The rise of Folk Music (ala the '40s and '50s)

Folk music is fascinating—.in that just about everybody and their uncle has an opinion on what it is, and what it isn’t! Here is a history of what makes folk music so hard to ignore.
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By Bill Bronk

Before the “war babies” of the WW2 era were roused, or...let’s call it “electrified,” by the rockin’, boppin’, twistin’ and strollin’music of our teen years, it was our good fortune to be born during a time when we were able to enjoy (on the radio, on records and in the movies) just about every kind of music you could think of. And during those years there was no Top 40 restricting what our favorite radio station could play...so I’m talking about everything from the big band sounds of Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw, to the “sweet bands” of Russ Morgan and Sammy Kaye, to the Sunday morning Polka and Irish fests... to the great pop music stars like Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, Patti Page and Nat King Cole.

Going forward, as a teen I was smack dab at the beginning of the birth of rock and roll...as it exploded on the scene in the 1950s. Did I dig rock and roll? Yeah, I sure did! Back then, most of us red-blooded American teenagers couldn’t get enough of those wonderful little 7-inch 45 rpm records coming from Elvis, Little Richard, Pat, Bill & the Comets, Lavern, Chuck, Buddy, Fats, Connie, the “Killer” Jerry Lee and so many others. And along with their great teen-themed anthems, you weren’t “cool” unless you got up and danced along with the pulsing and powerful chaos coming from the twangy guitars, sassy saxes, tinkling pianos, booming basses and the chuggadiggidiggin snap and slap of the drums. Man, like wow!

Yeah, that was a great time to grow up...living through several decades of a wide-ranging variety of music! That we learned to appreciate all kinds of music was a gift that lasts a lifetime. It’s not a stretch to say that it’s equally possible to enjoy Frank Sinatra smoothly crooning the popular 1935 Rodgers/Hart song “Blue Moon” (Capitol LP re-issue 80820) while listening to Elvis’ plaintive take (RCA Victor 45 47-6640) and then bop along as the Marcels whip up their own version on a frantic bomp-ba ba-bomp doo wop classic reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961 (Colpix 45 CP-186). Because of that orientation, those diverse musical experiences, many of us were already open to new things, primed to roll forward, accepting changes to the music scene as it inevitably finds new ways to excite and entertain us.

And in that regard, let’s back up just a bit. A few short years before rock and roll rumbled onto the scene — and when you think the music scene couldn’t get any more interesting — along comes something else that hooks us and reels us in. You hear something different on the radio that you’ve never heard before...and you’re thinking...wow, this is great stuff! And you know instinctively that these songs are not from the pens of the popular Tin Pan Alley songwriters, because they’re not about boy- meets- girl, falls- in- love, gets married and lives happily ever after. No, what I’m talking about is folk music — a hodgepodge of traditional songs passed down from previous generations. Or perhaps, adapted or new songs (which will later become) known as contemporary folk music.

Folk music is fascinating—in that just about everybody and their uncle has an opinion on what it is—and what it isn’t! Is it “country”, “blues”, “cowboy”, “protest”, “skiffle”, “world”, “old timey,” “historical,” “ethnic”? Why heck, throw in some songs of hope and inspiration, a few “spirituals” and “old time religion“ classics and it’s all of them...and more. Since it means different things to different people, there is no one definition of “folk music” that would satisfy everyone.

But one thing is for sure. Folk songs have always been a part of American lore and culture. The saga of “John Henry” is a folk song (sung by many folk and country artists) based on a true story, which originated in the 1920s. Songs from Vernon Dalhart (“The Prisoner’s Song”, “Wreck of the Old 97”) and the popular Carter Family (“Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, “Wildwood Flower”) sold millions of records in the 1920s and 30s and are still popular with folk artists. “The Wabash Cannon Ball” was recorded by Roy Acuff and also the Carter Family in the 1930s. Others from that era were American troubadours and balladeers like Woodie Guthrie, Huddy Ledbetter (Lead Belly) and Jimmy Rodgers (of Blue Yodel fame), all of whom had composed many of their own songs.

Those gentlemen would pass the torch on to others like Pete Seeger, who in the 1930s was just beginning to make a name for himself in folk circles. Follow him on up to the present day and you’ll see the iconic folk singer/hero he had become. On 23 May 2019, the Center for the Performing Arts at the Empire State Plaza in Albany, NY, held a Pete Seeger Centennial Concert – an evening of music, dance and poetry inspired by Pete Seeger. The printed material describing the upcoming concert noted that Seeger (who died on 27 January 2014) is “likely the best known folk singer of all time.” Arlo Guthrie (“Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” – Reprise LP RS 6267), the son of Woodie Guthrie, was the featured performer.

