By Frank Daniels
Before we continue this discussion, we need to define what we mean by “folk rock.” Even the terms “folk music” and “rock ‘n’ roll” mean different things to different people. Therefore, it is necessary to spell out what is intended in the context of this article.
A folk song by tradition indicates a song that has been transmitted for years by one generation after another. Folk music usually tells a story, and the lyrics to that story may change from version to version — becoming part of a national or international culture. Folk music was and is played on acoustic instruments since there were no electronic instruments when the traditional songs were written.
Folk revival music indicates more modern songs in the folk tradition. In these cases the original performer is known, and a recording of the song by its authors was likely made. There is still a primary interest in storytelling, but most modern folk songs have not become part of a natural culture — although the most popular songs have done this. Following the folk tradition means, in part, that acoustic instruments are used, and the bands that perform this music do so “live” and are usually relatively small (six or fewer persons). Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Jimmie Rodgers, Harry Belafonte and The Kingston Trio belong as part of this folk revival in the United States. Outside of the United States, groups such as The Seekers and the Copper Family were part of folk revivals.
Folk rock takes songs or themes that were otherwise known to be part of folk music and arranges them with rock ‘n’ roll instruments — most notably drums and electric guitar. Folk rock groups often sing in harmony (in the folk style) and may feature more intricate guitar work than 1950s rock ‘n’ roll music generally did.
Quotes about the Origins of Folk Rock
“It could be argued that Bob Dylan created folk rock when he pulled out his electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, offending folk music’s staunchest traditionalists. Later, bands such as The Mamas & The Papas; Peter, Paul & Mary; The Turtles; and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young would help the folk rock movement along even further, having been influenced by the likes of Dylan and British singer/songwriter Donovan.”
(“Folk Rock 101,” from About Entertainment, about.com)
“The roots of folk rock can be detected in a few pre-1965 recordings by The Searchers and Jackie DeShannon (who helped introduce the ringing, circular twelve-string guitar riffs that became one of the music’s major trademarks), as well as in that of The Beau Brummels. It is noticeable in The Animals’ superb bluesy interpretation of the traditional folk standard “The House of the Rising Sun,” and The Beatles’ own “I’m a Loser.” It took The Byrds, however, to really kick the movement into gear with their electric version of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which topped the charts in mid-1965. The first and best folk rock band, The Byrds may have been comprised of ex-folkies who had only picked up their electric instruments a year or so before they became superstars, but they were, if anything, influenced more by The Beatles than Dylan … Dylan himself moved into folk rock around the same time as The Byrds on his “Bringing It All Back Home” album, which was divided into electric and acoustic sides.”
(“Folk-Rock: an Overview,” by Richie Unterberger from
All Music Guide)
“During its short-lived heyday in 1965, folk rock was a hastily assembled and transitory frontier junction to and from which several important musical roads were connected. Bordered on one side by the concurrent, multifaceted American folk music and topical song revivals of the late ’50s and early ’60s, and on the other by the onrushing artistic and economic success of new wave rock ‘n’ roll, folk rock was the hybrid with which many young urban folk musicians attempted to fuse revered teachings from the past (Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams) with an immediate and more personally relevant knowledge of the present (The Beatles).”
(“Folk Rock,” from The Rolling Stone Illustrated
History of Rock and Roll, Paul Nelson, ed. Anthony
DeCurtis and James Henke, 1992 edition, p. 313).
Who Started Folk Rock?
One candidate for the primary “instigator” of the folk rock movement is the folk duo, Simon & Garfunkel. When Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel settled down to writing folk music for Columbia Records, their first album – “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.“ – expressly called itself “exciting new sounds in the folk tradition.” That album contains a certain song that was recorded on March 10, 1964. The famous anthem, “The Sounds of Silence,” was already being considered “a major work,” as Garfunkel himself put it in the liner notes. He wrote, “Its theme is man’s inability to communicate with man. The author sees the extent of communication as it is only on its most superficial and ‘commercial’ level (of which the ‘neon sign’ is representative). There is no serious understanding because there is no serious communication…” The album was released during the third week of November 1964, and was given three stars by Billboard before fading into temporary obscurity.
