Eight Folk Rock Songs of the 1960s: A Playlist for Today
What Are Folk Rock Songs?
In the 1960s, a style of music known as folk rock became popular in Britain and the United States. It was created by a fusion of elements from traditional folk songs and rock music. The results were interesting and variable. Acoustic instruments, a combination of acoustic and electronic ones or only electronic instruments were used. Some songs had a rock beat. Others more closely resembled the songs of their folk music ancestry.
The songs in this article are generally classified as folk rock. I enjoyed listening to them as a child and still do today. My childhood friends and I called them pop songs. Today I realize that they are more similar to folk songs. Many have stood the test of time and are still popular. They often tell a story or convey a message, like traditional folk songs. Some are adaptations of traditional songs from the past.
All of the songs below were performed in the 1960s. I've sometimes chosen a video showing the artist or artists performing at a later date due to the better sound quality, however. When multiple artists or groups recorded a particular song, I've chosen the cover that I like best.
Turn! Turn! Turn!
Turn! Turn! Turn! was created by Pete Seeger some time in the late 1950s, although it apparently wasn't performed until the early 1960s. Seeger is considered to be one of the founders of the folk music revival at that time. Most of the lyrics come from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).
As a child, I enjoyed this song as recorded by The Byrds. Their music was definitely on the rock end of the folk-rock spectrum. I was unimpressed by the version of their song on YouTube, however. During my video exploration I discovered Judy Collins' 1966 rendition. I love her voice and her moving cover of the piece.
Turn! Turn! Turn! by Judy Collins (1966)
Blowin' in the Wind
Bob Dylan composed Blowin' in the Wind in 1962 and performed it in 1963. I don't remember ever hearing about him when I was growing up in Britain, however. I was familiar with Peter, Paul and Mary, though, and enjoyed listening to their music. One of their songs was Blowin' in the Wind.
The song asks a series of questions related to problems for humanity. The answer to all the questions is said to be blowing in the wind. This answer could be interpreted in more than one way. Dylan has never given much help in resolving its ambiguity.
The song has been used by both the civil rights and the anti-war movements. It's said to be the most popular and most covered of all Dylan's songs.
Yes, and how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn't see?— Bob Dylan
Blowin' in the Wind by Peter, Paul and Mary (1986)
Simon and Garfunkel's Scarborough Fair is a version of a traditional folk song. The title refers to the town of Scarborough in Yorkshire. In the song, a man asks for his love to be given some instructions that are impossible to carry out. She is supposed to make him a shirt without using a needle and without creating any seams, for example. If she performs the required tasks she will become the man's true love.
As is true for many traditional folk songs, multiple versions of Scarborough Fair existed. Sometimes the song is a duet and the woman asks the man to perform some impossible tasks as well. There are unanswered questions about the meaning of the song and about its original format. I enjoy listening to the Simon and Garfunkel version of the song, even though the lyrics are puzzling.
Scarborough Fair by Simon and Garfunkel (1981)
Where Have All the Flowers Gone?
"Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" is a lamentation and protest about war. The first three verses were written by Pete Seeger and the last two by Joe Hickerson. The story advances through the verses and is cyclic.
- The first verse explains that the flowers have disappeared because young girls have picked them.
- The second says that the girls have disappeared to get married.
- The third says that the husbands have disappeared because they have become soldiers.
- The fourth says that the soldiers have disappeared because they've gone to their graves.
- The fifth verse takes us back to the beginning of the cycle by stating that the graves have disappeared because they are covered with growing flowers.
Each verse ends with the refrain "When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?"
John Baez Performance of Where Have All the Flowers Gone
Five Hundred Miles
Five Hundred Miles describes a train traveller who is being transported further and further away from his home. We are never told why he left home, but the fact that he has no shirt and no money allows us to speculate. The overall mood of the song is one of great sadness. The song was written by Hedy West, an American folk singer and songwriter. She based the song on fragments of a melody that she heard as a child.
Five Hundred Miles by Peter, Paul and Mary (1960s)
If I Had a Hammer
If I Had a Hammer was written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in 1949. It was first recorded by a folk music group called The Weavers, to which both Seeger and Hays belonged. At that time it was known as The Hammer Song. Seeger was a social activist. His activism is reflected in the song.
In the upbeat melody, the singer says that if they had a hammer they would stamp out danger, hammer out a warning, and hammer out love between their brothers and sisters all over the land. The singer then says that they would create the same results by ringing a bell and then by singing a song. In the next verse they say that they do have a hammer, a bell, and a song to sing. The triumphal ending, which is shown below, is repeated.
It's the hammer of Justice,
It's the bell of Freedom,
It's the song of Love between my brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.— Pete Seeger and Lee Hays
If I Had a Hammer by Peter, Paul and Mary (1963)
The Seekers were one of my favourite groups. Music historians seem to disagree about whether they performed folk rock music or pop music with a folk music influence. I love Judith Durham's voice, however the songs are classified.
The group formed in 1962 in Australia and became popular internationally. In addition to Durham, it consisted of Athol Guy, Keith Potger, and Bruce Woodley. All of the group members played instruments and sang, though Durham seemed to have been mainly a vocalist from what I observed. Her voice played the leading role in many of the performances.
In 1968 the original group disbanded and the members pursued individual goals. They have periodically rejoined for performances, however, to the delight of their fans. Judith Durham's voice has stayed beautiful over the years, at least until relatively recently. She experienced a brain hemorrhage in 2013 just before turning seventy. Although she had to learn how to read musical scores again, her voice is reportedly unaffected.
When the Stars Begin to Fall is a traditional African American spiritual that is sometimes sung as a hymn.
When the Stars Begin to Fall by The Seekers
The Carnival is Over
The Carnival is Over is said to be a very popular song in Australia. It's sometimes used to commemorate endings and was sung at the end of both Expo 88 and the 2000 Paralympics. The song was written by Tom Springfield, Dusty Springfield's brother. Dusty was an English pop singer.
The theme of the song is lost love. The plot is very loosely based on a fictional tale about a real Russian Cossack leader named Stepan or Stenka Razin. According to the tale, Razin is a fierce warrier who is in love with a Persian princess. When his comrades mock him for his softened attitude, Razin throws the woman from his ship into the Volga River to drown. His goal is to prove his mental strength and maintain the solidarity in his group.
High above, the dawn is waking
And my tears are falling rain
For the carnival is over
We may never meet again.— Tom Springfield
The Carnival is Over by The Seekers (1994)
The Value of Folk Music
The folk music genre contains a wide variety of music. At its best, it really is music of the people, or folk. Although the songs in this article first appeared in the 1960s I still like them. They were written in a different political and social climate, but some of the issues that they present are unfortunately relevant today.
Folk music is often entertaining and enjoyable. It can sometimes serve additional purposes. It can create a sense of community in the players or listeners. It can be used to celebrate or transmit information about a particular culture, religion or incident in history. Sometimes, it can raise awareness about an issue. I think that the many subgenres of folk music, including folk rock music, add to its value.
© 2016 Linda Crampton