In the most recent Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, the protagonist — a struggling Greenwich Village folksinger in 1961 — is based, very loosely, on Dave Van Ronk, a little-known (outside folk music circles) but influential folk-singer who helped define the folk music revival of the late fifties, and mentored the young Bob Dylan and others during the early 1960s when what Van Ronk called the “great folk scare” took off. To understand the atmosphere of that music scene, the Coens relied on Van Ronk’s memoir (coauthored with Elijah Wald), The Mayor of McDougall Street. Van Ronk recounts his serious involvement with various left-wing factions of the period.
Little of Inside Llewyn Davis refers to the political atmosphere that permeated the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s. The film is filled with despair and loneliness, but the folk music world of that period was filled with hope and engagement. Van Ronk’s autobiography is packed with politics. Unlike other folk artists of the period, Van Ronk did not usually perform overtly political songs. But he was always was ready to perform at rallies and events on behalf of the civil rights, anti-nuclear and anti-war movements fermenting at that time.
The 1960s folk music scene was a chapter in a long story, one that began decades earlier and that continues today as a new generation of singers and songwriters connect — directly and indirectly — to the burgeoning progressive movements that are rippling across the country.
In the early 1900s, the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) used songs effectively during strikes, picket lines and rallies to spread their message of “one big union.” The IWW’sLittle Red Song Book is filled with singable songs (often by putting new words to well-known religious hymns) like “Solidarity Forever,” “There is Power in the Union,” and “The Preacher and the Slave,” many of them written by Joe Hill and Ralph Chaplin. Woody Guthrie continued this tradition, putting new lyrics to traditional tunes to create a vast body of socially conscious song commentary. In 1940, along with Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Bess Lomax Hawes and others, Guthrie formed the Almanac Singers. The Almanacs popularized labor songs like “Which Side Are You On?” and wrote some new ones, like “Union Maid.”
Seeger became the most influential folk artist of the 20th century. The songs he wrote, including the anti-war tunes “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and those he has popularized, including “This Land Is Your Land,” “Guantanamera,” “Wimoweh,” and “We Shall Overcome,” have become global anthems for people fighting for freedom.
No political crusade integrated music and activism as fully as the civil rights movement. The movement drew on slave songs and spirituals like “Oh Freedom,” “Keep Your Hand on the Plow” and “I Shall Not Be Moved” to raise hopes and lift morale during periods of intense struggle. “We Shall Overcome” began as a church hymn, “I Will Overcome,” used by black tobacco workers during a strike. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists turned the song into the movement’s anthem as their embarked on sit-ins and freedom rides. SNCC’s own music group, Freedom Singers, included Bernice Johnson Reagon, who later founded the a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.
The freedom song movement was echoed in the performances of many African American and white artists as the civil rights struggle continued. A number of black rhythm-and-blues and soul performers who emerged from the world of gospel music spread the movement gospel to vast audiences, among them Sam Cooke (“A Change Is Gonna Come,” 1964), Aretha Franklin (“Respect,” 1967), James Brown (“Say It Loud — I’m Black and Proud,” 1968) and Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On,” 1971). Meanwhile, jazz artists like Max Roach, Art Blakey and Nina Simone created musical masterpieces with political themes that became permanent cultural legacies.
In the early sixties, a new generation of folk troubadours emerged, determined to link their music and the struggles for social justice. In the streets, folk clubs and campuses of major cities, singer-songwriters wrote “topical” songs about specific events, songs about the mood of alienation and anger in the country, and new protest anthems. Some performed at fundraisers and political rallies. Dylan, Joan Baez, Odetta and Peter Paul and Mary performed at the 1963 March on Washington, serving as a cultural bridge between the Southern movement and the emerging student movement on northern campuses.
Dylan was unwilling to cast himself in the role of political minstrel, but some of his generation of folk music-oriented singer-songwriters, particularly Phil Ochs, Buffy Sainte Marie, Tom Paxton, Len Chandler and Joan Baez, more consistently maintained movement commitment.
Baez joined Martin Luther King on his 1965 march in Alabama, from Selma to Montgomery. She later joined Cesar Chavez during his twenty-four-day fast to draw attention to the farmworkers’ union struggle, and she participated in a Christmas vigil outside San Quentin State Prison, California, to oppose capital punishment. In 1964, as the campus New Left was burgeoning, she sang at a Free Speech Movement rally in Sproul Plaza, leading hundreds of students to occupy the administration building at the University of California, Berkeley.
As the war in Vietnam escalated, Baez encouraged young men to resist the draft. In 1967 she was twice arrested for blocking military induction centers. She boldly performed the classic labor song, “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” at the 1969 Woodstock festival, making the song and the Joe Hill legend available to young people decades after Hill’s 1915 execution and after the song’s creation by Earl Robinson in 1936. During the 1980s Baez spoke out against South Africa’s apartheid system and featured Peter Gabriel’s song about antiapartheid activist Steven Biko at her concerts. In 1987 she traveled to Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to sing peace songs with Jews and Arabs. She has devoted much of her performance career as a bridge between American audiences and freedom struggles in many parts of the world.
The second wave of feminism and the emerging environmental movements inspired performers, too. Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” (1964) and Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” (1971) were commercial pop hits with feminist themes, while a wave of “womyn’s music” took root, led by Holly Near, Meg Christian and others, popularized via concerts, festivals and records. An outstanding catalog of feminist and gay rights music spanning decades can be accessed at Lady Slipper Music.