While folk songs were often about the vagaries of love, they also taught us about hobos, unions, murder, heartbreak, civil rights, railroads, protests, economic hardship, patriotism, other people’s cultures and customs, the sea and war. In other words, life as we’ve known it, as we’ve lived it...or how we might want it to be...only put to song. Call it the “people’s music.” And to boot, they did all that with catchy lyrics and melodies.

This article began with acknowledgement of the various types of music that people of my generation experienced while growing up. We loved — and still love —the music of that day and we were keenly aware of the popularity of our favorite songs and singers by where they placed on the Billboard Magazine and other music charts. But...until the 1940s and 1950s, folk songs weren’t that much in the public eye... you didn’t hear them on America’s radio stations or see them on Billboard’s pop charts. One purpose of this piece, which is not meant to be a comprehensive look at the whole folk music scene, is to show the emergence (call it a revival) of folk singers and their songs into the mainstream, and the extent of their popularity as they reached the charts, concentrating on that rebirth period through the remainder of the 1950s. And as you’ll see, folk music became so popular that pop singers of the day recorded versions that competed well with the more folky originals.

The first Billboard Music Popularity Chart, according to Wikipedia, began in 1940. Arguably, the first folk song heard nationally that reached the Billboard chart was “Clementine” (“Oh My Darling Clementine”) in 1941, a western folk ballad recorded by Bing Crosby. The original lyrics were written by Percy Montrose in 1884. Crosby’s recording (Decca 78-4033), which reached No. 21 on the Billboard charts, featured the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Milk Maids choral ensemble. Later in the decade, Burl Ives and The Andrews Sisters reached No. 24 on the pop charts in 1948 with “The Blue Tail Fly” (“Jimmy Crack Corn”) (Decca 78-24463). They were accompanied by Vic Schoen and his orchestra. At the time, Burl Ives was a well-known folk singer and budding actor.

Also in 1948, Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly), an adapted English folk song, was featured in the Disney film “So Dear to My Heart” and was performed by Burl Ives in the film. But it was Dinah Shore who reached No. 9 on the charts that year (Columbia 78-38299). Sammy Kaye and his orchestra (RCA Victor 78 20-3100) reached No. 5 and Burl Ives peaked at No. 16 the following year (Decca 78-24547). Sammy Turner would bring it back for a hit 10 years later in 1959.

Ives scored again as he was first up with an opportunity to record a “cowboy” song composed by Stan Jones. Ives (with just a guitar accompaniment) rode “Riders in the Sky” (aka “Ghost Riders in the Sky”) to No. 21 on the Billboard charts (Columbia 78-38445) in 1949. Following Ives’ hit that same year, with choral and pop orchestral arrangements, Vaughn Monroe, Bing Crosby and Peggy Lee all reached the charts: Vaughn Monroe (No. 1, RCA-Victor 78 20-3411); Bing Crosby (No. 14, Decca 78-24618) and Peggy Lee, No. 2 (Capitol 78-57-608). Also in 1949, The Andrews Sisters and the Russ Morgan orchestra scored with a No. 22 hit with “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” a traditional song which had originally been adapted for the John Wayne movie of the same name. (Decca 78-24812).

“Mule Train” was another “cowboy” song that did well in 1949: Frankie Laine went to No. 1 on the charts (Mercury 78-5345), Bing Crosby (Decca 78-24798) reached No. 4 and both “Tennessee” Ernie (“Bless your little pea pickin’ heart”!) Ford (Capitol 78 57-40258) and Vaughn Monroe peaked at No. 10 (RCA Victor 78 20-3600). Even Gordon MacRae, the star of Hollywood musicals, reached No. 14 (Decca 78 54-777). Later on...such songs would be classified as “country & western.” During 1950, Jo Stafford would hit with “Scarlet Ribbons” (“For Her Hair”), at No.14 (Capitol 45 54-785) and Al Hibbler would reach No. 9 on the R&B charts with “Danny Boy,” an Irish folk song (Atlantic 78-911). Both songs would be hits for others later in the decade.

