Coming of Age with the Folk Music Revival

The music that formed my childhood and pre-teen years during the 1960s in the northern wilds of British Columbia was much the same as for the rest of North America.

Although my parents and their three boys moved to a log cabin within sight of snow-covered mountains in the Bulkley Valley, it didn’t mean we moved off the face of the Earth. Although it must have seemed close enough to my mother.

No, when we moved there from the Bellingham area of Washington State in the early 1960s, my parents took with us our ‘Lower 48’ fears of a nuclear end to the Cold War and a love of music of the era (along with books of all kinds).

On winter nights especially, with snow and cold occasionally snapping poplar trees outside, we could hear powerful AM radio from all up and down the west coast of the continent.  Later in our teens, that was the window to all the rock music of the world from Donovan to the Beatles, Van Morrison and Led Zeppelin.

Splitting wood, carrying water

But when we first moved north, I was eleven years old, my brothers seven and eight.  The first year was hard becoming country folk, learning to carry water in buckets and splitting wood for the cook stove.  But we had the music my mother loved, long-playing 33 rpm records of the musicals My Fair Lady and The Music Man, although we couldn’t play them for awhile.

My father dragged with us north an old-fashioned, even then, wind-up phonograph with an actual trumpet and the blunt needles to play his collection of old foxtrot and Josh White 78 rpm records. He found it in some second hand store in Washington before we left.  It fit so well with his vision of re-inventing a pioneering version of himself and his family.  I think we played it a few times that first winter, in the crowded one-room cabin.  (We were to live off the power grid for many years, and even outside the reach of phone lines, for a shorter time.)

But in another year or so, my father had died of stroke, probably from complications from banging his head so hard on a cabin log he knocked himself out… he lived long enough to build artful extensions to the base log cabin, and to have established us in the life of the valley around us.  There was no going back.

Heating up the batteries

In those days of little money, Ma found enough to buy a compact, battery powered phonograph made by Phillips.  We played that and its successors to death, sometimes resorting on cold winter nights to heating up batteries on the top of the small oil furnace to get just a few more plays.

At first we had only a few records, Ma’s show tunes, mainly.  “You got trouble…. trouble, I say, right here in River City!”  I can still clearly hear that from The Music Man….

On rare occasions Ma went south to Seattle to visit her mother and settle some of my Dad’s affairs…. our sole source of income for awhile became monthly payments from Dad’s GI Bill benefits, since he fought as a Marine in the Pacific during WWII.

When she returned, she always came back with a few LPs.  The first time, there was a Weavers album, I remember so well, and the Swingle Singers singing Bach.  Eventually from the south and then more locally she might find albums by Louis Armstrong, and more obscure, especially to us boys, LPs by other jazz artists like Errol Garner.

This was the time though, in the early 1960s, of the folk music revival.  It was the time of the Weavers, the Kingston Trio, Harry Belafonte, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Odetta, Miriam Makeba, Burl Ives, Joan Baez, the Limeliters, Judy Collins, the New Christy Minstrels. Many were deeply involved with the civil rights struggle in the States.

We listened to them all, as Ma brought them home… some more authentic than others, but all catching a spirit of the time: it was a kind of awakening, or call to awakening that foreshadowed the more turbulent times of rock, the counterculture and the Vietnam War and its protests that lay ahead.

Although we were quite far away geographically from the mainstream, thanks to Ma, my brothers and I were able to participate in the wider spirit of the times by being exposed to the effervescence of this music.

By the time we entered our teens, my brothers and I began bringing our own music home: Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot.  The earnestness of the early folkies transitioned to something more complex, more electric, even subversive and occasionally confrontational.

But I still have a tremendous feeling for the folk music revival, as it has become known.  I rediscovered this recently when our local PBS station in the Pacific Northwest (I live in the Greater Vancouver area) began showing a number of documentaries and performances from those times.  What a beautiful young woman Mary Travers was! (Of Peter, Paul and Mary.)

These days I take blues and rock guitar lessons from a younger fellow, a rocker whose formative years were shaped more by punk rock than folk rock.  Although he is well-informed about the acts before his time (he loves the Kinks for one), his affinities are understandably different, louder and more cynical than mine.

I come of a softer, more earnest stock, willing to believe in song.



Sources/links for images, from top down:

The Music Man Poster

The Weavers

Harry Belafonte

The Limeliters

Mary Travers

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2 Comments on “Coming of Age with the Folk Music Revival”

  1. I was speaking recently with somebody in Van who was into the folk scene back then. Sounded like he a lot of fun with it until he started moaning about all the evil electric bands he missed at the Retinal Circus during the same period. The closest thing to folk music my dad allowed on his record player when I lived far from city life was Johnny Cash. Listening to folk music, in his army days, might just have got him branded a Communist.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Mr. Beer,

    That was a funny transition, that whole acoustic to electric furor, especially that Newport Festival controversy about Dylan. All that fuss makes me perplexed, but I guess at the time the folkies had a misplaced sense of purity that was offended by the grittiness, and loudness, of the electric guitar.

    From Josh White to Seeger and beyond… they were all branded un-American by the same types who rule the Republican Party today….. but I think that whole country tradition of the Carter clan and others that Johnny Cash participated in, was just as much folk music too, if more acceptable to flag wavers. The folkies of the cities were just too… bohemian. Reminds me of that old TV ad promoting authentic salsa or whatever, where the country folks exclaim in horror, “New York City!??”


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