Chicago and the Folk Music Revival, 1957-1970: A Tale of Two Key Figures – Ray Flerlage and Win Stracke

Folk Music Revival of the 1950s and 1960s

A listener can instantly identify such popular American musical genres as blues, country, rock, and hip-hop. The same can be said for “folk music” – you know it when you hear it.

Defining folk music is another matter. Some argue that folk music is a precious legacy based on tradition. As such, it must be preserved and passed on intact to future generations. Others claim that folk music, while inspired by tradition, is not limited to a fixed body of songs and melodies inherited from the past. Rather, folk music, like any musical genre, is a creative process: a musical approach that transmits tradition while also creating new melodies, lyrics, themes, and interpretations that remain broadly within the spirit of that tradition. Each new generation of folk musicians, in its way, reinvents that tradition.

During the past century, the best example of this musical reinvention process was the so-called Folk Music Revival that reached its high point from the late 1950s to the end of the 1960s. During this period, music that was created and performed by “the folk” attained mass popularity. If there was an origin moment for the Revival, it was the Kingston Trio’s surprise hit song of 1958 – an old folk tune, “Tom Dooley.” Other reworkings of traditional songs followed, as well as such popular television shows as “Hootenanny,” an ABC-network folk music variety show held weekly on college campuses in 1963-64. The music supposedly “of and by the masses” had finally reached the masses. From informal gatherings of amateur musicians to clubs to festivals, folk music was in the air throughout the 1960s.

Paradoxically, although folk music had its roots in the nation’s rural areas, especially in Appalachia, the Folk Music Revival was largely an urban affair, driven by a growing population of young people who embraced the nation’s populist folk tradition while also protesting the injustices of modern society. Chicago was one of the main sites for the development of folk music. Also important were New York City and Boston/Cambridge, two of the other major cities where the Revival attracted its greatest following. Another important performance venue for folk music, especially in the Northeast, was the annual Newport Folk Festival (Newport, RI), which began in 1959.