When We Were Good / Edition 1

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Overview

When We Were Good traces the many and varied cultural influences on the folk revival of the sixties from early nineteenth-century blackface minstrelsy; the Jewish entertainment and political cultures of New York in the 1930s; the Almanac singers and the wartime crises of the 1940s; the watershed record album Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music; and finally to the cold-war reactionism of the 1950s. This drove the folk-song movement, just as Pete Seeger and the Weavers were putting "On Top of Old Smokey" and "Goodnight, Irene" on the Hit Parade, into a children's underground of schools, summer camps, and colleges, planting the seeds of the folk revival to come. The book is not so much a history as a study of the cultural process itself, what the author calls the dreamwork of history.

Cantwell shows how a body of music once enlisted on behalf of the labor movement, antifascism, New Deal recovery efforts, and many other progressive causes of the 1930s was refashioned as an instrument of self-discovery, even as it found a new politics and cultural style in the peace, civil rights, and beat movements. In Washington Square and the Newport Folk Festival, on college campuses and in concert halls across the country, the folk revival gave voice to the generational tidal wave of postwar youth, going back to the basics and trying to be very, very good.

In this capacious analysis of the ideologies, traditions, and personalities that created an extraordinary moment in American popular culture, Cantwell explores the idea of folk at the deepest level. Taking up some of the more obdurate problems in cultural studies--racial identity, art and politics, regional allegiances, class differences--he shows how the folk revival was a search for authentic democracy, with compelling lessons for our own time.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review

In his rich and suggestive, quirky and lyrical...study of the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 60s, Robert Cantwell...shows that the history of 20th-century folk music has depended on most unlikely associations. He argues persuasively that folk music's ability to move people, even to change their lives, comes from the fact that it has already crossed some of the deepest divides in American culture—race, class and region—and he invites listeners to do the same. The real strength of When We Were Good lies in the energy with which Mr. Cantwell, the author of two previous books on folk music and folk culture, pursues and celebrates this music's roots...Mr. Cantwell's book demonstrates beautifully that the convenient academic categories we use to slice up American history and culture are inadequate to grasp a cultural phenomenon like folk music...This is a rich and rewarding book, driven by evident passion...In this age of proliferating academic specialization and popular pride in one's 'roots,' Mr. Cantwell shows us that American popular music—and by extension much of our culture—is a hopelessly hybrid creation, descended from accidental couplings, political conflicts and ironies, blacks and whites. No wonder it has a haunting melody.
— Warren Goldstein

New York Review of Books

The most detailed history of [the American folk music] revival yet undertaken...As Robert Chantwell charts brilliantly in When We Were Good, the process by which folk music (however defined) came to enjoy its brief moment of ascendancy in the late 1950s and early 1960s was more circuitous and complex than most knew or for that matter cared to know.
— Geoffrey O'Brien

Record Collector (England)
When We Were Good is a long-overdue account of an all too frequently ignored period of American popular music, roughly the seven years between the Kingston Trio's 'Tom Dooley' and Bob Dylan's electric debut at the 1965 Newport Folk festival.
The Nation

Robert Cantwell's amazing book analyzes the cultural forces that culminated in that moment at Newport, when [Bob Dylan and Joan Baez] sang with Peter, Paul and Mary; Pete Seeger; and the SNCC Freedom Singers. But his book goes much deeper into American culture, probing the different ways people have tried to find an authentic American voice, distinct from high culture and uncontaminated by the seemingly irresistible forces of the entertainment industry...If the sixties folk song revival seems a mild, middle-class enthusiasm for the songs of the downtrodden, Cantwell shows it inquiring more deeply into the nature of American democracy itself.
— Jon Wiener

Telegraph Journal

[A] detailed and well constructed history of the U.S. folksong revival of the fifties and sixties...Cantwell carefully shows how this folk revival, involving mostly people born in the 1930s and 1940s, began in a state of total commercialization, with the Kingston Trio and other slick pretenders with crew-cuts, and grew increasingly more authentic, and more creative, as the public gained in discrimination.
— Douglas Fetherling

