There was a time when folk music rang out across the nation, signaling a call to social change. Among its leaders were such well known musicians as Bob Dylan and the trio known by their first names — Peter, Paul and Mary.
But though they reigned in the 1950s and ’60s and were part of the New York folk music scene, the roots of the city becoming a magnet for folk musicians date back even earlier as is chronicled in “Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival” (Oxford University Press 2015; $39.95). It is written by Stephen Petrus, an Andrew W. Mellon research fellow at the New-York Historical Society, and Ronald D. Cohen, emeritus professor of history at Indiana University Northwest.
“I start out in the 1920s when musicians started coming to the city to record,” said Cohen, who lives in Miller Beach. ”There were hillbilly and blues musicians from the South, Phil Ochs from Texas and Woody Guthrie who grew up in Oklahoma but moved to New York from Texas.”
Cohen long has been fascinated with folk music, having written numerous books on the subject, including “The Pete Seeger Reader” (OUP, 2014), “Woody Guthrie: Writing America’s Songs” and was the co-producer/writer of the 10-CD boxed set “Songs for Political Action: Folk Music, Topical Songs and the American Left 1926-1954.”
When Petrus was put in charge of Folk City, a multi-media exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, he asked Cohen to lead the committee for the exhibit. It features original instruments, handwritten lyrics and video and film footage showing folk music’s growth and impact on American politics and culture.
“Then they decided to have a companion book, and Steve asked me to be his co-author,” said Cohen, noting the book contains many rare photos, original documents and first-hand interviews with those from that time period.
Cohen said New York is much more important than any other city because it attracts so many musicians, recording studio executives, producers and other performers.
“I knew a lot as I’d written a lot about the history of folk music,” said Cohen, whose next book, “Depression Folk,” is coming out in spring. “But I had to research Greenwich Village and what is happening there.”
Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, which is near the New York University campus, was seen as the epicenter of the folk music revival. It attracted so many musicians and their followers that in 1961 the city parks commissioner tried to shut it down because he saw people coming “from miles away to display the most terrible costumes, haircuts, etc. and who play bongo drums and other weird instruments, attracting a weird public.” But the folk musicians played on.
“Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival” is at the Museum of the City of New York, Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street; mcny.org.