The Other Folk Singers, Part One

The Other Folk Singers, Part One

Written by Jeff Weiner

I belong to a listening group that gets together to socialize and listen to music. We meet in each of our homes on a rotating basis. The host provides the playlist, wine, and food. When it is my turn, I usually make a playlist with a specific theme. In preparation for one of these sessions, I decided on folk singers as my theme. I created a much-too-long list of every folk singer or group whom I ever enjoyed, and was faced with the dilemma of selecting which ones to play for the group. I decided on familiarity as my main criterion and chose artists associated with the folk music revival of the 1960s: Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Leonard Cohen, the Kingston Trio, et al.

When I was done, I found that there were 21 unincluded folk singers or groups, mostly artists from an earlier time. This led to my constructing a second playlist for my own enjoyment, which can be viewed as a “B-side” to my first one. I find that I prefer this second playlist and find myself playing it much more frequently than the first.

This is the first of a series of three articles discussing “the other folk singers” on that second playlist.


Woody Guthrie


Woody Guthrie. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress/public domain.


Woodrow Wilson (Woody) Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, a small agricultural community that boomed when oil was discovered and then became very depressed when the boom ended. His father was a cowboy and local politician who named him after President Wilson. At the age of 19, Woody Guthrie moved to Texas, and soon got married and had three children. As the Great Depression of the 1930s worsened, he left his family and began hitchhiking to California to find work. There he began writing songs in earnest and performing on radio. Many of his songs related to the economic struggles of those times.

Guthrie moved his family to New York City in 1940 and soon began performing with Pete Seeger and others as the Almanac Singers. Here he wrote his most famous song, “This Land is Your Land.” The politics of the Almanac Singers became more leftist and the group became darlings of liberal intellectuals, including communists. In 1943, his autobiography, Bound for Glory (which was part truth, part fiction) was completed and published. Shortly thereafter, Guthrie joined the Merchant Marine, in which he served until the end of World War II. His marriage had ended in divorce, and he subsequently met and married a dancer with whom he had four children, including Arlo. (Ironically, Arlo Guthrie was chosen for my first folk music playlist.)

After the war, the Guthries lived in the Coney Island section of New York City. This was the most productive time of a career in which he wrote 3,000 songs, most of which were never recorded. By the late 1940s, his health was deteriorating and his behavior was becoming somewhat erratic. It took some time to come to a correct diagnosis, Huntington’s disease, an inherited affliction that causes the breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. For fear of his erratic behavior affecting their children, his wife encouraged him to return to California without her and they subsequently divorced.

In California, Guthrie lived with other musicians and actors who had been blacklisted as communists by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He met and married his third wife and they had one child. The Guthries found their way back to New York, but this marriage also ended in divorce. His health continued to decline and he was ultimately confined to psychiatric centers from 1954 until his death in 1967. His second wife looked after him during those final years. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, and many other young folk singers would regularly visit him as a tribute to his greatness and legacy.


Dave Van Ronk


Dave Van Ronk. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Jack Mancini.


Dave Van Ronk was born in Brooklyn, New York and became a fixture in New York’s Greenwich Village during the folk music revival of the 1960s. He played at many Greenwich Village bars and cafes and developed the title “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” MacDougal St. being a key thoroughfare in that neighborhood. I saw him perform several times at the historic Cafe Au Go Go and he became one of my favorite folk music artists.

Van Ronk was a large man with a stereotypical beatnik goatee and oodles of character. He was a master at interacting with his audience and never tried to hide his ultra-liberal politics, which were reflected in some of his songs. I recall bringing a fraternity brother to the Cafe to see him perform and my friend became enamored by one of Van Ronk’s anti-Vietnam war songs, “Romping Through the Swamp.” Whenever there was a fraternity party, my friend would imbibe a bit and go stomping around the fraternity house doing his own rendition of “Romping Through the Swamp.”

While Van Ronk wrote some original songs, he mostly did covers of songs written by others. My favorites were “Cocaine Blues” and “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” The latter, ostensibly sung by the condemned man, contains one of my favorite lines in all of music: “I wouldn’t mind the hanging but the layin’ in the grave so long.” He later did a very moving rendition of “He Was a Friend of Mine” at a Phil Ochs memorial concert after Ochs’ passing. Van Ronk died in 2002 due to complications from colon cancer surgery.