Soon to be on the charts would be the seminal folk group...The Weavers (an off-shoot of the Almanac Singers), comprised of Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hillerman. From 1950 to 1952, the group enjoyed wide popularity and scored nine hits on the Billboard charts: 1950 – “Goodnight Irene" and “Tzena Tzena Tzena," No. 1 and No. 2 respectively (Decca Records 9-27077); also 1950 – “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh”, No. 4 (Decca 9-27376). Gordon Jenkins and his orchestra accompanied the group on those recordings. In 1951, Leroy Holmes and his orchestra accompanied the group on “The Roving Kind”, which reached No. 11 (Decca 27332). (Earlier, in 1950, pop singer Guy Mitchell took “The Roving Kind” to No. 4 (Columbia 78-39067). Also in 1951, the group, along with Terry Gilkyson (chorus and orchestra directed by Vic Schoen) scored No. 2 with “On Top of Old Smoky” (Decca 9-27515). The year included another double-sided hit, “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and ”When the Saints Go Marching In,” No. 19 and No. 27, respectively (Decca 9-27670). Lew Diamond directed the orchestra.

Lastly, before disbanding for a few years (due to being blacklisted), the group had success in 1952 with two songs, again accompanied by Gordon Jenkins and his orchestra: “Wimoweh,” No. 6 (Decca 9-27928) and “Around the Corner (Beneath the Berry Tree)”, No. 19 (Decca 9-28054). Note that these are the songs that reached the charts. They recorded many others during that time period which did not chart but continue to be popular today, such as “The Wreck of the John B,” “Trouble in Mind” and “The Eddystone Light”.

While the Weavers were leaving the scene in 1952, a French group, Les Compagnons De La Chanson, scored a No. 14 hit with “The Three Bells” (“Les Trois Cloches – The Jimmy Brown Song”) (Columbia 45 4-39657). The Swiss song, written in French, was sung in English by the group. It would become a major hit for Edith Piaf in years to come...and was a hit for the Browns in 1959.

All of the Weavers songs noted above were either adapted or newly composed: “Goodnight Irene” came from Huddy Ledbetter; “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” was written by Woodie Guthrie (who also wrote “This Land is Your Land”), “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” was composed by Joe Neuman and Paul Campbell and “On Top of Old Smoky” was adapted by Pete Seeger. With their wonderful vocal harmonies and accompanying themselves on the banjo and guitar, for recording purposes, the Weaver’s sound, as you saw, was also enhanced by orchestral arrangements...to make the recordings more “commercial”...and more likely to be accepted by the listening public. Whatever your thoughts may be on how the enhancements affected the “purity” of folk music, the pros outweighed the cons at the time...and gave folk music the shot-in-the-arm needed to gain further acceptance.

A bit of serendipity didn’t hurt either, in that around this time there were other popular folk- themed or story like songs that may have helped spur the new trend along, such as “Beautiful Brown Eyes”, a No. 11 hit on the Pop charts for Rosemary Clooney in 1951 (Columbia 45 4-39212 ). Then there was “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” the theme song for the TV series) in 1954. “Crockett” was a No. 1 hit for Bill Hayes (Cadence 78-1256), No. 4 for “Tennessee” Ernie Ford (Capitol 78 CAS-3329) and No. 6 for Fess Parker, the star of the TV show (Columbia 78-40449). Mac Wiseman hit No. 10 on the Country charts (Dot 45-1240). Also in 1955, Mitch Miller and his orchestra and chorus revived an old folk song from the mid-1850s, “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, and went to the top of the charts at No. 1 (Columbia 78-40540). Johnny Desmond came in at No. 3 (Coral 78-61476).

Continuing with the folk- themed recordings, also in 1955, the haunting ...“The Shifting, Whispering Sands” was a hit for both Rusty Draper (Mercury 78-70696) and Billy Vaughn (with narration by Ken Nordine) (Dot 78-15409). Draper went to No. 3 on the charts while Billy Vaughn’s version reached No. 5. “Tennessee” Ernie Ford hit the charts again in 1955 with the hugely popular “Sixteen Tons,” a Merle Travis song about coal miners...reaching No. 1 (Capitol 45 F3262). Johnny Desmond’s version peaked at No. 17 (Coral 45 9-61529). In 1956, Gogi Grant brought “The Wayward Wind” to No. 1 on the charts (Era 78-1013), while Tex Ritter reached No. 28 (Capitol 78-CL 14581). Chuck Willis, a rhythm and blues singer known as “The King of the Stroll” rose high on the charts in 1957 and 1958, reviving two bluesy folk songs from the 1920s and 1930s originally sung by folk stalwarts Vernon Dalhart and Brownie McGhee:

“C. C. Rider” and “Betty and Dupree.” The former reached No. 1 on the R&B charts (Atlantic 45-1130) and No.12 on the Pop charts...while the latter peaked at No.15 R&B and No. 33 Pop (Atlantic 45-1168).

