Judge Bill Gibron is often misty-eyed over his past days as a wondering troubadour, but that doesn't lesson the entertainment and social impact of this fascinating collection of early TV folk performances.
Don't give a damn about a green back dollar—buy this set.
There is more to the folk music craze of the early 1960s than Bob Dylan. It really was more like A Mighty Wind, that brilliant Christopher Guest dissection of the era, than people may be willing to admit. When it was discovered that college kids were sick and tired of the same teen heartthrob hokum, and were ready to grow up beyond Elvis and all his hill-rockabilly, the American songbook was there waiting to fill in the pop-culture gaps. Famous "trios" (Chad Mitchell, Kingston) and various "minstrels" (New Christy) took ragged hymns, gospel shout-outs, slave chants, and chestnuts from the musical tradition of this nation—and others—and melded them into a seamless anti-authoritarian stance. Usually, the melodies were sing-along simplistic and the lyrics were nothing more than memories of time, place, and people. But in other cases, the sentiments expressed challenged the conservative status quo, reminding America that the racial/economic/social divides of the past were still standing, stubborn as ever. This is why Dylan was viewed as a radical—ignore the Greenwich Village connection or the undercurrent of drug use. He fused folk to the politics of the time, lighting a bonfire that didn't die out until after Watergate wore off.
In a highly unusual move for a broadcast network, ABC decided that a weekly folk showcase from varying college campuses around the country would be an interesting entertainment experiment. Taking its name from the 1940s musical fund-raising club, Hootenanny first aired in April 1963. Using an intriguing combination of campfire and concert, numerous acts were given an opportunity to pick up their guitars, stand up their basses, and harmonize the homespun hits of the day. Unfortunately, the show's set-up conformed to the belief of many in the conservative advertising field that such a movement was more seditious than straightforward. Important acts like The Weavers and Pete Seeger himself were banned for their "left wing" views, which led to other established chart-toppers like Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio staying away from the show. Though the level of talent was exceptionally high anyway, the show's profile was not. Once The Beatles stormed our shores and changed the face of popular music, Hootenanny was doomed. It went off the air in September 1964, and has become a forgotten TV afterthought ever since. Now, thanks to Shout! Factory, we get a chance to see what made this musical showcase so daring—and the reaction to it so surreal.
Facts of the Case
Instead of presenting actual episodes, Shout! Factory plunders the Hootenanny vaults for available kinescope recordings, delivering more than 80 performances. In addition, each installment of the series featured noted comedians of the day, and this collection is no different. We get a chance to see legends like Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, as well as solid performances from Vaughn Meader, Louis Nye, and Jackie Vernon. Disc by disc, here is what you can expect:
The first thing you recognize watching Hootenanny—in fact, it's something that most musical programs from the '50s and '60s share—is that something like this could not survive in our post-millennial media. The concept of having several competing acts jockeying for position and recognition on one show, each one required to get by on their talent and tenacity alone, would be paramount to cold career suicide. Without carefully-planned staging, a substantial solo shot of winning over the youthful audience (many groups only got one or two songs per show on Hootenanny), or the ability to name their co-stars, there was a constant threat of having one band—say, the amazing New Christy Minstrels—dominate the proceedings. Besides, fans are so used to the MTV-oriented approach—little disposable and easily-digestible video tidbits—that to sit through an entire performance of live playing would seem like sonic sacrilege. No, what Hootenanny represents is the earliest stages of music-business bravado. Realizing they were dealing with a socially unacceptable form of expression, the suits took the tunes to the campuses, creating a kind of conspicuous underground style movement. Unlike today, where music sits side by side with and, in some cases, far above the other mainstream media, folk (like rock) was an insubordinate scene. Using the small screen as a missive statement was shrewd and tenuous at best.
The next thing you notice is the easy racial mixing between the acts. For its time, Hootenanny was notorious for allowing blacks and whites on the same stage—sometimes within the same group—in an era which still supported anti-miscegenation in practice and philosophy. All throughout the performance, Caucasian artists are seen supported by African-American talent, while minority performers shared equal space with the majority. Granted, the audiences were mostly as lily-fied as the valley could have them, and the ratio of white to black was heavily skewed toward the Anglo-Saxon set, but the novelty of seeing Bob Gibson, the Clara Ward Gospel Singers, and Herbie Mann alongside their puffy pink brethren makes this a deliciously divergent set.
Similarly, there are a lot of soon-to-be legends popping up throughout the performances. A very young Carly plays troubadour with her sibling as part of The Simon Sisters act, while a drug-addicted and razor-thin Johnny Cash makes a memorable appearance. His spouse to be, June, proves why The Carter Family are considered country music legends, and other recognizable faces—Judy Collins, Eddy Arnold, Hoyt Axton—increase the eyebrow-raising reality of such a collection. When you add in the comics—especially Allen and Vernon doing some of their most daring, non-narrative driven material—you end up with the start of a substantial shift in American cultural consideration. Hootenanny's short-lived tenure on television still represents a major leap forward in the cause of civil rights and expanded artistic expression.
