Friends of Old Time Music: The Folk Arrival 1961-1965
At the height of the folk revival in the early '60s, three movers and shakers -- Ralph Rinzler (a member of the Greenbriar Boys folk group), John Cohen (of the New Lost City Ramblers) and Israel "Izzy" Young (owner of the Folklore Center in Greenwich Village) -- presented a number of traditional folk concerts in New York City under the umbrella of the Friends of Old Time Music. Among the now-legendary artists they brought to the city, some for the first time, others for the first time in decades, were Doc Watson, Maybelle Carter, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys, Roscoe Holcomb, Dock Boggs and Mississippi John Hurt, whose song "Coffee Blues," including the phrase "lovin' spoonful" and performed here, provided a future New York rock band with their name. The 14 concerts in the series, which took place between 1961 and 1965, were recorded by Peter K. Siegel, who produced and annotated this three-CD boxed distillation of highlights from the events. For fans of the kind of pure, unadulterated folk music that flourished on campuses and at folk festivals during those years before Bob Dylan discovered electricity, the set is a rejoice-worthy find. Folk music at that time encompassed not just the stereotypical guitar-strumming troubadour carrying a message, but also raw blues, Appalachian ballads, kickin' bluegrass, gospel and other strains of roots Americana, and the performances heard by the fortunate big city audiences were honest, moving and, most importantly, devoid of outside intervention or corrupting influence -- most of these artists were shell-shocked to be playing to appreciative audiences in a place like New York City after decades of toiling for the locals down south. The songs proffered by these musicians, of poverty and jail time, hard drinking and mining disasters, were not contrived but, true to the folk process, familiar tales handed down via the oral tradition, or written anew to add to it -- many, like Jesse Fuller's "San Francisco Bay Blues," Maybelle Carter's "Foggy Mountain Top," Monroe's "Shady Grove" and Roscoe Holcomb's "Rising Sun Blues" (aka "House of the Rising Sun"), have long been accepted as staples of the American folk repertoire, but were relatively new to mainstream audiences at the time, regardless of their vintage and their familiarity in the rural regions that birthed these performers. Friends of Old Time Music is, of course, a valuable historical document but, better than that, it's a rewarding listening experience. This is the real item, the sound -- in excellent fidelity, incidentally -- of America's treasured heritage peeking out from its longtime hiding places -- 53 of the 55 recordings have never before been released -- and fanning out across the land and into the permanent cultural fabric.