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Roots of the Revival: American and British Folk Music in the 1950s


In Roots of the Revival: American and British Folk Music in the 1950s, Ronald D. Cohen and Rachel Clare Donaldson present a transatlantic history of folk's midcentury resurgence that juxtaposes the related but distinct revivals that took place in the United States and Great Britain.
After setting the stage with the work of music collectors in the nineteenth century, the authors explore the so-called recovery of folk music practices and ...
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Roots of the Revival: American and British Folk Music in the 1950s

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In Roots of the Revival: American and British Folk Music in the 1950s, Ronald D. Cohen and Rachel Clare Donaldson present a transatlantic history of folk's midcentury resurgence that juxtaposes the related but distinct revivals that took place in the United States and Great Britain.
After setting the stage with the work of music collectors in the nineteenth century, the authors explore the so-called recovery of folk music practices and performers by Alan Lomax and others, including journeys to and within the British Isles that allowed artists and folk music advocates to absorb native forms and facilitate the music's transatlantic exchange. Cohen and Donaldson place the musical and cultural connections of the twin revivals within the decade's social and musical milieu and grapple with the performers' leftist political agendas and artistic challenges, including the fierce debates over "authenticity" in practice and repertoire that erupted when artists like Harry Belafonte and the Kingston Trio carried folk into the popular music mainstream.
From work songs to skiffle, from the Weavers in Greenwich Village to Burl Ives on the BBC, Roots of the Revival offers a frank and wide-ranging consideration of a time, a movement, and a transformative period in American and British pop culture.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Although there are other books and memoirs about the American folk revival, and some treatment of the revival in England, no one has thought to compare and analyze both of them together."
--Richard Weissman, author of Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution: Music and Social Change in America
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252080128
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 9/15/2014
  • Series: Music in American Life Series
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Ronald D. Cohen is professor emeritus of history at Indiana University Northwest and the author of Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940-1970. Rachel Clare Donaldson is the author of Singing America: National Identity and the Folk Music Revival.
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Roots of the Revival

American and British Folk Music in the 1950s

By Ronald D. Cohen, Rachel Clare Donaldson


Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-08012-8


Background in the United states and Great Britain to 1950

Folk music has had many definitions and incarnations throughout the twentieth century in the United States and Great Britain. The public has been most aware of its commercial substance and appeal, with the focus on recording artists and their repertoires, but there has been so much more, including a political agenda, folklore theories, grassroots styles, regional promoters, and discussions on what musical forms—blues, hillbilly, gospel, Anglo-Saxon, pop, singer-songwriters, instrumental and/or vocal, international—should be included. These contrasting and conflicting interpretations were particularly evident during the 1950s.

Alan Lomax

Alan Lomax (1915-2002) began his career as a music collector on a field trip through the South with his father, John, in 1933; a mere four years later, at age twenty-two, Lomax was named Assistant in Charge of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, where he remained until 1942, when he joined the Office of War Information (OWI). He entered the Army in April 1944, and was finally discharged in March 1946, at which point he resumed his left-wing and folk music activities. Lomax believed in preserving as well as promoting vernacular music, while reaching out to the masses through his radio shows on the Mutual network and work with the Henry Wallace presidential campaign on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948. Before the war he had two programs on CBS, one during the day aimed at school children, the other at night for adults.

In July 1950, Lomax joined a stellar list of folklorists from around the world for "Four Symposia on Folklore" held at Indiana University in Bloomington. Along with regaling the attendees with a concert of folk songs, he engaged in the sometimes-heated discussions of the current state of folklore and its possible future. "In the last ten years ... the ballad has become part of the big entertainment industry in America," he explained. "There are now usually one or two programs on the air, where ballads are sung, and out of this has come one other thing which has been very, very important. A number of commercial record albums have been published and these have taken the songs to the people who really wanted them, and were active consumers and learners of ballads. This has been a much more slow, solid, and healthy sort of growth." Lomax had always preferred vernacular musicians, but he also promoted commercial presentations through influencing the careers of Josh White, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Burl Ives. He did so following World War II by producing Decca record albums by Ives, Carl Sandburg, and others, organizing numerous concerts, as well as hosting and designing various radio programs throughout the 1940s. "I have felt the last two years," he said in Indiana, "that I have really been a folklorist for the first time, a functioning folklorist, using folklore for the benefit of the people." While Lomax had some praise for commercial performers, he pointed out to his colleagues that, in New York, "our professional singer is a bore to most of the people who five years ago took up the call to ballads with him. They want to hear real oral musicians and it's when those people now step out to sing that the roof goes off and the audience gets there almost at once."