The final fascinating aspect of this presentation is the many heretofore unknown musical moments we are privy to. Anyone familiar with Theodore Bikel and his tenure as an actor will marvel at his weird presence (and song selection) here. Aside from the fact that he makes for a compelling, complex folkie, his dedication to European and Israeli styles is really intriguing. Similarly, the Chad Mitchell Trio and The New Christy Minstrels are straight out of a real-life Christopher Guest parody. Minstrel's lead singer Barry McGuire—who would later go onto anti-war fame as a soloist with "Eve of Destruction"—is so over the top and animated that you instantly recognize the act's overall appeal. Similarly, the Trio takes standard fare and finesses it into something strangely compelling. Their song "John Birch Society" is a symbol of why folk was so frowned upon by the majority of the citizenry. Its lyrical content plays like outtakes from an episodes of The Simpsons. Some artists win us over with their wholesome openness. Jimmie Rodgers, Trini Lopez, and Mike Settle transform simple tunes into a kind of personal profile, explaining more about who they are than what the music represents. Oh course, there are a few clunkers (Ian and Sylvia just need to go away, as do The Rooftop Singers and The Tarriers) and there are a few individuals (Flat and Scruggs???, Doc Watson?) who seem beamed in from a completely different planet. Yet, overall, the total talent on display helps to overcome some of the show's more insignificant segments.
Along with the college locales, the flat-faced earnestness of Art's son Jack Linkletter, and a non-stop parade of aural Americana, you've got something both unusually fascinating and eccentrically entertaining. Even without a 24-hour cable channel dedicated to featuring expensive visual promo pieces (or, in fact, several dozen of said outlets), it's difficult to imagine a show like Hootenanny making it on the air today. Even when MTV used its brand name to feature artists performing "Unplugged," the novelty wore off quickly and quietly. Indeed, the musical landscape has shifted. Fans no longer care about instrumentation and performance chops. As long as it's got a hook and a series of seismic beats, all's good in the pop-chart kingdom. But 40-plus years ago, people still had to prove their sonic acumen. They couldn't get away with pure looks and phony faked skills—well, they could in the '50s, but that's another story for another day. Hootenanny, unlike American Bandstand or Hullabaloo, avoided the lip-synced shilling of the hit parade to argue for music as an art form—and it almost always succeeded. Looked at through the jaundiced eye of a few fractured decades, its noble intentions now seem more naïve than knowing. In fact, such a show was probably deemed a failure right up front. When the Beatles came and stole the auditory spotlight, leaving folk to fanatics like Dylan and his acolytes, the needs of the business were reallocated. Something as righteous as this still glorified and glitzy weekly concert didn't stand a chance. Perhaps now it can find its proper place in the history of media-based music.
Shout! Factory deserves mixed kudos for delivering this dazzling display of early '60s music making. The negatives are negligible, but well worth mentioning. First up, this is not a series of complete episodes. There is a little mixing and matching going on, and we never really see a complete installment of Hootenanny from start to finish. Secondly, these are unclear, murky kinescopes, not original video feeds. You can tell by the way the image flickers and flares when certain sequences play out. This does not mean the 1.33:1 full-screen image is awful—not by a long shot. It simply indicates that there will be a level of analog interference that many DVD aficionados will find faulty. Then there's the sonic reproduction. The three-disc set was not given a sonic revamp, multi-channel mixes taking the place of the standard mono drone. Interestingly enough, the flat, featureless presentation helps highlight the amazing musical skill of many of these performers. Even with the help of separation, equalized treble/bass, or fleshed-out aural ambience, many of these tunes still sound spectacular. It's a credit to these acts understanding of acoustic music that, instead of overplaying their moment, they treat the auditory approach with expertise and restraint. Unfortunately, aside from a nice pamphlet (included with Disc 1) that offers up some testimonials and essays on the show, there are no other added features to be found. Again, a simple documentary would do, giving media and music scholars a chance to discuss the show's impact and import. Leaving this as merely a song showcase is not enough.
While it's easy to dismiss this review as the ranting of a middle-aged misanthrope who pines for the days when music actually mattered and bands could recreate their sound—or at least, their significance—as part of a live performance in front of a crowd of delighted devotees, the fact is that there is something rather majestic about a show like Hootenanny. Granted, it wore its illustrious motives on the end of its rolled-up journeyman sleeves, and it never really examined the breadth or depth of this rising youth movement. Instead, it was a trial in acceptability, a chance to see if the suburbanized U.S. citizenry was ready for a look back—with anger—at a time when men kept slaves, workers were undervalued and exploited, and the people felt the strident hand of its self-righteous leadership all around them. Using the traditions of a nation against itself is one of the easiest forms of dissent. It proves your point without utilizing a stauncher social sledgehammer. Hootenanny, in general, is a hospitable show that offered those outside the Greenwich coffeehouse scene a window into an ever-changing cultural landscape. While the British may have divided and conquered, folk still symbolizes an odd moment in the whole people/power dynamic. Look beyond the basics and you too will see it here, locked away inside each energetic, sincere performance.
Not guilty. A good set of an under-appreciated time in American music. Case closed.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• Insert Pamphlet on the Series
Review content copyright © 2007 Bill Gibron; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.