Artforum

[Cantwell] rewrites history with music, and vice versa. Diffusing a perfectly sketched generic, white, middle-class, suburban, postwar upbringing across the whole spectrum of American legend and experience, Cantwell pours old wine into a cruet that suddenly gleams with transparency...As he begins to trace the roles played by his characters—those figures dancing on the surface of 'Tom Dooley,' or hiding in its grooves—he makes the wine new.
— Greil Marcus

San Francisco Chronicle

[Cantwell] effectively traces the theatrical, literary, musical and political origins of that folk revival, from the minstrels of the 19th century to the politically engaged folk-song movement of the Depression. The book springs vividly to life when discussing John Lomax and his son Alan, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and above all, Pete Seeger.
— Robert C. Cottrell

Boston Book Review

Cantwell's account of that...era combines the personal perspective of an informed participant with theory-laden explanations...[He] writes with a deep love and passion for his subject, and this book creates an engaging and often poetic picture of a folk revival that very few people know about. It is the movement that took place outside the limelight, growing underground through the McCarthy era, blossoming when the Kingston Trio's version of 'Tom Dooley' his the charts in 1957, and ending—not beginning—when Bob Dylan and Joan Baez appeared like Adam and Eve on the stage of the Newport Folk Festival together in 1963...Cantwell's portraits of early folk heroes are especially memorable...There is a generosity of spirit running through the book, directed toward those who made the music, those who revived it for their own ends, and us, his readers...When We Were Good offers a perspective on the folk revival that could not be more relevant and timely.
— Hugh Blumenfeld

