Ronald D. Cohen, editor,
Wasn't That a Time!
Firsthand Accounts of
the Folk Music Revival

(Scarecrow Press, 1995)

It's vital that we write and preserve history. Be it the story of great events or small, there will likely be someone, someday, asking questions about what happened, way back when. But, unfortunately, importance doesn't always guarantee an interesting read. Such is the case with Wasn't That a Time! Firsthand Accounts of the Folk Music Revival.

The book collects 16 essays, many of which were presented as lectures at the 1991 Richard Reuss Memorial Folk Music Conference in Bloomington, Ind. The conference brought together musicians, folklorists, editors and folk music "activists" from the 1950s and '60s folk revival. Their goal was to share reminiscences, or as Cohen writes in his introduction, "first-hand memories little tinged by theoretical or analytical insights." It's an experiential history, in other words, and not a third-person summation of dates and places. That should make it a lively read but, well, most of these guys are musicians, researchers, perhaps even visionaries, but they're not storytellers, they're not writers, and it shows.

Even some the men who piloted the era's fledgling folk magazines wrote dry essays on the subject, devoid of emotion or real character. Where I looked for colorful anecdotes from a wild and woolly time of musical growth, I found mostly textbook passages on transplanted rural traditions, musical migrations and political climates. There are brief, tantalizing remarks about the birth of the sing-along concert, the unity of folk music and the back-to-nature movement, politically motivated blacklists and long gig tours in hot and crowded vans ... but the personal reminiscences which would have brought those days to life are sadly lacking.

There are some exceptions. Ed Kahn, for instance, wrote on the early days of folklorists -- those people armed with pencils and paper and, later, recorders, diligently finding and preserving folks' roots -- in a pleasant narrative style which, while no page-turner, is still readable. Neil Rosenberg does a similar job on his youthful efforts to study and promote folklore, and Dave Samuelson spins a nice tale about the breakdown between commercial folk and true roots music. Jon Pankake demonstrates wit and a flair for writing when he describes the birth of a fanzine and the value of a mimeograph machine. Barry Hansen's chapter is interesting largely because it gives some insight into the man who later became the notorious Doctor Demento.

It doesn't help that, as Cohen notes, most of the essays were "improvised from brief notes and detailed memories." These were lectures, written to be heard, not read, and thus they're presented in a rambling style which somehow fails to capture much personality. Cohen claims to have retained the authors' individual voices and inflections, but that doesn't really shine through the way I'd hoped.

Another strike against this book is Cohen's own admission that these essays are all based on recollections and are not necessarily factual. A book loses some impact as a historical resource when it casts doubt on its own material within the first few pages. It's also of note that many of these essays were written, not so much by the great movers and shakers of the day, but by those who rubbed elbows with them.

Throughout the text, I caught glimmers of potential, hints of what this book could have been. Someone would mention a moment from back in the days when ... and I'd sit up eager to hear all the juicy details. But then he'd go back to reciting names, dates and places. It's as if Wasn't That a Time! can't decide if it wants to be a history or a scrapbook. The scrapbook would have been more fun. John Cohen II comes closest to that, perhaps, with three pages of "memorable events" from New York. There are quick glimpses of where this book could have gone when he tells us how Mary Travers, of Peter, Paul & Mary fame, was ordered to stay out of the Florida sun so she could appear as a pale, sophisticated blonde, or why Izzy Young coined the term "folknik," or when crowds of old-time musicians packed into Allan Block's sandal shop for day-time jams. Damn it, I wanted more of that sort of thing.

Let's be honest here. The people represented in these essays were there when the whole revival movement was getting underway. They grunted and sweated and, without them, the music might not be where it is today. I'm sure these guys would be great to share a pitcher with in some dark pub, hearing firsthand some of their stories. It was probably even an interesting series of lectures back in 1991, when the words carried the personality of the people talking. But this book ... frankly, it's perilously close to boring. While it may be an invaluable scholarly resource for someone researching particulars of the folk movement, it can make for dull recreational reading.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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