In late 1964 the two most influential forces in American popular music were Bob Dylan and the Beatles. The Beatles, with their electric guitar sound, simple rhythms, pop melodies and closely harmonized vocals, were dominating the American charts and playing to sold out crowds of screaming fans. At the same time, Bob Dylan, due to the many successful covers of his songs, had emerged from the shadows of New York as a profound poet and musical commentator on the sociopolitical environment of mid-’60s America. Following in the footsteps of his idol, Woody Guthrie, Dylan was taking on prejudice, fascism, racial inequality and injustice in American society. For those in the folk revival movement of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, he had become a more profound voice than Guthrie had been in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The student’s voice had exceeded that of the teacher’s.
But 1965 became a significant turning point in the creative career of Dylan. Early in the year his album Bringing It All Home was released, showed a more personal and introspective artist backed up, on half of the songs, by a rock ‘n’ roll band. In June Dylan performed at the Newport Folk Festival, where his electric guitar set, backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, was booed by many of the audience. The single “Like A Rolling Stone” was Dylan’s first commercial hit, going to #2 on the charts. A second 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited, which went to #3 on the album charts, confirmed Dylan’s musical conversion to rock as well as his enigmatic lyric genius.
Although Dylan was certainly the most controversial musician to convert from folk to rock, the folk-rock movement was built around several other individuals and interconnected bands.
The basic concept behind the folk-rock sound of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was to create a lyric that was simultaneously poetic and appealing to the ear while topically relevant and socially aware. Combine this with:
- well crafted, often metaphor-filled, lyric with
- hints of pseudo-folk instruments (12-string electric or acoustic guitar or tambourine),
- a basic rock ‘n’ roll rhythm combo (electric rhythm and bass guitars and drums),
- a clear, articulate earnest solo voice on the melody with
- additional vocal harmony above and, occasionally, below it and
- fit it into a 2 to 3 minute format and the typical folk-rock song of the era is created.
The Byrds – “Mr. Tambourine Man”, 1965
Most historians point to the Byrd’s 1965 rendition of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” as the beginning of this style. Jim (who later changed his name to Roger) McGuinn, one of the founding members of the Byrds, was given the song in late 1964 by Dylan before the songwriter had recorded it. Both Dylan and the Byrds (with the composer’s blessing) released separate versions of the song the next year. In contrast with Dylan’s acoustic-electric 5 and ½ minute version, containing no vocal harmonies and ten verses, the Byrds’ version was significantly slower, used 12-string electric to provide the musical “hook” as well as the basic rock combo, occasionally added vocal harmony on verses with full vocal harmonies on choruses, used only four of the ten verses and finished in 2 and ½ minutes. In style, spirit and sound it was the first amalgamation of those previously divergent musical philosophies, folk and rock. It was both lyrically relevant and commercially marketable.
The five members of the band that eventually became the Byrds were formed in L.A. first as a folk trio (the Jetset), then a quartet and finally a five-piece band (electric lead, rhythm, bass guitars, drums and tambourine) named (in a nod to the misspelled Beatles) the Byrds. At first they were billed as “L.A.’s answer to London,” but their choice of song material gravitated away from the bland commercialism of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” toward more substantial lyrics. Folk icon Pete Seeger gave them their last commercial hit song “Turn, Turn, Turn” as setting from a Bible passage that they took to #1 at the end of 1965.
Their 1966 song “Eight Miles High” is often called the first song of the psychedelic era, because it supposedly refers to an acid trip. Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, who co-penned the lyrics, claimed it was a retelling of their 1965 cross-Atlantic trip to tour England. While there, they met the Beatles and supposedly replaced the working title “Six Miles High” with “Eight” after the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week” lyric.
Whether the origin of the song is transatlantic or psychedelic, it was banned by the radio censors and signified the beginning of the end of the group. After many studio and onstage arguments and physical fights, various band members left the group to head in other directions with other bands. Far from being the demise of a style, it actually proliferated the genre as it mixed with other talents.
In addition to spawning the folk-rock movement in 1965 and (allegedly) kick starting the psychedelic movement with “Eight Miles High” in 1966, a McGuinn led revised version of the Byrds, which included singer/songwriter/guitarist Gram Parsons created an inaugural album of the country-rock movement in 1968, Sweethearts of the Rodeo.
On the east coast, a New York folk-jug band called the Mugwumps broke apart to form two other successful sounds of the good-time folk-rock-pop movement: the Loving Spoonful and the Mamas and the Papas. Both groups saw chart success in ’66 and ’67 with songs like “Do You Believe in Magic” (LS), “Summer in the City” (LS), “California Dreamin’” (MP), “Monday, Monday” (MP) and “Dedicated to the One I Love” (MP).
Simon and Garfunkel began as a high school folk duo from New Jersey, but their strictly folk acoustic debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., was filled with strictly traditional folk songs, Dylan tunes and original Simon songs. While Simon was touring Europe as a solo act, producer Tom Wilson (also the producer for Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home album), went into the studio, pulled one song from the collection, brought in electric guitars, bass, drums to overdub the previous acoustic mix and released it to the radio stations. Before either Simon or Garfunkel had heard it, the song became a folk-rock hit. During the next few years the duo would follow the same folk-rock pattern before breaking up and going their separate ways.
Simon & Garfunkel, “The Boxer” – Concert in Central Park, 1981
The final defining sound of the late ‘60s folk-rock movement was to be formed by three singer/songwriters each dissatisfied with their existing musical group. It was at a party at Mama Cass’s home (Cass was lead singer of The Mamas and The Papas) that David Crosby (from the Byrds) and Stephen Stills (from Buffalo Springfield) met Graham Nash (from the Hollies). Creative vocal three-part harmonies, 12 string and acoustic guitars and rhythm section backup dominated their debut album in early 1969, eponymously titled “Crosby, Stills and Nash”. In the summer of the same year, a fourth singer/songwriter, Canadian Neil Young (also from Buffalo Springfield) also joined the group, just in time for their second live performance – at Woodstock.
Crosby, Stills & Nash – “Longtime Comin'” DVD – 2004
CSN&Y disbanded after only their second album Déjà vu, to pursue solo careers. Their history of moderate success as solo acts was occasionally punctuated by reunion projects, one of the most recent in the days following the tragedy of 9-11, an appearance by CSN on the “David Letterman Show” singing “America, the Beautiful”.
While the heart of the folk-rock movement lasted barely five years, from 1966 to 1971, it played an important role in the transition from the topically relevant lyrics of the early ‘60s folk era to the studio enhanced commercially focused rock era of the early ‘70s.