Tales from the bargain bin: An embarrassing obsession

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The Folk Years: Blowin’ in the Wind and Yesterday’s Gone (Time-Life). CD set found for $2.99 at Goodwill.

The first time I saw The Folksmen (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer of Spinal Tap fame in their guise as a 1960s folk trio), I laughed so hard I had an asthma attack. But I also had an overwhelming sense of deja vu. The Folksmen were a deeply sourced spoof of the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters, seminal, earnest folk groups of the pre-Beatles era. This was some of the earliest music I remember hearing on my parents’ radio and hi-fi, along with Peter, Paul and Mary and the Brothers Four. How dead-on an imitation was The Folksmen? Take a look.

Kingston Trio:

The Folksmen, from A Mighty Wind:

And here are the Limeliters, circa 1981, singing the obvious model for “Old Joe’s Place,” “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight.”

For the full Limeliters/Folksmen comparison, this nine-minute European TV performance is pretty much a condensed version of A Mighty Wind. Enjoy, ye of stout heart!

Born on Saturday Night Live, the Folksmen were later resurrected in Guest’s underrated 2003 mockumentary A Mighty Wind, which chronicles the making of a public-televison reunion concert of the group and their ’60s folk scene compadres the New Main Street Singers (read: New Christy Minstrels/the Rooftop Singers) and Mitch and Mickey (Ian and Sylvia).

I should explain at this point that I’m obsessed with A Mighty Wind. I will watch that movie anytime, anyplace. This Is Spinal Tap is considered the masterpiece of the Guest/McKean/Shearer oeuvre. But I rate A Mighty Wind almost as highly because it nails the specifics of a less popular genre just as flawlessly. If you’ve ever seen the strangely watchable PBS Pledge Break special Folk Rewind starring John Sebastian (please tell me I’m not the only one who can’t look away), then you’ve seen just how right A Mighty Wind got everything about the music, the personalities, the gentle, well-meaning mindset of the people who performed and consumed this godawfully polite aural Cream of Wheat.

And I speak as one of them. Like many white kids in metropolitan and suburban areas on both coasts in the late ’50s-early ’60s, I grew up with folk music, or rather, a steam-cleaned, relentlessly smiley version of folk music, as part of daily life. I listened to Pete Seeger’s children’s albums (but not his overtly radical stuff), sang black spirituals like “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” with no context at Jewish summer camp and endured the dreaded group-singing of “Erie Canal” and “Goober Peas” in elementary school. Hellishly cheery easy-listening folk tunes like “Walk Right In” by the Rooftop Singers and white-washed folk exotica like the Calypso-ish “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down” by the Serendipity Singers were Top Ten radio hits. (Where did the Lumineers come from? Here’s your answer.) In one universe, Bob Dylan was kicking folk music’s slumbering ass, energizing it with a protopunk’s spirit. In another, there was … this crap. I bet the killjoys who shouted down electric Dylan at Newport really dug this stuff. They deserved it.

Given all of this, you can probably imagine my fiendish delight when I came across Blowin’ in the Wind and Yesterday’s Gone, two discs from the eight-disc 2002 Time-Life CD set The Folk Years in a Goodwill crawl. Sixty songs in all, encompassing some of my most beloved/hated folk-mush ever, including “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down,” “Walk Right In,” the Sandpipers’ supremely dorky version of Pete Seeger’s “Guantanamera” and — YES! — the Limeliters’ “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight.” Now I can guffaw through my very own A Mighty Wind/Folk Rewind in the privacy of my home, whenever the spirit moves me!

I know, I’m being harsh. Even the blandest of this music had its purpose. Without it to learn from and, ultimately, rebel against, we might not have had Dylan, or the skiffle-bred Beatles, or the trailblazing British electric folkies Fairport Convention.

This Time-Life set (the half I own, anyway) does a good job of charting the evolution of folk B.D. (before Dylan) and after. Dylan’s influence is all over the Blowin’ in the Wind disc, even if he isn’t (the lone Dylan track, “Boots of Spanish Leather” is on disc 7, which someone must have grabbed before me). After the mostly quiet acoustic tracks on disc one of Blowin’ in the Wind, the crystalline opening electric guitar chords of the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” kick off disc two like a wake-up jolt of caffeine right to the bloodstream. Whoever segued the Byrds into the Kingston Trio’s smugly snoozy version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” has a wicked sense of humor. Two songs later, there’s the peerless Dylan interpretor Johnny Cash making “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” into a Johnny Cash song, and, you know, I think this was $2.99 very well spent.

The Folk Years also excels at conveying how the folk movement brought world music, part of that Mad Men-era tentative dip into suburban multiculturalism, to white middle-class American homes for the first time. If you’re of my vintage, I bet there was a Harry Belafonte album or two in your parents’ hi-fi cabinet. Belafonte’s beautiful “Jamaica Farewell” is included here on Blowin’ in the Wind, and his indestructible “Banana Boat Song (Day-o)” is on Yesterday’s Gone.

Blowin’ in the Wind also contains a live recording of Pete Seeger doing “Guantanamera,” complete with his educational spoken interludes explaining the song’s origin as a poem by Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti. It’s an important piece of political folk music. But, forgive me: besides making it impossible to watch PBS pledge programming or old Limeliters videos without falling into shrieking laughter, A Mighty Wind has also ruined educational spoken interludes about Hispanic history for me — see Christopher Guests’s epic downer of a Spanish Civil War ballad “Skeletons of Quinto” in A Mighty Wind.

I bought The Folk Years only partly as a snort. There are folk-pop songs here that I loved on AM radio as a kid, and continue to love now, even in their unfashionableness: “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine,” written and sung by the exquisite Gale Garnett, the winsome pop-ified cover of Ian and Sylvia’s “You Were on My Mind” by We Five, “Someday Soon” by Judy Collins. And there are some crucial ’70s folk/pop/country hybrids — Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” and Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” are two — that take your breath away with their emotional depths.

But while I’m happy to finally have many of these songs on CD, my chief motivation in pouncing on this Goodwill treasure wasn’t to complete my collection. It was pure, gooey nostalgia — for these songs that create sense memories of early childhood,  for how my dad used to think the Kingston Trio’s “Charlie on the MTA” was the cleverest song ever to hit WBZ-Boston’s airwaves. But mine is a nostalgia combined with an unsentimentalist’s horror of nostalgia. And maybe that’s the snarky quirk in my character that compels me to see the humor in the unabashed sincerity and unconscious elitism of the palest of these performances, and in tributes like PBS’s Pledge Break folk specials. In all of the above, I think, the creators of A Mighty Wind are my kin.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016