Chicago and the Folk Music Revival, 1957-1970: A Tale of Two Key Figures – Ray Flerlage and Win Stracke
This project has prompted me to reflect on the history of American folk music and my own encounter with it. That reflection has led, in turn, to a central question: What accounts for this music’s appeal and longevity? To be sure, popular musical tastes -- like tastes in clothing, cars, and television shows – run in cycles. That said, although folk music’s mass appeal varies over time – and occasionally needs “reviving” – it continues to survive, even thrive.
I would suggest that three factors largely explain folk music’s endurance, starting with what I would term its emergent quality. The very term, folk music, suggests the music’s organic connection to the lives of real people. That connection comes from the process by which folk music emerges from an inherent sympathy for and solidarity with the lives – the struggles and hopes -- of everyday people. Folk music, at root, is an attempt to understand and convey those struggles and hopes through music. The specifics of people’s concerns, to be sure, change over time. Today those concerns are more likely to be urban homelessness or alienation rather than life as a “dustbowl refugee,” as Woody Guthrie once sang. But this music’s impulse to identify with and convey the aspirations and preoccupations of average folk remains the same.
Folk music’s lasting appeal lies also in its inclusive nature, in that it encompasses a wide gamut of musical styles, lyrical themes and topics, and instrumentation. Folk music typically features acoustic instruments, as opposed to electric ones, and it tends to be played at lower decibels with lighter (or no) percussion compared to rock, punk, R&B, and even most “pop” music. But there is no iron rule here. The point is that folk music is no single style but rather a multiplicity of styles that have emerged (that term again) from various regional and subcultural groups, including country, blues, bluegrass, Cajun (and Zydeco), Irish/British Isles, and even gospel. Folk music’s capacity to embrace diverse musical styles helps explain its durability.
Finally, folk music is, above all, accessible, for both listener and performer. For the listener, although folk music is not necessarily “simple,” it is not complex in terms of melodic and chordal structure. Moreover, folk music tends to emphasize singing as opposed to pure instrumentation, which tends to draw listeners’ attention to the topical and/or narrative aspects of the lyrics. For the performer as well, folk music is accessible in terms of its relatively modest cost and skill demands. A functional folk instrument – guitar, mandolin, fiddle, etc. – can be had for a few hundred dollars, and one can master some playing basics in a few weeks. (Attaining instrumental virtuosity, highly prized in folk music, is another matter!) In economists’ terms, the “barriers to entry” to performing folk music, at least on a functional level, are low. In sum, the fact that folk music is emergent, inclusive, and accessible helps ensure that this music will always be with us, even as it continues to evolve.
In the long history of this music, the Folk Music Revival of 1957-1970 stands out as an exception: a brief era in which folk music rose to true mass popularity. (Not for nothing do many folk enthusiasts refer to this period as the “Great Folk Scare.”) Yet even though folk music’s prominence has never since attained that level of popular following, the Revival had a long-lasting impact on this country’s musical culture. In the case of Chicago, which played an important role in the Revival, that impact was mainly in the establishment of a durable “folk music infrastructure” centered around two institutions that continue to propel this traditional-based music paradoxically forward: the Old Town School of Folk Music and the University of Chicago Folk Festival. For their key contributions in creating and promoting these institutions, Win Stracke and Ray Flerlage – the visionary and the documentarian – merit our collective gratitude. I am most pleased to celebrate the rich legacy they have left us.