Burl Ives

  February 13, 2022   Read time 3 min
Burl Ives
Despite Lomax’s somewhat utopian beliefs in the social power of folk music, however, most of the audience for folk music hardly considered its political or historic meanings, but just relished the simple melodies, straightforward stories, and familiar voices.

The teenage Susan Reed, for example, quickly gained popularity. She was featured in Life magazine in late 1945: “Three times a night Café Society Uptown’s choosy customers sit enraptured while Susie sings old Irish, English, Scottish, and Appalachian ballads and accompanies herself on the zither or the Irish Harp.” She appeared frequently on NBC network shows, but also performed at Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville in 1948. Promoted as a simple mountain lass, she in fact had grown up in Chicago and Greenwich Village.

Burl Ives became known not only as a popular folk singer but also as a movie actor. John Jacob Niles was born in Kentucky, performed southern mountain ballads in a high-pitch falsetto, recorded extensively, and published numerous songbooks. He developed a formal style, and appeared on concert stages rather than in folk festivals and on country music stations. Richard Dyer-Bennet was also a professional musician who resurrected ancient English ballads, played the guitar and lute, recorded extensively, and pursued a concert career. Josh White was a polished blues and pop singer who appeared at the fanciest nightclubs. Reed, Ives, Niles, Dyer-Bennet, and White were very popular through the 1940s and even after, indicating some of the commercial range of folk music at the time.

“There is no doubt that America in the last decade has begun to sing again,” Courtlandt Canby noted in the Saturday Review of Literature in 1947. “Young people with a guitar singing together the cowboy ballads, or the songs of the Spanish Civil War, the aficionados of the ballad-singer cult, the more staid discovers of English folk songs, the blues devotees, the college and school glee clubs with their arrangements of songs from many lands—all have helped pull us out of the nineteenth-century slough of sentimentality and cheapness.” Sheet music and songbooks spread folk songs throughout the country. The Fireside Book of Folk Songs, by Margaret Boni, was particularly popular.

Country music (still labeled “folk” in the Billboard and Cashbox magazine listings for a few more years) and the blues, while experiencing some changes, were aspects of folk music that had their own audiences and increasing popularity. Spade Cooley (king of Western Swing), Arthur Smith, Merle Travis, Ernest Tubb, Tex Ritter, the Sons of the Pioneers, Hank Williams, and Jack Guthrie (Woody’s cousin), while exhibiting quite different styles, were some of the more popular country performers. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in 1945, launching the new sound of bluegrass. The record companies responded accordingly.

Hopping on the musical bandwagon, Capitol Records issued Jo Stafford Sings American Folk Songs in 1948, while crooner Bing Crosby’s Cowboy Songs was only one of his “traditional” albums. Country music had weathered the war years and was prepared to attract a wide audience, particularly in the North (specifically California), where many southerners had moved, first fleeing the Depression and then attracted to war work. “In many respects the dawning period was to be the real ‘golden age’ of country music,” historian Bill Malone has written. “Later decades would bring greater material rewards to country musicians, but no period would experience a happier fusion of ‘traditional’ sounds and commercial burgeoning than did the immediate postwar era.” The Grand Ole Opry remained as popular as ever.

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