Lomax had presented a range of musicians during a series of concerts during 1946-47 for People's Songs at Town Hall, to which he was apparently referring in his Indiana remarks. "Blues at Midnight" featured Big Bill Broonzy, Pete Johnson, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee, "Calypso at Midnight" had the Duke of Iron and Lord Invader, while "Honkytonk Blues at Midnight" presented Broonzy, Memphis Slim, and Sonny Boy Williamson. By decade's end, despite his varied activities, Lomax still had no regular job and, in addition, felt the pressure of the country's mounting anticommunist fervor, including the publication in June 1950 of Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television by a group of ex-FBI agents. In the company of dozens of prominent Americans, he rated less than a page listing his work with People's Songs and other suspect activities. Nevertheless, on September 24, 1950, Lomax left the United States heading for Brussels, Belgium; he soon settled in London, however, where he would reside for the next eight years, promoting and collecting folk music throughout the British Isles, as well as in Spain and Italy. During his sojourn abroad he would have a major influence on folk music in both the United States and Great Britain, tying together what had come before and what would follow.

Collectors, Collections, and Publications

Lomax was one of the most active folk music collectors, radio promoters, and organizers during the 1940s. He was not alone, though, and he had a rich trove of material to draw upon, including songbooks, recordings, and academic studies. Ballad and folk song collecting had existed in the British Isles since the eighteenth century, highlighted by Francis James Child, a professor of medieval studies and English literature at Harvard, whose five volumes of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1896) was the capstone. There was little interest in the United States in folk song collecting until the twentieth century, although William Wells Newell published two articles on "Early American Ballads" in the Journal of American Folklore (1899-1900). Phillips Barry contributed an article, "The Ballad of the Demon Lover," to Modern Language Notes in 1904, the first of his many academic contributions, quickly followed by Henry M. Belden's "The Study of Folk-Song in America" in Modern Philology (1905). The next year Belden organized the Missouri Folklore Society, where local teachers spearheaded song collecting that resulted in the later publication of Ballads and Songs Collected by the Missouri Folk-Lore Society (1940), with a wide range of Child ballads, Irish songs, French language tunes, and much else.

The search for variants of the ballads collected by Child—always referred to as the "Child ballads"—in the United States would long fascinate the collectors, but a source of native folk songs was quickly discovered that deftly altered the field. In 1910 John A. Lomax, Alan's father, published Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, which made a strong case for looking inward for a unique musical style and substance. Lomax was not the first to publish cowboy songs, since brief articles had appeared in the Journal of American Folklore and other publications as early as 1901. N. Howard "Jack" Thorp's Songs of the Cowboys was published in 1908, which included "Old Paint," "The Cowboy's Lament (Streets of Laredo)," and "The Old Chisholm Trail," but he received scant circulation. Only Lomax grabbed the public's imagination and put cowboy songs on the country's musical map.

By 1910 Olive Dame Campbell, the wife of a missionary schoolteacher, had assembled a collection of native white songs from Kentucky, Georgia, and Tennessee, but she could find no publisher. She was not the only woman in the South with an interest in local song lore. Katherine Pettit and May Stone, the founders of the Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, Kentucky, in 1902, had been collecting songs from the children at their school; George Lyman Kittredge, a Child protégé and one of John Lomax's professors at Harvard while he was briefly a student in 1906-1907, published some of their collection as "Ballads and Rhymes from Kentucky" in the Journal of American Folklore in 1907. From 1912 to 1915 E. C. Perrow's "Songs and Rhymes from the South" appeared in the Journal of American Folklore, which included 270 texts from the Appalachian region. In 1916 Loraine Wyman and Howard Brockway issued Lonesome Tunes: Folksongs of the Southern Mountains, quickly followed by Josephine McGill's Folk-Songs of the Kentucky Mountains (1917). Wyman's Twenty Kentucky Mountain Songs appeared in 1920.