The Limeliters


The Limeliters. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Jack de Nijs for Anefo.


The Limeliters consisted of three artists, Lou Gottlieb on bass, Alex Hassilev on banjo, and Glenn Yarbrough on guitar. They all sang, and had a knack for blending their voices (bass, baritone, and tenor respectively) without sacrificing their individual qualities. Hassilev and Yarbrough had been performing as a duo when they met Gottlieb, who had been working as an arranger for the Kingston Trio and also performing as a standup comic. Accordingly, a Limeliters performance always included a good dose of humor.

Early on, the group went to San Francisco to perform at the iconic Hungry I in the epicenter of the West Coast folk music and comedy scene. At that point the group was simply identifying themselves as Gottlieb, Hassilev, and Yarbrough, but the owner of the Hungry I refused to put that on the marquee, insisting on something shorter. Hassilev and Yarbrough had purchased a club called the Limelite Lodge in Aspen, Colorado the previous year, and that is the origin of the Limeliters name.

The Limeliters were an instant success and had multiple offers from prominent record labels. They first signed with Electra and shortly thereafter with RCA. While they never had a hit single, their albums sold very well. Their peak period was 1961 to 1963, when they were performing over 300 concerts a year. They also had success doing commercials, most notably for Coca-Cola, which had the Limeliters record the “Things Go Better With Coke” jingle as the centerpiece of an extensive advertising campaign.

Yarbrough left the group in 1963 and had a degree of success as a solo artist, his biggest hit being “Baby the Rain Must Fall.” The original Limeliters broke up, reformed to do a reunion tour in 1973, and stayed together again until 1981. Since then, the group has incorporated various personnel and the Limeliters still exist, albeit with none of the original members. Hassilev was the last one of them to leave, retiring in 2006.


Mimi and Richard Fariña

The Best of Mimi and 
Richard Fariña, album cover.


Richard Fariña was born in Brooklyn, NY and graduated from my alma mater, Brooklyn Technical High School. He attended Cornell University but dropped out shortly before graduating. Richard’s mother was Irish and his father Cuban, and he took time off from his studies to go to Ireland where he reputedly joined the Irish Republican Army. It is also thought that he may have spent some time in Cuba to support the revolution in that country.

Shortly after leaving college, Richard took a job working in advertising in New York City and he met and married folk singer Carolyn Hester. After leaving his job to become Hester’s agent, he also became an accomplished writer of poetry and short stories, some of which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly magazine. Hester taught Fariña to play the Appalachian dulcimer which became his primary instrument. On occasion, they would perform together. A very young Bob Dylan played harmonica on some of Hester’s recordings and he and Richard became very close friends. Richard also developed a friendship with Judy Collins and many other folk musicians.

While traveling in Europe, Richard met Mimi Baez, the 17-year-old younger sister of Joan Baez. This led to his divorce with Hester and subsequent marriage to Mimi. Mimi and Richard Fariña debuted as a duo at the Big Sur Folk Festival in 1964. Together they produced two albums. Concurrent with his songwriting and poetry, Richard wrote a novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, in 1966. A few hours after the launch party for his novel, Richard died in a motorcycle accident. That day was also Mimi’s 21st birthday.

After Richard’s death, Mimi moved to San Francisco and was active as a singer, songwriter, actress, model, and political activist. In 1974, she formed Bread and Roses, a non-profit organization whose mission was to bring free music and other entertainment to people in institutional settings such as hospitals, nursing homes, detention facilities, and homeless shelters. While she continued to perform sporadically, Mimi dedicated most of her time to running Bread and Roses until her death from cancer in 2001 at age 56. After 50 years, Bread and Roses is still alive and well.


Josh White


Josh White. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress/public domain.


Josh White was born in 1914 and while still a young child was singing in church. At the age of eight, he became a servant of sorts to a blind street musician in his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. He was charged with leading the musician around town, dancing, singing, playing the tambourine, and collecting coins offered by appreciative onlookers. He learned how to play guitar from the various blind musicians whom he got to know, and became an accomplished musician. At the age of 14, White performed as a sideman at a recording session in Chicago. Record executives recognized his talent and he continued to record there for several more years.

