Newport Folk Festival Hosts Composer of the “The American Folk-Song Mass”

As the folk tradition started to die out, American folk started to take flight when John and Alan Lomax recorded and collected music of the rural regions of the United State, particularly in penitentiaries. In the 1940s, artists around the country decided to takes these recorded folk songs and make their own recordings. A single vocal accompanied by a guitar became the standard folk song, and people decided to write their own songs in the “folk” style.1

Along with this surge of new folk composers came Father Ian Mitchell, “the guitar-toting Episcopal priest…, and his wife, folk-singing star Caroline.”2 Father Ian Mitchell composed The American Folk-Song Mass, consisting of several liturgical and some original text set to the twang of the guitar. The Chicago Defender stated that “Father Mitchel composed [The American Folk-Song Mass] because he got tired of ‘cloying, cornball, 19th Century hymns.’”3 Later, Father Mitchell released Catholic version of his folk-song mass, incorporating the texts of the Roman Catholic Liturgy. According to the liner of the Catholic version of the mass, Father Mitchell was later commissioned to compose the Funeral Folk Mass.

According to the Chicago Defender, Father Ian Mitchell and his wife Caroline signed on to the Newport Folk Festival, best known for hosting renowned folk singers such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell, to perform songs from their newly released album Songs of Protest and Love. However, I hardly consider Father Mitchell’s music to actually be “folk.” Father Ian Mitchell was “a city-dweller who spent three years in the wastelands of Utah,” seemingly making him more apt to folk styles.4 All he did was take liturgical text and sing them with a different melody with a guitar accompaniment. According to Oxford Music Online, “the [folk] revival spawned a large number of singer-songwriters who accompanied themselves on the acoustic guitar but had little in common with those concerned primarily to bear witness to the tradition.”5 I believe that Father Ian Mitchell falls into this category and his “folk-song” mass should be considered “Mass: Plus Guitar, Minus Organ.”

1 Laing, Dave. “Folk Music Revival.” Grove Music Online. (accessed Mar. 12, 2015­)

2 “Newport Folk Festival to Feature “Singing Priest”.” Chicago Daily Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1966-1973), July 12, 1969.

3 Ibid.,

4 Mitchell, Ian. Rev. “The American Folk-Song Mass” F.E.L Records. Back Cover.

5 Laing, Dave. “Folk Music Revival.”

3 thoughts on “Newport Folk Festival Hosts Composer of the “The American Folk-Song Mass”

  1. Great find! It’s fascinating to read how the resurgence of folk music influenced so many aspect of American life–including worship. I would be very curious to discover where exactly the American Folk-Song Mass was performed. Was it just at folk festivals, churches, which denominations, where in the US? Answers to these questions would demonstrate where folk music was really taking hold in America.

  2. Good job, Luke! Since I wrote about whether bluegrass can be categorized as “folk” and I saw your post about “folk song mass”, I cannot help wondering, who has the authority to define (or say, categorize) folk music? And what standard did musicians/academia use to put different types of music under the title “folk” or “folk revival”? If we see bluegrass and “folk song mass” as sub-genres of “folk”, then these two kinds of music might share some common grounds. What talking about common ground… I think I want to share this quote with you: “there never were any ‘folk’, except in the mind of bourgeoisie. (Charles Keil)”

  3. Awesome find, Luke. It’s cool to think that as folk left the large sphere of musical circulation in America, American folk began to be poured into that mix. These folk masses made me think of different works that have been updated, like Hadestown, a folk opera written around 2010 by Anais Mitchell based off of the same story of Monteverdi’s Orpheus and Euridice. It would be interesting to continue looking into how newer genres have permeated older styles of musical expression and figure out how many there are out there. (Here’s a link to an old MPR podcast on Hadestown if you’re interested:

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