folk music on television…a brief review of sorts
Making the rounds on the public television pledge drives this holiday season is a program called John Sebastian Presents Folk Revival. The two hour special, which includes several pitches for your money, is mostly vintage video clips, although toward the end of the program there are several performances done recently in Pittsburgh. Of all places.
I watched this show the other night and was excited to see it for a couple of reasons. First, I’m a Sebastian fan(atic). Second, because I’ve dedicated this year to trying to absorb as much American heritage music as I possibly can. So it seemed like a good fit. You know, traveling back to the fifties and sixties to hear Leadbelly, John Hurt, Ochs, Paxton, Hardin, Dylan, Baez, Seeger, the jug bands…whatever.
And none of them were featured. Huh?
While there were some interesting moments, by and large it felt like a bottle of pop that has sat on the picnic table for a week. Flat. The time period this program focuses on…1959-1964…was when I was just a kid. Seven to twelve. My teenage sister was into some of this…Belafonte, Kingston Trio, Chad Mitchell…but my exposure was during the brief run of the television show Hootenany!. Many of the clips were taken from this show and now I understand it was probably not real folk music, but the manufactured kind. The American Idol of folk you might say.
How else can you explain all the crew cuts, sports jackets and ties? The girls in bouffant hairdos with puffy dresses. Teens and college kids back then who were on the edge were reading Kerouac and Ferlinghetti, not listening to this bubble gum blah blah. I mean, at least that’s what I want to believe.
Now it’s possible I’m way off base. Maybe these bands were relevant, talented and revered. But from fifty years later, it just doesn’t seem to hold up. Who am I talking about? The New Christy Minstrels, Serendipity Singers, Chad Mitchell Trio, Limelighters, Rooftop Singers, Kingston Trio and Trini Lopez. I understand that some of the individuals who came up through these bands went on to do some pretty good stuff and there was some good guitar playing from what I could tell (tenor guitars were hot back then), but overall…it was boring.
Toward the end of the show they switched to current performances by Roger McGuinn, Chad Mitchell Trio, Barry McQuire and Jesse Colin Young playing in front of a full band with four session singers. The crowd was the early bird dinner special type and they loved it. Again, for me…it fell flat and contrived. I can take some nostalgia but this was a little too much.
But there were some artists and clips that I think were pretty darn good.
The duet of “Turn, Turn, Turn” by Judy Collins and Pete Seeger was the finest moment of the show. Before she started sending in those clowns, Judy was a stone cold troubadour with a great repertoire. She’s never stopped making music and although she isn’t my cup of tea, her first five releases are well worth seeking out. (I found the clip on You Tube but it won’t let me embed it. Click here to see it.)
Peter, Paul and Mary came off on their performance as much cooler than I remembered them to be. Maybe this was pre-puff? Bobby Darin…oh for god’s sake there is no way he can be considered part of the folk scene…looks funny in his suit but does a really strong version of “Simple Song of Freedom”.
And oh yeah…John Sebastian held his guitar throughout the show but never played. Weak.