September 19, 2018
A celebration of the donation of the archives of Folk New England to the UMass Amherst Libraries Special Collections and University Archives. Features a full performance by Jim Rooney and Friends.
Folk New England Chair Tom Curren shares his thoughts:
We want to thank each and every one of you who has kept the mission of Folk New England alive, and to the Special Collections Department of the University of Massachusetts Library, where our collections have found a permanent archival home. We are here tonight to honor the people who have gifted their collections to this archive, and, in so doing, we want to share with you the reasons why we believe in this cause and gain strength and inspiration from it.
Our New England musical traditions stretch back in pre-history from an Abenaki mother singing lullabies to her children, to Yankee fiddlers sawing away at an 1820 contradance, and on to a teenager singing her songs in a campground at the Newport Folk Festival a few weeks ago. But we are here tonight to honor and to celebrate the Folk Revival that began on campuses throughout the region in the late 1950s, centered itself in Boston and Cambridge, and went on to change not only the development of music but also the course of national events. We are gathered here tonight in the heart of New England, on the border between remembrance and history. Some of us tonight can say that they were there “at the creation” around 1958, some of us joined the pilgrimage later on, when the music that would soon change the world was being played among friends in small rooms lit only by candle light. What is memory today is the basis for history tomorrow, and tonight we celebrate the creation of an archive where those who lived in those times and those who are not yet born can always come together in melody and in harmony.
If history is one reason to believe, then surely art is another. Blues, ballads, songs: sea chanties, fiddle tunes, string band breakdowns: this is all beautiful music. When you mix age with youth, tradition with innovation, and expression with creativity, you concoct an alchemy that often defies definition, and yet can move mountains in the power of folk song. When we listen back to the surviving tapes of those times, to Dayle Stanley and Sylvia Mars and Bonnie Dobson, to the Kweskin Band and the Charles River Valley Boys, to Jackie Washington and Tom Rush and Eric Von Schmidt, we hear young hearts beating in time to old rhythms; our spirits quicken, and our hearts rejoice. This is music worth preserving, and well worth hearing for all time.
So we have history and art in our hearts tonight, but there is a third component to this celebration, and that is: magic. There was magic afoot, on this campus, in Harvard Square, up in Orono, out on Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve heard some people suggest that life was simple in the late 1950s. But in 1958, if you were a woman on Beacon Hill, you were probably either carrying a broom or taking dictation. If you were a Negro, the best that you could expect from the dominant forces in society was a grudging acknowledgement that you had become “a credit to your race.” If you sold or even gave away information about birth control here in the Commonwealth, you would go directly to jail, and you would stay there for a long, long time. If you were a child on a playground in Chicopee or Gloucester, you were exposed in your games to radiation from American atom bomb tests being conducted in the open air of Utah and Nevada. And if you were a guy from a blue-collar background who didn’t make the cut onto a college campus, your butt was drafted, your head was shaved, and you were sent off to Germany, or Korea, or maybe even to the minor role of an “advisor” in someplace called Vietnam.
It got worse before it got better, and it didn’t get better by either accident or by design: it got better largely through the magic of folk music. Students began to think that maybe the conventional path was marked by depression and disease, that technology might not be the cure to all human ills, that maybe what was labelled and sold as “progress” was actually a whole lot of shuck and jive. By a process that could be felt but not defined, young people began to be drawn to sing their ways back to simple truths and simple humanity, back to the homespun era in an America that they had never known but that they had been longing for all their young lives. It started in dorm rooms and coffeehouses, it spread to radio shows, festivals, and before long it could be heard from Provincetown to San Francisco and then around the world. Things did not get perfect, but they did get better. We learned some lessons: the movement was much more effective when it was joyful than later on when it became angry, when there was more humility and humor in it than there was ego, and when it was faithful instead of being smug or cynical. For many of us who came of age in New England in the decade prior to 1968, the old frontiers of blues, ballads, songs, and folkways blended with the new frontiers of civil rights, the peace movement, and the journey “back to the land,” and the Folk Revival brought it all home to a place of trust and creativity.
So, the preservation and advancement of that magic is maybe the most compelling reason for us to keep the light of this folk-faith trimmed and burning bright tonight. Who is to say: maybe, someday, the youth of this country could be faced with another period of national bombast and conceit, may be confronted again with the forces of bigotry and greed, may be shucked and jived again in the name of technology and propaganda. Perhaps they can learn from our successes and our mistakes, perhaps they can pick up the tune where we left it off, perhaps they will be able to join in with the voice of the late Fritz Richmond when he hollered into a recording studio microphone the simple and transcendent war-cry of the Folk Revival:
“Hey! I’m havin’ a good time!”
And so, my friends, that’s what we are here to do tonight, and we are blessed to have with us one of the pioneers of this folk valley, none other than our good friend Jim Rooney, and his band.