Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival And American Society, 1940-1970
“Which Side Are You On?” was a labor-rallying cry of the 1930s that grew to become an anthem for workers around the world. It’s a song that comes to mind after reading Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival And American Society, 1940-1970. The book examines members of the folk community who found themselves grappling with issues that defined their personas artistically and politically: right vs. left, traditional vs. contemporary, art vs. commerce, acoustic vs. amplification.
Named for a 1960 Pete Seeger album, Rainbow Quest is an engaging, detailed examination of what author Ronald D. Cohen calls “the long-standing intersection of commercial and political forces behind the shaping and presentation of folk music.” He concentrates on 1958-1964, when the folk revival spawned acts from the Kingston Trio to Bob Dylan, leading to folk-rock and the proliferation of singer-songwriters.
Cohen, 62, a professor of history at Indiana University Northwest and a guiding force behind a planned Folk Music Museum in New York City’s storied Greenwich Village, combines a fan’s enthusiasm with a scholar’s attention to research (35 pages of notes) to create an informative account of a turbulent time in music and politics.
In the years after World War II, folk music challenged conventional thinking with songs to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. However, Cohen notes, those challenges met with opposition from the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee’s investigations into the American Communist Party. Performers who refused to cooperate often found themselves blacklisted, their ability to work severely curtailed. Seeger was cited and convicted of contempt of Congress before winning his case on appeal.
Commercially, artists faced attempts to water down or censor their work, from the dilution of the political content in the Weavers’ releases in the early 1950s to the controversy surrounding the “Hootenanny” television program in the early 1960s. Seeger refused to take a loyalty oath before performing on the show; other major folk artists refused to appear in support of Seeger, effectively killing the program.
Despite those setbacks, the music had a power that could not be denied. Folk music energized the civil rights movement, Cohen writes, providing the soundtrack for the Freedom Rides and protests and sit-ins in the South.
Cohen provides a balanced narrative, tracing the evolution of the music through the artists and scenes that developed in New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles. He provides an extra dimension to the story with profiles of such non-performers as Israel “Izzy” Young, founder of the Folklore Center in New York, and Irwin Silber, editor of Sing Out! magazine.