Early 1960s concerts returned traditional folk musicians to the stage in the 1960s; by Randy Black, Viking Twang host

Written by on November 18, 2014

We have a special set of music coming up on Viking Twang on Tuesday, Nov. 18. I’ll be playing songs from a series of concerts held between 1961 and 1965 in New York City by an organization called the Friends of Old Time Music. These shows were the inspiration of legendary folklorists Ralph Rinzler, John Cohen and Israel Young, and brought such artists as Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, Maybelle Carter, Dock Boggs, and Cannon’s Jug Stompers to new audiences.

The movement to revive the careers of these prewar musicians came soon after the 1952 release of the Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection of old recordings curated by Mount Tabor native Harry Smith. Rinzler, Cohen and other archivists such as Mike Seeger, Alan Lomax and Jean Shepherd began looking for early-century artists who had disappeared from the music scene. This was a time when traditional bluegrass was on the decline and a very homogenized style of folk music, Kingston Trio-style, was becoming popular – what was termed the “folk scare.” The folklorists wanted to find the authentic artists who inspired the newer pop-folk bands.

The concert series started after North Carolina singer and guitar player Elizabeth Cotton performed in New York in December, 1960. John Cohen recalls:

“A week later, Ralph (Rinzler) came over to my house, and he was responding to the concert: how nice it as to have Libba (Cotton), how nice it was to bring in traditional artists from somewhere else, to have us introducing them. He said that was great. And based on that, we then cooked up the idea — and partly he was proposing that we have an organization to do more things like that. I don’t know if the idea of just doing strict traditional concerts was there yet. I think that was the desire—to bring traditional artists to the city so people could hear them. But where were we going to get an audience?”

The first official Friends of Old Time Music show took place in February, 1961 with Kentucky banjo player Roscoe Holcombe as the featured artist, along with Ritchie, Seeger’s New Lost City Ramblers and Rinzler’s Greenbriar Boys. Before FOTM faded out in late 1965, there were 14 well-attended shows featuring artists such as the Stanley Brothers, Clarence Ashley with Doc Watson, Annie Bird, and Mississippi Fred McDowell.

Though the concert series ended, it helped revive the careers of many artists who had not played in public for decades. Dock Boggs, for instance, gave up playing the banjo in 1928 after being a popular recording artist and went to work in the coal mines to support his family. Newer folk artists, such as Doc Watson, became stars because of it.

Most importantly, the concerts piqued interest in the roots of modern bluegrass, country, and folk music, and influenced many of the artists that followed. Peter Siegel, who wrote the liner notes for the FOTM album, put it this way:

“The Friends of Old Time Music concerts, along with related programming efforts such as those of the Chicago and Newport folk festivals, left an indelible imprint on the folk music revival. Bob Dylan, John Sebastian, Maria Muldaur, David Grisman, and many other accomplished performers have reported that they were powerfully impressed by musicians brought to New York by FOTM.”

I found the FOTM four-disc set in the Multnomah County Library (I even returned it!) and am proud to be bringing you a set seven songs on the Tuesday, Nov. 18 episode of Viking Twang.





Show Notes & Show Blogs


Reader's opinions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content