Thursday, May 25, 2006

Every Saturday Night! (Part 1)

The war between the folkies goes on.

There's a telling moment in Christopher Guest's film A Mighty Wind. At a cocktail party, Jerry Palter (Michael McKean) of The Folksmen - a Kingston Trioesque group - chats with an unnamed black blues singer (Bill Cobbs) about how sad it is that only "commercial junk" acts like The New Main Street Singers (a cheerfully cheesy bunch patterened after The Serendipity Singers and The Back Porch Majority) get all the money. The blues singer turns away with a disgusted stare at the camera... and we know it's because he considers Palter's group and the Main Streeters to be two sides of the same coin... which they are, of course.

In the early 1960's, when the nationwide populatrity of folk music reached a pinnacle, there were several factions - or "folk-tions" - taking very specific sides as to what did and did not constitute "folk music." It was much like the simplistic division between "red" and "blue" states. In this case, you had the Ethnics - the purists, if you will - who saw folk music as a tradition to be handed down from our forefathers (and mothers). This tradition consisted of homemade songs from across the nation: the love and death songs of the Southern hills, the labor songs of the Eastern cities, the Dust Bowl ballads of the Southwest farms, the cowboy songs of the Western plains. Then you had the Commercials - the singers and groups that took the Ethnics' music and dressed it up for mass audience appeal (and thus financial gain). Neither side liked the other very much; Ethnics supporters carped that the Commercials were a bunch of phonies ("pholk music" became a favorite put-down), while fans of the Commercials charged back that the Ethnics were boring and/or not terribly pleasing to the discerning ear.

Caught in the forefront of this battle was ABC-TV's Hootenanny. The series only lasted a year-and-a-half, but it sure created a lot of controversy. At the time, it was criticized by upper-echelon music critics for presenting the worst of "pholk" (even as television critics hailed the show for its mobility and emphasis on youth). The series hoisted its own petard, of course, by banning Pete Seeger and his former group, The Weavers outright, because of their affiliation with leftist causes. That may have been within the network's, or the producers', or the sponsors' right... but it would have been nice if someone had been honest about it. Instead, each kept passing the buck, blaming one or both of the others for the decision.

It was also within the right of folk artists to refuse to appear on the show because of this policy... and many of them did, including big guns like Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez, The Kingston Trio and Bob Dylan. Most accused the Hootenanny bigwigs of continuing the 1950's policy of blacklisting and said so - loudly - to the press when announcing their decision to boycott the show. Funny thing, though: Seeger and The Weavers couldn't get on NBC's Tonight Show or CBS's Ed Sullivan for the same reason, but nobody ever pointed that out. It was almost as if Hootenanny was being condemned for everybody's sins... or at least for being called Hootenanny, a term reportedly coined by Seeger and his guru, Woody Guthrie.

Because Hootenanny has been considered for so long a "lost" show - it was captured on videotape, and it was then network policy to reuse tape until it wore out - nearly all that's been written about it has been the blacklist and the boycott, and any attempt to summarize the actual content is always from the viewpoint of the Ethnics. I had a little more tangible evidence at my disposal while growing up; my dad had audiotaped several episodes. Today, it's a somewhat different story... thanks to advertising agency policy, Hootenanny (and many another "lost" show) was kinescoped pretty much every week, even the summer reruns. A few of these kines have slipped into the hands of collectors, stock footage houses, and even libraries.

About 15 of the 43 Hootenanny shows can at least be viewed... and that's enough, I think, to get a feel for what the show was actually like... which I plan to write about next week.


Anonymous said...

Great selection - I had just been watching the Scorcese Dylan documentary, and amazed at the rich history of the folk music movement.

I wondered if that was how they managed all the tv recordings of those folk groups, little known outside of their circle.

"Hootenany" looks like it introduces a tv model - it takes the format tv uses for any "urban music" context, replacing the contents to attract the "folk-music" trend and public.

Of course, this was during the Blacklisting period, so incidents occured. A decade-plus later, during the Vietnam era, "Hee Haw" will do the same for country music, by copying the immensely popular, topical, urban "Laugh-in" tv show format.

And it works, far outlasting "Laugh-In", as it turns country music into a safe, non-topical, cartoon of itself, its audience, and its roots.

To cap off sometime around the same TV/Vietnam political era, a kind of folk-roots returns, the satirical political one, via the short-lived, and censored, Smothers Brothers show.

Concerning music, politics, censorship etc...I dont think the 1950s networks were so different from their version in the 60s or 70s. TV always tries to soften the edges, take away the topical (easier in repeating over years) and ultimately produce a cartoon-culture.

All 3 TV networks just seemed so unable to reflect on the way popular culture (what else is represented in the name "folk" and "country") shifted from the 50s onto the progressive 60s and through till the 70s.

Don't get me started on how mid to late 70s then got packaged again - just look at the music incidents and censoring on the so-called Sat.Nite Live.

There is a reason music and audiences returned with the new web-radio boom, and not with TV.

Michael J. Hayde said...

Thanks for writing, Art. You've made some very astute observations.

I don't think any of the folk footage in Scorese's documentary came from Hootenanny - I noticed some Ed Sullivan stuff in there, as well as some folk one-shot programs (I have the complete show from which Dylan's early rendition of "Blowin' in the Wind" derives).

I've added a Variety article from March 1963 pertaining to the Hootenanny blacklist and boycott.