New York Times Book Review - Warren Goldstein
In his rich and suggestive, quirky and lyrical...study of the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 60s, Robert Cantwell...shows that the history of 20th-century folk music has depended on most unlikely associations. He argues persuasively that folk music's ability to move people, even to change their lives, comes from the fact that it has already crossed some of the deepest divides in American culture--race, class and region--and he invites listeners to do the same. The real strength of When We Were Good lies in the energy with which Mr. Cantwell, the author of two previous books on folk music and folk culture, pursues and celebrates this music's roots...Mr. Cantwell's book demonstrates beautifully that the convenient academic categories we use to slice up American history and culture are inadequate to grasp a cultural phenomenon like folk music...This is a rich and rewarding book, driven by evident passion...In this age of proliferating academic specialization and popular pride in one's 'roots,' Mr. Cantwell shows us that American popular music--and by extension much of our culture--is a hopelessly hybrid creation, descended from accidental couplings, political conflicts and ironies, blacks and whites. No wonder it has a haunting melody.
New York Review of Books - Geoffrey O'Brien
The most detailed history of [the American folk music] revival yet undertaken...As Robert Chantwell charts brilliantly in When We Were Good, the process by which folk music (however defined) came to enjoy its brief moment of ascendancy in the late 1950s and early 1960s was more circuitous and complex than most knew or for that matter cared to know.
The Nation - Jon Wiener
Robert Cantwell's amazing book analyzes the cultural forces that culminated in that moment at Newport, when [Bob Dylan and Joan Baez] sang with Peter, Paul and Mary; Pete Seeger; and the SNCC Freedom Singers. But his book goes much deeper into American culture, probing the different ways people have tried to find an authentic American voice, distinct from high culture and uncontaminated by the seemingly irresistible forces of the entertainment industry...If the sixties folk song revival seems a mild, middle-class enthusiasm for the songs of the downtrodden, Cantwell shows it inquiring more deeply into the nature of American democracy itself.
Telegraph Journal - Douglas Fetherling
[A] detailed and well constructed history of the U.S. folksong revival of the fifties and sixties...Cantwell carefully shows how this folk revival, involving mostly people born in the 1930s and 1940s, began in a state of total commercialization, with the Kingston Trio and other slick pretenders with crew-cuts, and grew increasingly more authentic, and more creative, as the public gained in discrimination.
Artforum - Greil Marcus
[Cantwell] rewrites history with music, and vice versa. Diffusing a perfectly sketched generic, white, middle-class, suburban, postwar upbringing across the whole spectrum of American legend and experience, Cantwell pours old wine into a cruet that suddenly gleams with transparency...As he begins to trace the roles played by his characters--those figures dancing on the surface of 'Tom Dooley,' or hiding in its grooves--he makes the wine new.
San Francisco Chronicle - Robert C. Cottrell
[Cantwell] effectively traces the theatrical, literary, musical and political origins of that folk revival, from the minstrels of the 19th century to the politically engaged folk-song movement of the Depression. The book springs vividly to life when discussing John Lomax and his son Alan, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and above all, Pete Seeger.
Boston Book Review - Hugh Blumenfeld
Cantwell's account of that...era combines the personal perspective of an informed participant with theory-laden explanations...[He] writes with a deep love and passion for his subject, and this book creates an engaging and often poetic picture of a folk revival that very few people know about. It is the movement that took place outside the limelight, growing underground through the McCarthy era, blossoming when the Kingston Trio's version of 'Tom Dooley' his the charts in 1957, and ending--not beginning--when Bob Dylan and Joan Baez appeared like Adam and Eve on the stage of the Newport Folk Festival together in 1963...Cantwell's portraits of early folk heroes are especially memorable...There is a generosity of spirit running through the book, directed toward those who made the music, those who revived it for their own ends, and us, his readers...When We Were Good offers a perspective on the folk revival that could not be more relevant and timely.
New York Times Book Review
In his rich and suggestive, quirky and lyrical...study of the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 60s, Robert Cantwell...shows that the history of 20th-century folk music has depended on most unlikely associations. He argues persuasively that folk music's ability to move people, even to change their lives, comes from the fact that it has already crossed some of the deepest divides in American culture--race, class and region--and he invites listeners to do the same. The real strength of When We Were Good lies in the energy with which Mr. Cantwell, the author of two previous books on folk music and folk culture, pursues and celebrates this music's roots...Mr. Cantwell's book demonstrates beautifully that the convenient academic categories we use to slice up American history and culture are inadequate to grasp a cultural phenomenon like folk music...This is a rich and rewarding book, driven by evident passion...In this age of proliferating academic specialization and popular pride in one's 'roots,' Mr. Cantwell shows us that American popular music--and by extension much of our culture--is a hopelessly hybrid creation, descended from accidental couplings, political conflicts and ironies, blacks and whites. No wonder it has a haunting melody.
— Warren Goldstein
New York Review of Books
The most detailed history of [the American folk music] revival yet undertaken...As Robert Chantwell charts brilliantly in When We Were Good, the process by which folk music (however defined) came to enjoy its brief moment of ascendancy in the late 1950s and early 1960s was more circuitous and complex than most knew or for that matter cared to know.
— Geoffrey O'Brien
The Nation
Robert Cantwell's amazing book analyzes the cultural forces that culminated in that moment at Newport, when [Bob Dylan and Joan Baez] sang with Peter, Paul and Mary; Pete Seeger; and the SNCC Freedom Singers. But his book goes much deeper into American culture, probing the different ways people have tried to find an authentic American voice, distinct from high culture and uncontaminated by the seemingly irresistible forces of the entertainment industry...If the sixties folk song revival seems a mild, middle-class enthusiasm for the songs of the downtrodden, Cantwell shows it inquiring more deeply into the nature of American democracy itself.
— Jon Wiener
Telegraph Journal
[A] detailed and well constructed history of the U.S. folksong revival of the fifties and sixties...Cantwell carefully shows how this folk revival, involving mostly people born in the 1930s and 1940s, began in a state of total commercialization, with the Kingston Trio and other slick pretenders with crew-cuts, and grew increasingly more authentic, and more creative, as the public gained in discrimination.
— Douglas Fetherling
Artforum
[Cantwell] rewrites history with music, and vice versa. Diffusing a perfectly sketched generic, white, middle-class, suburban, postwar upbringing across the whole spectrum of American legend and experience, Cantwell pours old wine into a cruet that suddenly gleams with transparency...As he begins to trace the roles played by his characters--those figures dancing on the surface of 'Tom Dooley,' or hiding in its grooves--he makes the wine new.
— Greil Marcus
San Francisco Chronicle
[Cantwell] effectively traces the theatrical, literary, musical and political origins of that folk revival, from the minstrels of the 19th century to the politically engaged folk-song movement of the Depression. The book springs vividly to life when discussing John Lomax and his son Alan, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and above all, Pete Seeger.
— Robert C. Cottrell
Boston Book Review
Cantwell's account of that...era combines the personal perspective of an informed participant with theory-laden explanations...[He] writes with a deep love and passion for his subject, and this book creates an engaging and often poetic picture of a folk revival that very few people know about. It is the movement that took place outside the limelight, growing underground through the McCarthy era, blossoming when the Kingston Trio's version of 'Tom Dooley' his the charts in 1957, and ending--not beginning--when Bob Dylan and Joan Baez appeared like Adam and Eve on the stage of the Newport Folk Festival together in 1963...Cantwell's portraits of early folk heroes are especially memorable...There is a generosity of spirit running through the book, directed toward those who made the music, those who revived it for their own ends, and us, his readers...When We Were Good offers a perspective on the folk revival that could not be more relevant and timely.
— Hugh Blumenfeld
Library Journal
Lay readers may be put off by Cantwell's sometimes rambling examination of the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, which was ushered in by the Kingston Trio's hit "Tom Dooley." Expanding on his essay of the same name in Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined (Univ. of Illinois, 1993), Cantwell (American studies, Univ. of North Carolina) covers the revival's lineage from 19th-century blackface minstrelsy through the demise of folk's Socialist politics in the early 1950s to the impacts of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Cantwell loses focus when he emphasizes his own interpretation of events. More effective are the relatively straightforward narratives on Woody Guthrie, the Almanac Singers, and the seminal Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music recordings. Complete with copius references, this serious treatment of the folk revival is recommended for larger music and social history collections.-Lloyd Jansen, Stockton-San Joaquin Cty. P.L., Cal.
Geoffrey O'Brien
As Robert Cantwell charts brilliantly in "When We Were Good," the process by which folk music (however defined) came to enjoy its brief moment of ascendancy in the late 1950s and early 1960s was more circuitous and complex than most knew or for that matter cared to know. -- Geoffrey O'Brien, The New York Review of Books
Kirkus Reviews
Jargon-rich but provocative study of the folk-music craze of the '60s.

