Buying Back America’s Trust
The synonymity which existed in the mind of the average American between folk-singers and subversives was formed first by the pro-union rallies of the late ‘30s and then solidified by the McCarthy hearings in the ‘50s. However just the causes of the folk-singers were, guilt by association was the measuring stick by which folk-singers in the mid ‘50s were ostracized. The voices of Seeger and others were banned from the stage of public awareness.
The dichotomous nature of folk music has always existed; on one hand functioning as entertainment for the common man, and on the other, attempting to bring about awareness at least, and if at all possible, cause agitation towards change.
When Guthrie and Seeger’s messages became too focused on songs of social concern, America turned its ear away. It took a trio of young, clean-cut, all-American college boys dressed in matching shirts to buy back America’s trust in folk music.
Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds, and Dave Guard met in college in San Francisco in 1957 and began singing and playing in local coffee houses. At the time, the interest in things Caribbean, made popular by Harry Belafonte (“Day-oh”), influenced the trio to take their name from the Jamaican city.
Although their first record in 1958 contained Woody Guthrie’s “Hard Ain’t It Hard,” it was their cover of a North Carolinian ballad about the 1868 hanging of an innocent man, Tom Dula, which brought them national exposure. The song, “Tom Dooley,” was their first and only #1 hit song and propelled them into the limelight on radio and television programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show.
Their appearance at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival was received with mixed reviews by the hardcore folk activists; their squeaky clean look, pop sound, and entertainment based lyrics were in stark contrast with most of the other performers.
During the next five years, The Kingston Trio had 17 songs in the Hot 100 chart, including “M.T.A.” (about a man stuck on the Boston transit system because he didn’t have the nickel to get off); “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” in 1962; and “Greenback Dollar” and “Reverend Mr. Black” in 1963.
Their politically sterilized sound, which was based on innocuous entertainment folk music, opened the doors for other groups like The Highwaymen and The Limelighters. In spite, or perhaps, because of the bland pop image projected by these groups, mainstream America once again trusted folk musicians and their offerings of ballads and novelty songs.
By the time they had disbanded in 1968, The Kingston Trio had recorded over thirty albums which ran the gamut from Dylan (a cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind”) to musical theatre’s Lerner and Loewe (“They Call the Wind Maria” from the musical Paint Your Wagon).
Although their song output was definitely focused on the entertainment side of the folk music spectrum, it played a crucial role in the unfolding of folk music in the middle part of the 20th century. Their songs and performances were an important step in paving the way for the second wave of songwriters who were about to appear with topically oriented songs of social concern.