Protest Music and Folk Revival

What is folk music? Is folk defined by the musical intentions of the musicians themselves, its political and social implications, or its consumption?  For artists like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and so many others, folk was a political endeavor. Another notable artist was Joan Baez, who was known for her captivating soprano voice and her impressive guitar skills.  However, Baez was more than just a folk singer with talent; she was an adamant peace and civil rights activist and much of her music reflected her political ideals.  Baez was considered to be a part of the folk revival movement.  She performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, launching a very successful career.

According to Bruce Jackson in his The Folksong Revival he claims that the folk revival movement was just a fad. This blog is an attempt to reflect on Jackson’s opinion by providing reasons in which I think the folk music revival was not just a fad, but it was a necessary movement to propel the ideas of activists a that time.

“I think the revival can be fairly categorized as romantic, naive, nostalgic and idealistic…much of the revival was a fad or fashion” ~Bruce Jackson

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan April 1965

So why folk revival?  Today, many of us view folk as a simple song associated with possibly nostalgia, home, or sentimental feelings.   Most people envision folk as a smaller communal setting, but the Newport Folk Festival of 1959 suggests otherwise.  Newport was one of the larger gatherings to celebrate folk music and it’s artists.  One reason the folk revival may have gained traction was because of the desire people had to reconnect with their American roots. What’s a better way to do that than through folk music?  But, folk music has more value than just for the enjoyment of old times sake.

“Women Peace Protestors of Northern Ireland on a March in London” November 1976

Artists like Baez used their skills and political views to highlight the flaws of the cultural and political environment. Not only did Baez seek to share her ideas through folk inspired music, she gained traction with these ideas and helped spread her political views. Because Baez and many artists infused folk music with messages of peace and equality, it is clear that folk had an extremely important purpose in our social and political history.  Protest music was music that would reject certain ideals of actions.  For example, “We Shall Overcome” became the anthem to the civil rights movement.  In Joan’s rendition, she combines folk and jazz elements, connecting this song to different styles of music and boring from other traditions therefore catering to many people.

In the Oct 4, 1971 issue of the Chicago Daily Defender, the article “Joan Baez has a Problem” was written criticizing her disrespect for the American Flag.

Article criticizing Baez’s political opinions regarding the American flag- “Joan Baez has a Problem” October 4, 1971 in the Chicago Defender

“This piece of cloth has become an obscenity.  We know how to protect and reverence that Flag. But we don’t know how to protect human life.” ~ Joan Baez

The Folk Revival movement was not just a fad.  It was a means to react to and process the political and social injustices that the world was faced with in the 60s and even today, proving folk musics’ relevance and importance not only then, but also now.  In a time of racial and international tension, it is not surprising that folk music became popular. It provided a sense of comfort and connection to one another when the country seemed in all other ways divided. Folk advocated for all people of all backgrounds, races and statuses.

Work Cited

Bob Dylan Singer Songwriter with Joan Baez American Folk Singer. 27 Apr. 1965.

“Joan Baez has a Problem.” 1971.Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973), Oct 04, 4. https://search.proquest.com/docview/494322582?accountid=351.

Matthew, Adam. “Folk Protest.” Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975, 2017.

Rosenberg, Neil V. “The Folk Song Revival.” Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined, University of Illinois Press, 1993, pp. 73–79.

Women Peace Protestors of Northern Ireland on a March in London. 29 Nov. 1976.

Joan Baez and the Rise of the Folk Protest

Joan Baez with her guitar

Joan Baez with her guitar

The 1960s were a decade of political development and social unrest. American folk music became a method of conveying political ideas and protest, and the singer-songwriter fell into the important role as the purveyor and curator of civil disobedience. This style of folk music was adopted by college students who saw it as a meaningful vehicle for bringing about positive, humane change to the world. “Like Zen Buddhism and organic foods, folk music swept the colleges as a hip fad. Indeed, since the 1930s folk music had a close connection to the radical left in America (especially communists and socialists), and had increasingly been taken seriously by folklore scholars as a guide to past social mores.”

The prevalence of protest folk did not exist without criticism. Folk purists believed that protest songs were “pretentious, portentous and ponderous” and that folk-protest writers were “political hacks who wouldn’t recognize either folk music or folk style if it were walking along beside them in a peace march.”

Joan Baez was a folk singer-songwriter who made a name for herself in the 1960s (and then on) performing folk ballads. As the social and political climate heated up in the United States and around the world, Baez became a civil rights and universal nonviolence activist. “As the child of a decade of agitation, her attitudes and life-style evolved so smoothly that she seemed not to have changed at all. Joan blended into the protest tradition, into pacifism, into activism, into a publicized marriage and motherhood, into a vicarious martyrdom, . . . and finally into a national symbol for nonviolence.”1 She had a very appealing voice, which served her well in attracting audiences to her music.

Joan Baez wrote many songs of political and social protest, utilizing her distinct voice that became associated with the folk singer-songwriter genre. Saigon Bride is one of the songs she wrote, which appears on her 1967 album Joan. The following are the lyrics to Saigon Bride:

Farewell my wistful Saigon bride
I’m going out to stem the tide
A tide that never saw the seas
It flows through jungles, round the trees
Some say it’s yellow, some say red
It will not matter when we’re dead

How many dead men will it take
To build a dike that will not break?
How many children must we kill
Before we make the waves stand still?

Though miracles come high today
We have the wherewithal to pay
It takes them off the streets you know
To places they would never go alone
It gives them useful trades
The lucky boys are even paid

Men die to build their Pharoah’s tombs
And still and still the teeming wombs
How many men to conquer Mars
How many dead to reach the stars?

Farewell my wistful Saigon bride
I’m going out to stem the tide
A tide that never saw the seas
It flows through jungles, round the trees
Some say it’s yellow, some say red
It will not matter when we’re dead

Starting out on a local scale in California, Baez ended up playing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960 and then signing onto Vanguard Records for the next 12 years. Baez played many shows internationally and during the Vietnam War, she began playing internationally, including a show in Tokyo, Japan in January 1967. At this show, the translator later admitted that he left out all of Baez’s political comments after being instructed to do so by a man who identified himself as a CIA agent.

Instead of interpreting her subtle antiwar sentiments in Saigon Bride, the interpreter told the audience that it was a song about the Vietnam War. It is interesting to see how time and again, governments have feared the strength of a song or piece of art. Instead of listening to something and learning about its meaning and background, we are told to move past that and consume something topically or refrain from interpreting and consuming it altogether.

Joan Baez is one of the first recognized folk protest singer-songwriters and someone who has really affected the style of political song today. With singer-songwriters pioneering the political song, it has moved through rock, country, to rap and hip hop. Political protest today takes its form in many ways and the efficacy of that art is dependent on the audience it reaches out to.

1. Rodnitzky, Jerome L. Minstrels of the dawn : the folk-protest singer as a cultural hero. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1976. x-87. Print.

2. Baez, Joan. Saigon Bride. Joan, CD, 1967.