When We Were Good: The Folk Revival (Revised)



When We Were Good traces the many and varied cultural influences on the folk revival of the sixties: early nineteenth-century blackface minstrelsy; the Jewish entertainment and political cultures of New York in the 1930s; the Almanac singers and the wartime crises of the 1940s; the watershed record album Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music; and finally the cold-war reactionism of the 1950s that drove the folksong movement, just as Pete Seeger and the Weavers were putting "On Top of Old Smokey" and "Goodnight, Irene" on the Hit Parade, into a children's underground of schools, summer camps, and colleges, planting the seeds of the folk revival to come. The book is not so much a history as a study of the cultural process itself, what the author calls the dreamwork of history. Cantwell shows how a body of music once enlisted on behalf of the labor movement antifascism, New Deal recovery efforts, and many other progressive causes of the 1930s was refashioned as an instrument of self-discovery, even as it found new agenda and styles in the peace, civil rights, and beat movements. At Washington Square and the Newport Folk Festival, on college campuses and in concert halls across the country, the folk revival gave voice to the generational tidal wave of postwar youth, going back to the basics and trying to be very, very good. In this capacious analysis of the ideologies, traditions, and personalities that created an extraordinary moment in American popular culture, Cantwell explores the idea of folk at the deepest level. Taking up some of the more obdurate problems in cultural studies - racial identity, art and politics, regional allegiances, class differences - he shows how the folkrevival was a search for authentic democracy, with compelling lessons for our own time.

Product Details

Harvard University Press
Publish Date
April 25, 1997
6.09 X 1.16 X 9.19 inches | 1.35 pounds

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About the Author

Robert S. Cantwell is Adjunct Professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Ethnomimesis: Folklife and the Representation of Culture and the classic Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound.


[Cantwell] rewrites history with music, and vice versa. Diffusing a perfectly sketched generic, white, middle-class, suburban, postwar upbringing across the whole spectrum of American legend and experience, Cantwell pours old wine into a cruet that suddenly gleams with transparency... As he begins to trace the roles played by his characters--those figures dancing on the surface of 'Tom Dooley, ' or hiding in its grooves--he makes the wine new.--Greil Marcus "Artforum "
[Cantwell] effectively traces the theatrical, literary, musical and political origins of that folk revival, from the minstrels of the 19th century to the politically engaged folk-song movement of the Depression. The book springs vividly to life when discussing John Lomax and his son Alan, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and above all, Pete Seeger.--Robert C. Cottrell "San Francisco Chronicle "
When We Were Good is a long-overdue account of an all too frequently ignored period of American popular music, roughly the seven years between the Kingston Trio's 'Tom Dooley' and Bob Dylan's electric debut at the 1965 Newport Folk festival.--Record Collector [UK]
In his rich and suggestive, quirky and lyrical...study of the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 60s, Robert Cantwell...shows that the history of 20th-century folk music has depended on most unlikely associations. He argues persuasively that folk music's ability to move people, even to change their lives, comes from the fact that it has already crossed some of the deepest divides in American culture--race, class and region--and he invites listeners to do the same. The real strength of When We Were Good lies in the energy with which Mr. Cantwell, the author of two previous books on folk music and folk culture, pursues and celebrates this music's roots... Mr. Cantwell's book demonstrates beautifully that the convenient academic categories we use to slice up American history and culture are inadequate to grasp a cultural phenomenon like folk music... This is a rich and rewarding book, driven by evident passion... In this age of proliferating academic specialization and popular pride in one's 'roots, ' Mr. Cantwell shows us that American popular music--and by extension much of our culture--is a hopelessly hybrid creation, descended from accidental couplings, political conflicts and ironies, blacks and whites. No wonder it has a haunting melody.--Warren Goldstein "New York Times Book Review "
Robert Cantwell's amazing book analyzes the cultural forces that culminated in that moment at Newport, when [Bob Dylan and Joan Baez] sang with Peter, Paul and Mary; Pete Seeger; and the SNCC Freedom Singers. But his book goes much deeper into American culture, probing the different ways people have tried to find an authentic American voice, distinct from high culture and uncontaminated by the seemingly irresistible forces of the entertainment industry... If the sixties folk song revival seems a mild, middle-class enthusiasm for the songs of the downtrodden, Cantwell shows it inquiring more deeply into the nature of American democracy itself.--Jon Wiener "The Nation "
The most detailed history of [the American folk music] revival yet undertaken... As Robert Chantwell charts brilliantly in When We Were Good, the process by which folk music (however defined) came to enjoy its brief moment of ascendancy in the late 1950s and early 1960s was more circuitous and complex than most knew or for that matter cared to know.--Geoffrey O'Brien "New York Review of Books "
Cantwell's account of that...era combines the personal perspective of an informed participant with theory-laden explanations... [He] writes with a deep love and passion for his subject, and this book creates an engaging and often poetic picture of a folk revival that very few people know about. It is the movement that took place outside the limelight, growing underground through the McCarthy era, blossoming when the Kingston Trio's version of 'Tom Dooley' his the charts in 1957, and ending--not beginning--when Bob Dylan and Joan Baez appeared like Adam and Eve on the stage of the Newport Folk Festival together in 1963... Cantwell's portraits of early folk heroes are especially memorable... There is a generosity of spirit running through the book, directed toward those who made the music, those who revived it for their own ends, and us, his readers... When We Were Good offers a perspective on the folk revival that could not be more relevant and timely.--Hugh Blumenfeld "Boston Book Review "
[A] detailed and well constructed history of the U.S. folksong revival of the fifties and sixties... Cantwell carefully shows how this folk revival, involving mostly people born in the 1930s and 1940s, began in a state of total commercialization, with the Kingston Trio and other slick pretenders with crew-cuts, and grew increasingly more authentic, and more creative, as the public gained in discrimination.--Douglas Fetherling "Telegraph-Journal [New Brunswick, Canada] "