Box set takes snapshot of era when folk music went urban

Early in 1970, widely read Life magazine ran a photo of a guitar-strumming young woman accompanied by a soft-drink slogan: "Real life calls for real taste."

The message was clear, as critic Barry Alfonso observes in his notes to Rhino Records's new "Washington Square Memoirs: The Great Urban Folk Boom 1950-1970," a three-CD collection of American folk music. "The folk musician had become a symbol for the search for the authentic," he writes, "which naturally translated into the search for a 'real' soft drink. If nothing else, America could decide on that as a worthwhile goal."

To be sure, 1970 was a complicated year - as was the whole '60s era, when the civil-rights movement, the antiwar crusade, the sexual revolution, and the first stirrings of the modern feminist movement touched off perplexing mixtures of excitement, bewilderment, and uneasiness. No wonder Americans were uncertain whether they wanted to search for their "authentic" roots via folk music, or settle back with a mass-produced soft drink and guzzle their troubles away.

Folk music was there at the beginning - and before the beginning - of this culturally complex period. What interests the producers of "Washington Square Memoirs" is not the full spectrum of American folk music, but the revival of interest in folk styles among young people about half a decade after World War II ended. Rich with military victory and a great economic boom, Americans wanted to take a fresh look at their country's social and cultural heritage.

The result was approximately 20 years of frequently exhilarating, sometimes exasperating music. It was exhilarating when genuinely enthusiastic youngsters gave timeless tunes and lyrics a new urgency born of their own excitement. It was exasperating when applause-hungry professionals twisted time-tested songs to fit bland new formulas that were as shamelessly commercial as those of the increasingly sales-oriented rock 'n' roll that grew up alongside it.

"Washington Square Memoirs," named after the Greenwich Village park in New York city that helped spawn urban hootenannies, captures its variety. Fittingly, the first cut is "Hard Travelin' " by Woody Guthrie, the archetypal travelin' singer who inspired Bob Dylan to start his career. Other artists on the first CD include Big Bill Broonzy and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, also major influences on Dylan and his disciples. Pete Seeger, the New Lost City Ramblers, and Cisco Houston make appearances as well - and flat-out commercialism starts to rear its head with a Kingston Trio tune.

Choosing a single Dylan selection must have been a daunting chore, but "Boots of Spanish Leather" is a reasonably good solution, catching this mercurial artist just before he moved from revolutionizing folk music to revolutionizing the rock scene. Others on the second disc range from unreconstructed folkies like Dave Van Ronk and Eric Von Schmidt to more marketable stars like Jesse Colin Young and the Rooftop Singers, plus the indispensable Joan Baez and the wildly underrated Holy Modal Rounders.

It's on the third CD that pretty voices and fleetly picking fingers start decisively outpacing the passion and primitivism of earlier selections. Phil Ochs and John Hammond capitalized on other people's ideas; Gordon Lightfoot and Richie Havens were aspiring popstars; and John Denver and the Limeliters were many steps removed from the old-time folk tradition.

The choices made for "Washington Square Memoirs" are debatable, but the collection as a whole is well worth hearing, especially by young listeners who might discover half-remembered artists like Judy Henske and Jim Kweskin & The Jug Band for the first time. As the widely admired Weavers sing in their contribution to the set, "Wasn't that a time"!

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