While Child, an American, set the standard for future collectors of British ballads, in late 1914 as war had broken out in Europe, Cecil Sharp first traveled to the United States with his assistant Maude Karpeles to promote English folk dance. Born in London in 1859, Sharp reversed the process established by Child by doing much of his collecting in the southern United States. After briefly working in Australia, he returned to England and began teaching, writing about, and collecting British folk songs and dances. The five volumes of his Folk Songs from Somerset (1904-1909) quickly became influential. Sharp, accompanied by Karpeles, returned to the United States in 1916 and began collecting in earnest, with the assistance of Olive Dame Campbell. They collected four hundred songs from 67 informants in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, of which forty Child ballads, seventy local songs, and two dozen other English ballads appeared in English Folk-Songs of the Southern Appalachians (1917). The following year, as war raged, they returned to gather six hundred songs, and in 1918 they compiled another 625 tunes before returning again to England. Back in England Sharp gave a series of lectures based on his Appalachian collecting, such as one at Aeolian Hall on May 13, 1919, accompanied by Owen Colyer singing "Young Hunting," "The Wife Wrapt in Wether's Skin," "The False Young Man," and three others, while members of the English Folk Dance Society performed "The Kentucky Running Set." Sharp died in 1924, and in 1932 Karpeles produced a final volume of their southern collection, with another 274 songs. Along with the bulk of American collectors, Sharp had the romantic and highly fanciful notion that the backwoods southern singers were essentially cut off from the hustle and bustle of modern society and therefore were able to preserve and pass on traditional British ballads and songs. A gross exaggeration, this attitude would continue even as radio programs and phonograph records reached into southern mountain and rural areas in the 1920s. Moreover, Sharp believed that returning these ballads to England would rejuvenate his country's musical and cultural legacy, then in jeopardy of being corrupted by modern society.

While Sharp and others were gathering songs and ballads from southern white singers, a separate group of collectors began focusing on African American musicians and songsters. Shortly after the Civil War, William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison published Slave Songs of the United States (1867). They focused on spirituals, also known as jubilee songs, although they realized there were also secular songs dealing with work experiences. Howard Odum, born in Georgia and a graduate of Emory College in 1904, entered the University of Mississippi as a graduate student and soon discovered a wealth of African American songs. He first published "Religious Folk Songs of the Southern Negroes" in the American Journal of Religious Psychology and Education in 1906. Soon armed with a cylinder record player, he collected and published 115 secular songs in the Journal of American Folklore in 1911. Odum's major study with Guy B. Johnson, The Negro and His Songs, was issued in 1925, quickly followed by Negro Workaday Songs (1926); 1925 also saw the release of Dorothy Scarborough, On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs. The older spirituals were not forgotten, however, with Frederick Work's booklet Folk Songs of the American Negro, published in 1907.

African American songs appeared in print as well as on phonograph records beginning in the 1890s. The Unique Quartet began recording as early as 1890, with their Edison cylinders of "Mamma's Black Baby Boy" appearing in 1893. The popular team of Bert Williams and George Walker began recording secular songs in 1901. In 1909 a quartet, part of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, visited the Victor studios in Camden, New Jersey, and recorded ten cylinders. An increasing number of black performers entered the recording studios from 1910 to 1920. Mamie Smith recorded "Crazy Blues" on the Okeh label in 1920, which initiated the enthusiasm for blues and other African American secular recordings. The collectors Lawrence Gellert, Howard Odum, and Dorothy Scarborough, followed by John and Alan Lomax in the 1930s, scoured the South for African American blues, field hollers, sacred tunes, and other songs with Anglo-African roots. The Lomaxes headed for southern prison camps in 1933, believing that their informants were cut off from modern musical influences and therefore had an unsullied, vernacular sound. When they began recording Huddie Ledbetter, aka Lead Belly, at the Angola camp in Louisiana, they thought they had found such an example, but they soon discovered that his repertoire included a wide range of popular songs as well as his own compositions. There was no such thing as musical purity by the 1920s in southern prisons and mountain settlements, or anywhere else. When Alan Lomax conducted his field trips to Coahoma County, Mississippi, with John W. Work, Lewis Wade Jones, and Samuel C. Adams in 1941-42, they discovered that the local jukeboxes were filled with the popular tunes of Count Basie, Louis Jordan, Fats Waller, and even Artie Shaw, while the recordings of Delta bluesmen were quite scarce. Moreover, Robert Johnson and Son House, for example, had aspirations to be commercial musicians, rather than folk musicians playing only for local audiences.