The success of folk artists like The Weavers and Burl Ives was only the beginning. Their recordings, radio play and public appearances whet the public’s appetite for more of the same. Folk music had arrived. And...it was the period between ’56 and ’59 that saw the most rapid growth in the number of popular folk entertainers who recorded songs (many of) which became folk classics...songs that received considerable air play, did well on the Billboard and other charts (and are now a presence on many various artists folk compilations from that era). Here’s a review of the charted hits during that period (including interpretations recorded by various “pop” stars of that era).

Elvis had a rockin’ good year in ’56... but folk music was ramblin’ right on up the charts too...where 3 variations of the “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” were successful: The Terriers’ “The Banana Boat Song” reached No. 4 on the charts (Glory 45-249) while Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song”) peaked at No. 5 (RCA Victor 45 47-6771. “The Banana Boat Song” by the Fontane sisters charted at No. 13 (Dot 45 15527). Vince Martin and the Tarriers and Eddie Fisher both scored with “Cindy, Oh Cindy”: the Tarriers reached No. 9 (Glory 78-247) while Eddie Fisher peaked at No. 10 (RCA Victor 45 47-6677). Harry Belafonte was successful with yet another Calypso song “Jamaica Farewell” (RCA Victor 45 47-6663). Avoiding the Calypso trend, Lonnie Donegan (Britain’s “King of Skiffle”) and pop singer Don Cornell both reached the charts with “Rock Island Line,” a song first recorded by Arkansas prisoners in the 1930s: Donegan, No. 8 (London 45-1650) and Cornell, No. 59 (Coral 45 9-61613).

The Calypso trend carries on with Harry Belafonte, in 1957, as he scores with three more Calypso songs on RCA records: the double-sided hit “Island in the Sun” (No. 30) and “Coconut Woman” (No. 25) (RCA 45 47-6885)....and No. 11 for “Mama Look A Boo Boo” (RCA Victor 4547-6830). Rusty Draper reaches the charts with “Let’s Go Calypso” at No. 53 (Mercury 45- 71039). “Marianne,” another Calypso favorite reached the charts for Terry Gilkyson and the Easy Riders, No. 4 (Columbia 45 4-40817), The Hilltoppers, No. 3 (Dot 45-15537) and Burl Ives with the Trinidaddies, No. 84 (Decca 45 9-30217). Stan Freberg was successful with a parody of “Banana Boat (Day-O),” at No. 25 (Capitol 78-3687). A lad from across the pond, Laurie London, went all the way to No. 1 on the charts with an American folk spiritual, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” (Capitol 45 F3691). Lastly, Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train” was a ’57 hit for both Rusty Draper, No. 6 (Mercury 45-71102) and Nancy Whiskey w/the Chas. McDevitt Skiffle Group (also from the UK), No. 40 (Chic 45-1008).

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In 1958, Jimmy Rodgers, the folk/pop singer (not Jimmy Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman from the 1930s) scored a No. 7 hit with a cover of the Weavers’ penned “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”(Roulette 45 R4031, above). Billy Grammer reached No. 4 with “Gotta Travel On,” another song written by members of the Weavers (Monument 45-400) and Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys peaked at No. 15 with the song on the Country charts (Decca 45 9-30809). America’s “Queen of Gospel,” Mahalia Jackson, reached No. 69 on Billboard’s Hot 100 with Laurie London’s 1957 hit “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” (Columbia 45 4-41150). One of the biggest hits from ’58 (and the whole folk era) was all about a condemned man, “Tom Dooley,” “hangin’ from a white Oak tree.” The Kingston Trio brought that true tale to life and came up with a No.1 hit (Capitol 45 F4049).

A lot of folk music hit the charts during the time covered in this article...but by far, the greatest number of songs to chart in any given year was in 1959...and it was the Kingston Trio who, coming off a giant hit with “Tom Dooley”... reached the charts four times: “Raspberries Strawberries,” No. 70 (Capitol 45 F4114), “Tijuana Jail,“ No.12 (Capitol 45 F4167), “M.T.A.,” No.15 (Capitol 45 F4221), and “A Worried Man (Worried Man Blues)”, No. 20 (Capitol 45 F4271). Conway Twitty hit the charts with a rocked up version of “Danny Boy” at No.10 (MGM 45 K12826) and Sammy Turner reached No. 3 on the charts with “Lavender Blue” (a hit for Burl Ives and Dinah Shore in ’48 (Big Top 45 3016). The year was good for The Browns who hit twice In’59...with “The Three Bells” and “Scarlet Ribbons.”“The Three Bells,” a 1952 hit mentioned earlier for Les Compagnons de la chanson, went all the way to No. 1 on both the Hot 100 and Country charts (RCA Victor 45 47-7555) and “Scarlet Ribbons” (a hit for Jo Stafford in 1950) reached No. 13 on the Hot 100 and No. 7 on the Country charts (RCA Victor 45 47-7614).