Simon & Garfunkel had creative differences — issues that would cause them to break up several times (even after their great success of 1970). Art returned to college, while Paul went to England. The duo reunited briefly for a few songs in April 1965, but Paul returned to England and recorded a solo album. In early summer he heard that there were radio requests for “The Sounds of Silence.” Producers Tom Wilson and Bob Johnston thought of adding an electric backing to the song, giving it a new feel. It its new form (recorded on June 15), “The Sounds of Silence” appeared as a single in early October 1965. Slowly, it began to chart, hitting No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 on January 1, 1966. That action prompted interest in the duo’s first LP, and two weeks later Columbia announced that a new album was on the way.
Simon & Garfunkel first created “The Sounds of Silence” in March 1964. So is it the first folk rock song? Since the song had no rock ‘n’ roll beat until June 1965, clearly the answer is no. So we turn to another candidate: The Byrds.
The group was formed in 1964, when Jim McGuinn, David Crosby and Gene Clark came together. Each had been in folk groups before, albeit separately. McGuinn, a driving force behind the group, was also influenced by The Beatles. After picking up two more members, the band (at first called the Jet Set) obtained a copy of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” — a song that Dylan had played at the Newport Folk Festival that year. After their name change in October, The Byrds began working on versions of the song for release. The master version was recorded on January 20, 1965 — months before the updates to “The Sounds of Silence.”
Most of the music on the song was actually played by The Wrecking Crew. The record was reviewed well by Billboard in the April 24, 1965, issue, but it did not make the Hot 100 until May 15. On June 5, 1965, it reached the Top 40, and on June 26 the song reached No. 1. “Mr. Tambourine Man” had taken some time to become a hit, but once it did, The Byrds version of the song was a classic folk rock song. (Afterward, the group covered and updated Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” whose lyrics are based on the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes.) So did they give us the first “folk rock” song? Let’s check with Bob first.
Traditional folk music was acoustic; folk rock set folk-style tales to a beat. Some folk singers considered rock ‘n’ roll to be somewhat pedestrian attempts at music. Unlike folk, rock ‘n’ roll was usually socially unconscious. During December 1964, and January 1965, Bob Dylan and his producer began experiments to change that. January 14, 1965, brought in an electric band. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” came out of those sessions. “Maggie’s Farm” was recorded the following day. After this, he recorded “Like a Rolling Stone,” and his rise to superstardom was complete.
On July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan attended the Newport Folk Festival, at which some accounts portray him as having been booed for singing folk rock songs to folk music purists. At a concert in August, he warned the musicians ahead of time that they might be booed. Variety magazine reported afterward, “Dylan delivered a round of folk rock songs but had to pound his material against a hostile wall of anti-claquers, some of whom berated him for betraying the cause of folk music.”
Dylan added a rock ‘n’ roll beat to his own music in January 1965: a few days before The Byrds paid tribute to Bob. (Each artist had recorded demo versions before that.) “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was released in March and hit the charts in April 1965. It certainly looks like Bob Dylan invented Folk Rock, right? Well…
Not only were none of the above artists the first to release a record that was labeled as folk rock at the time it came out, but they weren’t even the first Americans to do so. Chuck Berry wrote new lyrics to “Wabash Cannonball” (a folk song) and released it in late 1964 as “Promised Land.” The song still tells a story, but the lyrics are more contemporary. Chuck and his band played the song as a rock ‘n’ roll number. It’s folk; it’s rock – folk rock. Berry is certainly the “godfather” of folk rock. His 1955 recording, “Down Bound Train” (Chess 1615), is essentially a cover of the folk song, “Hellbound Train,” made popular somewhat recently (1930) by Frank Hutchison on Okeh Records. Berry adds some electric guitar, but not so much that it is distracting.
There were other folk rock songs before Dylan and The Byrds. As the August 29, 1964, issue of Billboard reported, the Travelers 3 — a folk group that recorded for Capitol — had shifted toward popular music in a deliberate move. “A&R producer Jim Economides has recorded them like a pop trio, avoiding the strict folk sound. The intentional avoidance of purist material plus the basic string instrument sound is meant to make the group palatable to Top 40 stations…” The single, “San Francisco Bay Blues,” and the album, “New Sounds,” were held back until close to the end of the year and did not sell well. So maybe Capitol Records invented folk rock in the middle of 1964? Surely not.
