Cover: When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, from Harvard University PressCover: When We Were Good in PAPERBACK

When We Were Good

The Folk Revival

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$52.00 • £45.95 • €47.95

ISBN 9780674951334

Publication Date: 04/25/1997


432 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

17 halftones


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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, The New York Times Book Review

The most detailed history of [the American folk music] revival yet undertaken… As Robert Chantwell charts brilliantly in When We Were Good, the process by which folk music (however defined) came to enjoy its brief moment of ascendancy in the late 1950s and early 1960s was more circuitous and complex than most knew or for that matter cared to know.—Geoffrey O’Brien, The New York Review of Books

Robert Cantwell’s amazing book analyzes the cultural forces that culminated in that moment at Newport, when [Bob Dylan and Joan Baez] sang with Peter, Paul and Mary; Pete Seeger; and the SNCC Freedom Singers. But his book goes much deeper into American culture, probing the different ways people have tried to find an authentic American voice, distinct from high culture and uncontaminated by the seemingly irresistible forces of the entertainment industry… If the sixties folk song revival seems a mild, middle-class enthusiasm for the songs of the downtrodden, Cantwell shows it inquiring more deeply into the nature of American democracy itself.—Jon Wiener, The Nation

[Cantwell] effectively traces the theatrical, literary, musical and political origins of that folk revival, from the minstrels of the 19th century to the politically engaged folk-song movement of the Depression. The book springs vividly to life when discussing John Lomax and his son Alan, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and above all, Pete Seeger.—Robert C. Cottrell, The San Francisco Chronicle

[Cantwell] rewrites history with music, and vice versa. Diffusing a perfectly sketched generic, white, middle-class, suburban, postwar upbringing across the whole spectrum of American legend and experience, Cantwell pours old wine into a cruet that suddenly gleams with transparency… As he begins to trace the roles played by his characters—those figures dancing on the surface of ‘Tom Dooley,’ or hiding in its grooves—he makes the wine new.—Greil Marcus, Artforum

Cantwell’s account of that…era combines the personal perspective of an informed participant with theory-laden explanations… [He] writes with a deep love and passion for his subject, and this book creates an engaging and often poetic picture of a folk revival that very few people know about. It is the movement that took place outside the limelight, growing underground through the McCarthy era, blossoming when the Kingston Trio’s version of ‘Tom Dooley’ his the charts in 1957, and ending—not beginning—when Bob Dylan and Joan Baez appeared like Adam and Eve on the stage of the Newport Folk Festival together in 1963… Cantwell’s portraits of early folk heroes are especially memorable… There is a generosity of spirit running through the book, directed toward those who made the music, those who revived it for their own ends, and us, his readers… When We Were Good offers a perspective on the folk revival that could not be more relevant and timely.—Hugh Blumenfeld, Boston Book Review

When We Were Good is a long-overdue account of an all too frequently ignored period of American popular music, roughly the seven years between the Kingston Trio’s ‘Tom Dooley’ and Bob Dylan’s electric debut at the 1965 Newport Folk festival.Record Collector [UK]

[A] detailed and well constructed history of the U.S. folksong revival of the fifties and sixties… Cantwell carefully shows how this folk revival, involving mostly people born in the 1930s and 1940s, began in a state of total commercialization, with the Kingston Trio and other slick pretenders with crew-cuts, and grew increasingly more authentic, and more creative, as the public gained in discrimination.—Douglas Fetherling, The Telegraph-Journal [New Brunswick, Canada]

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