Among the other roots collectors, Robert Gordon explored a variety of interesting musical sources. Born in Maine in 1888 and instructed by the ballad scholars at Harvard, he taught in the English Department at the University of California-Berkeley, 1918-1924. His interest in folk songs led to his editing the "Old Songs That Men Have Sung" column in Adventure magazine, beginning in 1923 for more than four years, which reached two million readers nationwide. This was similar to such music features in Railroad Man's Magazine and Sea Stories. Because of his column, Gordon received a broad range of song texts from his readers. He particularly liked collecting songs along the San Francisco waterfront, working with Frank Kester, who ran the sea songs and stories column "The Dogwatch" in the Oakland Tribune. Gordon used a cylinder record player to record more than two hundred local songs. He returned east in 1924 and soon began a recording trip to the South, where he lived for some years. During 1927 into 1928 he published a series of articles in the New York Times Magazine based on his collecting, then in 1928 he was appointed head of the newly created Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, which received part of his extensive collections. He left the library in 1932; a year later he was replaced by John Lomax. Gordon was unable to publish a book based on his pioneering collecting and had faded from memory by the time of his death in 1961.

In 1938 the National Service Bureau, a branch of the Federal Theater Project, Works Progress Administration (WPA), published Gordon's Folk-Songs of America, a compilation of his New York Times articles. "Of folk-song alone, America has a body perhaps greater in extent than that possessed by any other nation, and certainly unsurpassed in interest and variety of types," he wrote in the article originally published on January 2, 1927. In addition to the British and Scottish ballads, Gordon included "mountain ballets," "play-party" songs, "songs of the Plains, of the great Western trek, of the trials and hardships of pioneer days," creole songs, Spanish-American songs, African American songs—"The negro of the south is perhaps our best folk-singer"—"sailor chanteys," and so much more. "Folk-song is a body of song in the possession of the people, passed on by them often for generations by word of mouth, from singer to singer, not learned from books or from print," Gordon argued. With this romantic tinge, he was not interested in contemporary folk songs, although he surely included many songs of recent vintage, and he definitely parted company with those ballad collectors who were interested only in Old World origins and connections.

Along with Gordon's book, the National Service Bureau published a number of other ballad and folk song collections. Phillips Barry's early articles in the Journal of American Folklore, Southern Folklore Quarterly, and the Bulletin of the Folk-Song Society of the Northeast were brought together in Folk Music in America (1939). Two volumes of John Harrington Cox's Traditional Ballads Mainly from West Virginia also appeared in 1939, which were additions to his collection Folk-Songs of the South (1925). The National Play Bureau, another offshoot of the Federal Theatre Project, published Arthur Palmer Hudson's Folk Tunes from Mississippi in 1937, adding to his earlier Folksongs of Mississippi and Their Background (1936). These publications did not get wide circulation but indicated the government's commitment to promoting folk-song scholarship and circulation, part of the New Deal's grassroots cultural mission.


Excerpted from Roots of the Revival by Ronald D. Cohen, Rachel Clare Donaldson. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, ix,
Introduction, 1,
1. Background in the United States and Great Britain to 1950, 5,
2. The Weavers and the Resurgence of Folk Music, 1950-1953, 25,
3. Blacklisting and Folk Developments, 1953-1954, 51,
4. Popular Folk Music Comes of Age, 1955-1956, 71,
5. Further Developments, 1957-1958, 93,
6. The Decade Ends, 1959-1960, 115,
Notes, 153,
Index, 175,

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