in Dallas. Those who lived through that bitter fall and winter were seared by shock, grief, and depression. The prevailing innocence had been deeply traumatized, and fear and cynicism became coins of a new cultural realm. The only thing that seemed clear was that nothing was ever going to be the same.
Adapted from Thomas S. Curren’s I Believe I’ll Go Back Home: Roots and Revival in New England Folk Music, copyright 2021, University of Massachusetts Press.