Cantwell (American Studies/Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) is typical of a new school of academic critics combining personal memoir with sociocultural analysis and writing in a highly specialized language understood only by its practitioners. He believes that the original folk revival of the '30s and '40s, as embodied in the work of performers like Woody Guthrie and the young Pete Seeger, failed because of its ideological links to left-wing politics, making it anathema to the postWW II generation. In the late '50s groups like the Kingston Trio created a new folk resurgence by reviving the music without the political message. He also argues that folk music appealed to urban, young, middle-class listeners because it enabled them to act out a mild rebellion against their upbringing and build at least imaginative ties with a purer American culture, nostalgically linked to the past. Cantwell outlines these theories in dense prose that will be barely comprehensible to the uninitiated; for example, he describes Mike Seeger's life work as that of "cultural cathexis, dreaming the felt but untheorized political urgencies of the present into historical memory." Moreover, his theories oversimplify the many strands that went into creating the folk revival. While the Kingston Trio were an apolitical and largely commercial group, the young Bob Dylan was deeply engaged in expressing a social message through his music. Moreover, Cantwell can't seem to decide how he feels about these folk revivalists. While ostensibly praising their lives and work, he slips in many negative remarks about them; he compares Mike Seeger to a blackface minstrel, dismisses Pete Seeger as a person who is "basic[ally] sad," and describes Dylan as possessing "gallant fraudulence."

An odd hodgepodge, which will be of interest primarily to the academic folklore community.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674951334
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 4/25/1997
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 426
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 0.87 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert S. Cantwell is Adjunct Professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Ethnomimesis: Folklife and the Representation of Culture and the classic Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: Tom Dooley History of a Song

1. We Are the Folk Backgrounds of the Revival

2. The New Minstrelsy Jim Crow and John Henry

3. Ballad for Americans The Search for a People's Opera

4. Ramblin' Round Your City The Almanac Singers

5. Wasn't That a Time Folk Music and the Cold War

6. Smith's Memory Theater The Great Folkways Anthology

7. He Shall Overcome Pete Seeger

8. Happy Campers The Children's Underground

9. Lady and the Tramp Joan Baez and Bob Dylan

10. Nobles, Patrons, Patriots, Reds Democracy and Revivalism

Notes

Acknowledgments

Index

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