January 24, 2007
"My God, that’s moose turd pie! Good, though!"
There was a time and what a time it was. You couldn’t get from hither to yon without tripping over a fiddler, a flatpicker or a folksinger. Stringed instruments were plucked at the drop of a headband. Attitude reigned. Times were gonna change! Through the music of the past, forces had been joined to right wrongs and rewrite history.
The late ’50s early ’60s folk music revival zoomed along steel rails like a runaway locomotive in an attempt to end war and social injustice of any stripe. Well, zero out of two ain’t bad. Field recordings of Delta blues and Appalachian string bands fueled this revival as folklorists with recording devices inundated backwoods America.
Woodie Guthrie joined with "Cisco and Sonny and Leadbelly, too," as Dylan would later write. Aging troubadours recounting the strife of the labor movement and the Great Depression were now icons of a new radicalism that fused music and politics around the burgeoning civil rights movement and that old Vietnam War.
Where a taunt scrawled across Guthrie’s guitar once proclaimed "this machine kills fascists," broadsides now shouted "We shall overcome" and "Make love, not war!" Belief in a better world arrived without portfolio. Where The Weavers once filled the airwaves with Leadbelly’s "Goodnight Irene," Peter, Paul, and Mary shot to number one on the charts with Dylan’s anthem "Blowin’ in the Wind."
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In the main, it involved the acquisition by young wannabe folksters of guitars, banjos, fiddles, mandolins, doghouse basses and the occasional Dobro. Then, along with a battered old turntable and an armload of folk-on-vinyl, they would adjourn to a friend’s garage or basement for a bit of what the jazz cats used to call "woodshedding." They would learn somewhat complex chord changes and become somewhat full of themselves.
Such musical antics transpired quite often back then in one of the many small burgs that make up the patchwork of LA. Rabbi’s Garage became ground zero and in a very real sense it evolved into an institution of higher learning. Middle-of-the-night recitals featured equal-opportunity assaults upon both rhythm and melody.
Generally, you’d have a smattering of dulcimers, a washtub bass, and a mess of C. F. Martin dreadnaughts — along with the occasional Guild or Washburn or Gibson sunburst. Phonograph needles would be picked up and replaced repeatedly upon vinyl grooves featuring fingerpickin’ by Merle Travis, or Mother Maybelle Carter, or Mississippi John Hurt.
Listening to Doc Watson flat-pick fiddle tunes he had transposed for the guitar had a spiritual connection that stuck to your ribs. The same went for the subtle vocal harmonies of Ian and Sylvia and the raucous renditions of the Greenbriar Boys.
Nearby were folk clubs of note where one could actually partake of virtuosity in the flesh. The mere act of closing one’s eyes when in the friendly confines of either the Golden Bear or the Ash Grove turned it into a cathedral — even when Lightnin’ Hopkins was threatening to slice up the blues buff sitting behind you.
And the Utah scene probably evolved in similar fashion. With one exception it never stopped. Its bucket never had a hole in it. Salt Lake City folk revivalists were a serious bunch and to this day the remnants of that traditional music fabric they stitched across time continues to resonate and keep the cold at bay.
Not that Utah has a history of welcoming radicals of poetic disposition. There was tough sleddin’ along the road to be sure, what with "Wobbly" Joe Hill’s 1915 execution by firing squad in what is now Sugar House Park. Prior to his highly questionable murder conviction, the labor radical had worked a spell in Park City as a tram laborer for the Silver King mine.
Next came Ammon Hennesey. A Catholic anarchist and pacifist draft-dodger over two world wars, Hennesey was a one-man revolution for a life of non-violence and absolute voluntary poverty. Building sanctuaries for denizens of skid row became his life’s work and his passion.
At the "Joe Hill House," which operated throughout most of the ’60s, one wasn’t forced to listen to sermons before being allowed helpings of food, blankets and compassion along with occasional intellectual discourse. It also became natural habitat for young folk musicians in search of a bit of history and traditional songs for the repertoire.
Bruce Phillips had arrived in the late ’40s and, sometime after returning from a military hitch in Korea, changed his name to U. Utah Phillips in homage to T. Texas Tyler, a famous singer of the time. Falling under Hennesey’s spell, Phillips worked at the Joe Hill House dispensing care and politics while evolving a highly unique storytelling style set to guitar and voice.
Rosalie Sorrels also cut a wide swath through the local scene before going on to perform at the Newport Folk Festival and becoming a regional and national act. Also around this time, a small group of students in Salt Lake City organized the East High School Folk Music Club.
One of the organizers, Hal Cannon, would go on to form the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nev., and give birth to the worldwide phenomenon that is "cowboy poetry." Additional local folk music alliances appeared under the sub-genre banners of bluegrass, old-timey, and Celtic.
Out of groups like the Salt City Bluegrass Boys, the Stormy Mountain Boys, Polly and the Valley Boys, which featured Utah Phillips and Uncle Lumpy, would emerge the acclaimed Deseret String Band, The Bunkhouse Orchestra, Tenpenny and Yankee Clipper, among others. One of the coolest offshoots is a hobby "rock" band known as the Roosters.
And luckily for us, we can revisit the heady times of the ’60s folk music revival tonight at Highland High School down in Salt Lake. The pickers and singers that got the scene rolling back in the day will be having a reunion concert where they will perform with their original groups and with each other.
U. Utah Phillips and Rosalie Sorrels will headline and Hal Cannon and the rest of Utah’s old folkie bunch will be there. What with the collective spirits of Clarence Ashley, Bill Monroe, Gid Tanner, Ammon Hennesey, and Joe Hill, there should be art and fellowship aplenty. My God, that’s a hootenanny! Good, though.