Continuing with 1959, Jimmy Rodgers scored with “Waltzing Matilda,” an Australian bush ballad, at No. 41 (Roulette 45 R4218) while Wilma Lee and Stony Cooper reached No. 5 on the Country charts with “Big Midnight Special” (adapted from an early 1900s song “The Midnight Special”) (Hickory 45-1098). Another traditional song, “Frankie and Johnny” from the 1890s was adapted by Johnny Cash into “Frankie’s Man, Johnny” and he placed No. 9 on the Country charts and No. 59 on the Pop charts (Columbia 45 4-41371). Reaching back to Bing Crosby’s 1941 hit, both Bobby Darin and Jan and Dean had hits with “Clementine”: Darin’s version reached No. 21 (ATCO 45-6161) while Jan and Dean hit No. 65 (Dore 45-539).

An American folk song about an 1895 murder became a No. 1 hit for the Rhythm and Blues singer Lloyd Price in 1959. “Stagger Lee” was based on “Stack o-Lee” (ABC-Paramount 45-9972). Not to be outdone by a tale of murder, Johnny Horton spun a humorous take on a tale about “The Battle of New Orleans” (written by Jimmy Driftwood) whereby General Andrew Jackson’s army defeated the British army, under Major General Sir Edward Parkenham. Horton’s version reached No. 1 (Columbia 45 4-41339) and was voted by Billboard to be the No. 1 song of 1959. Vaughn Monroe reached No. 87 on the charts (RCA Victor 45 47-7495) and “The Battle of Kookamonga”, a parody performed by Homer and Jethro, captured the No. 14 spot on the Pop charts and No. 25 on the Country charts (RCA Victor 45 47-7585).

The songs charted here span a period of about 20 years...from Bing Crosby’s “Clementine” in 1941 to Billboard’s No. 1 song of 1959, Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans.” If you’re like me, one who grew up with this music, you’ll know and love many of these songs. But this was only the start, at least as far as the charts go. And it was the spark that ignited a fire in the bellies of those who appreciate roots music. But also, if you’re like me, my interest in these songs led me to explore what came before...so I looked back and discovered folk singers like Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly), the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers (the Singing Brakeman), Josh White, Odetta and a host of others (who you won’t find on any chart). Treat yourself and meander back and listen to these talented folk artists who were not always smooth in delivery, but often rough and unpolished. It’s well worth the trip!

While contemplating that foray into the past, anyone who follows folk music knows that folk music’s popularity and its presence on the charts continued into the 1960s and beyond...with much more coming from the Kingston Trio and acts like the Brothers Four, the Highwaymen, Peter, Paul & Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, Judy Collins, the New Christy Minstrels, the Serendipity Singers, the Limelighters, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Trini Lopez, the Cumberland Three, James Taylor, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Gordon Lightfoot, Harry Chapin, John Denver, and too many others to mention. Some of the performers on this list continue to perform today. That alone says something about their continued popularity and the new/old folk songs they bring to us...songs about life, songs of and about people.

This article was mostly focused on the chart success of original or adapted early and traditional folk songs as they were recorded by folk and popular singers in the 1940s and 1950s. Today, there is Contemporary Folk, Alternative Folk, and Folk Rock. Those categories provide opportunities for today’s folk singers to do their own thing....people like Tom Paxton, Nancy Griffith, Lucinda Williams, the Lumineers, Allison Krauss, the Avett Bros, Mumford & Sons, Iris Dement, John Prine and many others.

The Weavers were an inspiration to many of the above performers. Their use of harmony, acoustic instruments and even audience participation became a standard for others to follow. Here’s a shout-out to them, and to Burl Ives and other early folk singers who got the ball ....a’rollin’ and a ramblin’ on!

To end on a musical note, here’s a line from Pete Seeger and Lee Hays’ classic...”If I Had a Hammer” (“The Hammer Song”)”:

“If I had a song... I’d sing it in the mornin’

I’d sing it in the evenin’...all over this land”