Time Of The Transition©2008JCMarion


In the post war forties and then into the early fifties, American pop music was in a state of flux to put it mildly. Led by the disappearance of the big bands, the male romantic ballad singers seemed to hold sway. As Frank Sinatra's huge popularity began to fade others stepped in the breech to wear the mantle of greatness on the music scene. First there was Perry Como formerly of Ted Weems Orchestra who, beginning in 1945 began a decade long stint as the top vocalist in the country. Others were soon to follow such as Tony Bennett, Vic Damone, Julius LaRosa, Frankie Laine, Nat Cole, Guy Mitchell, and Johnny Ray. Some others continued on as the big bands fell such as Vaughn Monroe, Bing Crosby, and Dick Haymes. On the female side Jo Stafford, Patti Page, Joni James, Karen Chandler, and others followed suit. In 1950 perhaps fueled by cold war fears and the sudden military conflict in Korea, pop music seemed to harken back to a simpler more sedate time with hit records such as "Cruising Down The River", "Play A Simple Melody", "When You And I Were Sweet Sixteen", "Dear Hearts And Gentle People", "Enjoy Yourself It's Later Than You Think", "Let's Go To Church Next Sunday Morning", "Sentimental Me", The Old Folks At Home", and "Our Lady Of Fatima". The more "modern" of the top sellers such as "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?", "Mockingbird Hill", "Shrimp Boats" and others left teenagers looking for an outlook that they could call their own and provide danceable tunes as well. That is one reason for the tremendous excitement caused by Johnny Ray in 1951. The public had not seen anything like him with his over dramatic vocal style replete with mind boggling syllable bending and spastic emotional delivery. The parents hated it, the teenagers loved it.

Soon the movement took a new direction. It was initially noticed in Cleveland, Ohio, where the proprietor of one of the largest record outlets around, Leo Mintz of the Record Rendezvous, noticed White teens buying Black R & B records. Originally called Race Music, but soon reclassified as Rhythm & Blues, the music was originally performed by Black adults for Black adults. Many of the up tempo tunes were ribald songs complete with many double entendres denoting adult activities. White teens however were more interested in the tempo of the tunes with its heavy 2/4 back beat that was perfect for dancing. So even though some tunes such as "Annie Had A Baby", "It Ain't The Meat It's The Motion", and "Baby Let Me Bang Your Box" would shock radio listeners, it was the danceability of these tunes that led to their acceptance. Mintz didn't keep this knowledge to himself, he went to radio dj Alan Freed with this trend, and soon The Moondog took over and the rest is history.

During the time in the mid fifties there existed an attitude among college aged youth that they were above the rock 'n roll tidal wave, that they were more sophisticated, more mature in their thinking. Thus the clear delineation of musical trends between high school and college was apparent. The college crowd at the time preferred the sounds of modern jazz as exemplified by Dave Brubeck, Cal Tjader, and Errol Garner, to name the most popular. As this field widened the horizons with musicians such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and especially Ornette Coleman, the college crowd moved away from this field of music and into something else. The next big thing was folk music, that unamplified string backed songs of the working class and downtrodden, as well as madrigals and other Anglo-Saxon imports of American history. This new wave hit its stride with the extraordinary success of The Kingston Trio and the club scene in the San Francisco area at the Hungry i and Purple Onion clubs. In Boston The Club 47 became the hub of the new college music scene.

Into the nineteen sixties the folk music boom had arrived in full force and it showed on the best selling record charts. "Greenfields" by The Brothers Four, "Michael Row The Boat Ashore" by The Highwaymen; and the huge successes of Peter, Paul, & Mary, were a testament to the power of this musical movement. ABC television presented "Hootenanny" a hour long weekly program featuring many of the music's biggest stars (not some of the very biggest because of its blacklisting of Pete Seeger). Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were among the top performers along with Judy Collins, Ed McCurdy, Joe & Eddie, The Journeymen; The Big Three; Judy Henske and others. The Newport Folk Festival was established which ran through the July 4th weekend and was a counterpoint to the long running Newport Jazz Festival. The high point of the folk music boom was certainly the 1963 Newport Folk Festival which featured most of the biggest names and was hosted by Pete Seeger. A six LP set of live recordings survives which is highlighted by the Bob Dylan-Joan Baez duet on "With God On Their Side".

Folk music soon developed two offshoots within that genre-the jug band revival and the "citybilly" trend. The jug band revival was a movement to recall the sound of the nineteen twenties style accented by a bottoming out sound that took the place of a string bass. New York had three of the best with The Even Dozen Jug Band, a thirteen strong aggregation featuring future stars Stefan Grossman, Maria (D'amato) Muldaur, and mandolin whiz Dave Grisman. Another band was The Jug Stompers led by long time folkie and Greenwich Village personality Dave Van Ronk known for his ferocious version of "St. James Infirmary". The best might have been The True Endeavor Jug Band with Happy and Artie Traum and great vocals by classically trained Sita Dimitrof. On the West Coast came word of Mother McRee's Uptown Jug Stompers who eventually evolved into the Grateful Dead. The big jug band playoff was to take place at Nassau College on Long Island on November 22, 1963. Obviously that event was postponed and the jug band trend ended soon after.

The "citybilly" movement was a case of college kids centered around NYU in Manhattan discovering the appeal of what is known as bluegrass music, named after its foremost practitioner Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys. Suddenly college kids spent their time learning the rapid fire picking on the five string banjo popularized by Earl Scruggs. His group of Foggy Mountain boys with Lester Flatt was all the rage as shown with a sold out concert at Carnegie Hall that is preserved on a 1962 LP from Columbia Records. From New York to Boston in the early sixties bluegrass groups were everywhere. On spring and summer Sundays (after a court case to allow amateur musicians to play in the public park) entering Washington Square Park near NYU, the sound of guitars, banjos, mandolins, fiddles, and even a dobro or two would be heard. The Greenbriar Boys with John Herald and Ralph Rinzler was one of New York's finest, while in Boston The Charles River Valley Boys held forth and included Bob Siggins and Ethan Signer (who later became an accomplished biologist). These groups seem to take a page from the performances of Mike Seeger's New Lost City Ramblers who excelled in a music they termed "old timey", a mixture of blues, country, and traditional tunes. Returning to the roots of this true American music brought new found fame to such artists as Ralph and Carter Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys, Harry and Jeannie West, Bill Clifton, Don Reno & Red Smiley, and newer veterans such as The Country Gentlemen. There remains great memories of Washington Sqare Park and the Blue Sky Ramblers, Sunnyside Boys, Avenue A Serenaders, and The Village Farmboys.

The traditional folkies, jug bands, and bluegrass pickers were all about to become obsolete on college campuses, as one uniting force descended on the land. The name of this new wave that would sweep all away before it was - Beatlemania ! As the first wave of what was to be known as the British Invasion hit these shores, the social barriers between high schoolers and collegians were erased away. Now it was one homogenized style-one size fits all approach to music that ruled the land. And things would never be the same-ever again.

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