After returning to South Carolina, a New York talent scout convinced White to move to New York City and record both Christian music and blues, in some cases as a soloist. He began to sing protest songs and ultimately formed his own band. He was then cast in the musical John Henry, which had a brief showing on Broadway followed by out-of-town venues. This led to his being discovered by talent scout John Hammond, a contract with Columbia, and performances at a Greenwich Village club where he was the first black person to sing songs about racial equality to white audiences. He also became a performer on some major radio broadcasts.

When Franklin Roosevelt was elected to his third term, he enlisted White to perform at a concert associated with the inauguration. Eleanor Roosevelt became a big fan and engaged him to perform on other occasions both before and after the death of Franklin. The relationship was so deep that the Roosevelts were named godparents to Josh White Jr. White also acted in several more Broadway shows. In 1955, he began recording for Elektra, which led to numerous bookings at colleges and concert halls. President Kennedy was a big Josh White fan and sponsored one of his performances. In the mid 1960s, he became a key player in the folk music revival and I am thrilled that I got to see him perform at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village. He also performed at President Johnson’s inauguration. Josh White died from heart failure shortly thereafter. A US postage stamp was issued in 1998 commemorating his legacy.



The Weavers


The Weavers on Tour, album cover.


In 1948, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays teamed up with Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman to form The Weavers. Seeger and Hays had earlier been members of The Almanac Singers, a group that included Woody Guthrie. They all sang, with Seeger and Hellerman usually accompanying on banjo and guitar, respectively. Performing primarily in New York’s Greenwich Village and having been signed by Decca, they were embraced by the public and sold over four million records. Their recording of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” sold over one million copies and was the first folk song to reach number one on the popular music charts.

The Weavers wrote many songs that have become folk music standards. Examples are “If I Had a Hammer” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” They also brought traditional folk songs such as “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Rock Island Line,” and their adaptation of “Wimoweh” to the forefront of the American public. All was well until the McCarthy era, when Seeger and Hays were accused of being members of the Communist Party and were forced to appear in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Both refused to answer questions, and none of the Weavers were allowed to appear on television or radio during that period. Decca canceled their contract and deleted all Weavers recordings from their catalog. There were anti-Weaver protests at many of their performances, and they disbanded in 1952 after only four years.

The Weavers reunited with a sold-out performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1955. This led to a series of recording sessions with Vanguard. However, Seeger became dissatisfied with the band's direction and left the group in 1958 to pursue a solo career. Several other artists had stints with the Weavers until the group finally disbanded in 1964. There were a couple of reunion concerts in 1980.





Odetta. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Jack de Nijs for Anefo/Anefo.


While taking piano lessons, Odetta Holmes’ teacher noticed her singing talent and encouraged her to take voice lessons. At the age of 13, Odetta began operatic training that was paid for by the owner of a theater where puppet shows and music revues were performed. She made her professional debut as an ensemble member at that theater where she performed for four years. Odetta then studied classical music at Los Angeles City College and, at the age of 19, joined a touring company for the musical Finian’s Rainbow.

At this point in her career, Odetta found herself associating with other professional singers and her interests changed to gospel, blues, and then folk music. Her reputation grew and she began performing in clubs in San Francisco and New York. This led to a move to New York City where she developed important friendships with Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte. Her debut solo album was recorded in 1956. Bob Dylan has been quoted as attributing his interest in folk music to having heard her.

As her reputation grew, Odetta regularly performed at the Newport Folk Festival and began appearing on television and in movies. Martin Luther King called her “The Queen of American Folk Music” and she became closely associated with the civil rights movement via her songs and guest appearances. In 1963, she performed at King’s historic March on Washington. As interest in folk music waned, so did Odetta’s career. But she continued to perform and, in 1999, was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton. A few years later, she received the Living Legend Award from the Library of Congress. She had hoped to perform at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009 but died a month before that event took place.


As stated earlier, this is the first of a series of three articles on “the other folk singers.” The next installment will discuss Lead Belly, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the Browns, Burl Ives, Fred Neil, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and Harry Belafonte.


Header image: Odetta, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Jack de Nijs for Anefo/Anefo.

Back to Copper home page

1 of 2