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When We Were Good

When We Were Good

The Folk Revival

Robert S. Cantwell

ISBN 9780674951334

Publication date: 04/25/1997

When We Were Good traces the many and varied cultural influences on the folk revival of the sixties from early nineteenth-century blackface minstrelsy; the Jewish entertainment and political cultures of New York in the 1930s; the Almanac singers and the wartime crises of the 1940s; the watershed record album Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music; and finally to the cold-war reactionism of the 1950s. This drove the folk-song movement, just as Pete Seeger and the Weavers were putting "On Top of Old Smokey" and "Goodnight, Irene" on the Hit Parade, into a children's underground of schools, summer camps, and colleges, planting the seeds of the folk revival to come. The book is not so much a history as a study of the cultural process itself, what the author calls the dreamwork of history.

Cantwell shows how a body of music once enlisted on behalf of the labor movement, antifascism, New Deal recovery efforts, and many other progressive causes of the 1930s was refashioned as an instrument of self-discovery, even as it found a new politics and cultural style in the peace, civil rights, and beat movements. In Washington Square and the Newport Folk Festival, on college campuses and in concert halls across the country, the folk revival gave voice to the generational tidal wave of postwar youth, going back to the basics and trying to be very, very good.

In this capacious analysis of the ideologies, traditions, and personalities that created an extraordinary moment in American popular culture, Cantwell explores the idea of folk at the deepest level. Taking up some of the more obdurate problems in cultural studies--racial identity, art and politics, regional allegiances, class differences--he shows how the folk revival was a search for authentic democracy, with compelling lessons for our own time.


  • In his rich and suggestive, quirky and lyrical…study of the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 60s, Robert Cantwell…shows that the history of 20th-century folk music has depended on most unlikely associations. He argues persuasively that folk music’s ability to move people, even to change their lives, comes from the fact that it has already crossed some of the deepest divides in American culture—race, class and region—and he invites listeners to do the same. The real strength of When We Were Good lies in the energy with which Mr. Cantwell, the author of two previous books on folk music and folk culture, pursues and celebrates this music’s roots… Mr. Cantwell’s book demonstrates beautifully that the convenient academic categories we use to slice up American history and culture are inadequate to grasp a cultural phenomenon like folk music… This is a rich and rewarding book, driven by evident passion… In this age of proliferating academic specialization and popular pride in one’s ‘roots,’ Mr. Cantwell shows us that American popular music—and by extension much of our culture—is a hopelessly hybrid creation, descended from accidental couplings, political conflicts and ironies, blacks and whites. No wonder it has a haunting melody.

    —Warren Goldstein, New York Times Book Review


  • Robert S. Cantwell is Adjunct Professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Ethnomimesis: Folklife and the Representation of Culture and the classic Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound.

Book Details

  • 432 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press