“Twins” by The Kingtones (Derry 101) was released even earlier, in March 1964, and was labeled by Billboard as having a “folk rock sound.” Listening to it, the song sounds to me more like a 1960 rock ‘n’ roll song than folk, but something struck Billboard’s fancy. The usage demonstrates again that the terminology was around long before The Byrds and Dylan busted loose.
British groups factor into the mixture for a good reason: some of them were releasing folk rock music — with some success — before “Subterranean Homesick Blues” became a hit. After The Beatles met Bob Dylan on August 28, 1964, John Lennon became strongly influenced by Bob’s songwriting. Music critics point to “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (recorded in February 1965) as a clear example of Dylan’s influence on The Beatles, but that song wasn’t their first. “I’m a Loser” was recorded on August 14, 1964, was released at the end of the year — before Dylan or the Byrds — and shows clear earmarks of folk music and Dylan’s influence.
The Beatles invented many things, but folk rock was not one of them. Before Lennon met Dylan — in May 1964 — The Animals had recorded a rock ‘n’ roll version of the folk standard, “House of the Rising Sun.” In fact, it had been part of their concert package for quite some time. The song was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and is quite clearly a folk rock song.
However, the first song labeled by Billboard as a folk rock song is none of the above. In the November 2, 1963, issue of the magazine they refer to “Devil’s Waitin’” by The Glencoves as having a “wide-open folk rock sound.” I hadn’t heard it before, so I took a listen. They were a folk group famous for “Hootenanny,” so maybe…. Oh yes! That’s a folk rock song alright, but if British groups were into folk rock in 1963-64, then maybe The Animals and The Beatles were not the only groups to record. It was then that I remembered The Searchers.
The Searchers were most famous in the United States for “Needles and Pins” and for their cover of The Clovers’ “Love Potion No. 9.” Before they started having hit records in the United States, they recorded a rock ‘n’ roll-styled cover of the folk song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” The song, from their first British album (“Meet The Searchers”) was released in August 1963, and it clearly satisfies this definition of folk rock: two years before most people were comfortable with that label.
A 1963 article in the Guardian about the popularity of folk music in Great Britain wrote of the appeal there to not merely left-leaning “socialists” but also to Britain’s centrists. Maybe British folk enthusiasts were not as concerned with keeping their folk music “pure.” Maybe they were happy being fans of The Beatles, or Cliff Richard, or their fave local band — and singing along with “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Perhaps then it was very natural for them to blend the two styles.
David Crosby told Goldmine in 1995, “Clem [Floyd] walked in one afternoon with that first Beatles album, ‘Meet the Beatles.’ He put it on, and I just didn’t know what to think. It absolutely floored me — ‘Those are folk music changes, but it’s got rock and roll backbeat. You can’t do that, but they did! Holy yikes!’”
Most of the folk rockers of the mid-’60s had borrowed the use of the twelve-string guitar from George Harrison – who had used one in “A Hard Day’s Night.” This in and of itself is interesting, because what became the folk rock sound was influenced by British groups, who were already creating their own folk rock. Folk rock may have been invented in England. It became more politically oriented in the United States, but that was certainly after “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which is no more political than “I’m a Loser.”
On the other hand, Chuck Berry was out there singing folk in 1955, and he’s one of the originators of rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe one day we’ll find out that Little Richard cut a rock ‘n’ roll recording of “Tom Dooley” in 1959. For now, I hope this makes the case that the British contribution to folk rock is a legitimate one, and is not merely a footnote to the story of The Byrds and Bob Dylan.
Frank Daniels discovered The Beatles when all of his friends were dancing the beat in the disco heat. He went on to teach a course called History of Rock Music, and another on The Beatles. He has written and co-written several books, including: Beatles for Sale on Parlophone (Spizer and Daniels); the Price Guide for American Beatles Records (Cox and Daniels); the Collector’s Guide to Cookbooks; and Captain Conspiracy Special #1 (Daniels and Martin). In his secret identity he is a professor of mathematics.