Little Sandy Review


Jon Pankake and Paul Nelson launched their vernacular music journal,
The Little Sandy Review, in 1960.

by David Lightbourne (from

Toward the end of 1959, from an off-campus rooming house at the University of Minnesota, in a strange little corner of Minneapolis across the Mississippi from Saint Paul called Dinkytown, came a small magazine without money or a marketing plan, ready to begin printing articulate monthly record reviews and pithy cultural commentary to a tiny readership. Initially quite inauspicious and eccentric-looking – a loving or caustic survey of current LPs from the rapidly accelerating folk, country, and blues Revivals – over the next half-decade The Little Sandy Review would gain recognition, influence, and notoriety in gross disproportion to its size – and even acquire near-scholarly authority – without ever losing its links with the main currents and common currencies of early-60s bohemia.

From the first mimeographed, pamphlet-size pulp issue in the winter of 1960, The Little Sandy Review brought its readers a new and refreshingly provincial overview of the commercial folk music establishment, a subculture of colorful and odd little record labels, mainly in the East, with inchoate and Quixotic strategies for promoting this new category of record albums – 10” and 12” 33 1/3rpm records that were just beginning to impact the 78 and 45rpm singles dominant market. Writing with one voice and co-authorship for their shared enthusiasm and mutual evaluation of the best traditional American music on vinyl over the previous five or ten years, co-editors Jon Pankake and Paul Nelson began their journey forward into the new decade shaped by the immediate past.

As the late Paul Nelson remembered in a January 2000 interview, “Jon and I had gone to see Pete Seeger at a concert in Iowa that previous summer, and we talked to him afterward and told him about our plan to start a folk music magazine, and asked him what he thought of the idea. When Seeger talked to you it was like he was looking right through you the whole time, as if addressing the masses or something. It was very disconcerting. We didn’t get an answer.” Jon Pankake, a longtime Seeger admirer, remembers the conversation slightly more charitably. As he recalls, “Pete said, ‘Hey, it’s a free country. You can print anything you want in America.’ We followed Pete’s advice.”

A tiny speck on a remote, distant, icy cusp, Pankake and Nelson, along with Tony Glover and Barry Hansen, had no idea where their modest expression would lead as they moved inexorably, rapidly, and individually from that obscure cusp to the epicenters of newly-dawning 1960s social ferment, political turmoil, radical movements, and cultural revolution.

“I was listening to Chet Baker records – I actually still do – when folk music came along,” says Nelson. “We heard these amazing records. It was an exciting time. New terms like ‘citybilly’ and ‘folknik’ started filtering back to Minneapolis and you had these different factions.”

Ostensibly a fan magazine in thrall to select elder statesmen, icons of the 50s folk revival like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Leadbelly, reviews of new records its essential content – almost immediately, in feisty columns, side-bars, and a sporadic Letters section, Little Sandy assailed and soon took incoming fire from a luckless parade of nightmare-variety, predictably uncomprehending, unhip musical, political, and personal adversaries. Indeed, from the sanctuary of their north country redoubt, kid gloves sometimes seemed unnecessary. When the Broadway singer and actor Harry Belafonte, principal beneficiary of 1957’s pop “Calypso” fad, released an album of chain gang songs set to orchestral accompaniment, Little Sandy could not resist calling him Harry Belaphony, and right away the handwriting was on the wall.

Belafonte’s handlers, of course, had not crafted his bizarre new musical persona in a vacuum. With the commercial success of The Kingston Trio as their flickering beacon, other record companies had immediately attempted to imitate the Trio’s pop formula in every way possible, pouncing in their time-honored pattern of initial exploitation and ultimate trivialization that always proceeded from their perception of a new “trend” – to them, fad – with potential sales legs. Hadn’t rock ‘n roll itself seemingly proved a fad circa 1960?

Thus, from 1957 on, as “folk music” records suddenly multiplied, countless other pop artists acceded to this marketing bandwagon and rushed to record blatantly dubious “folk” albums of every conceivable description. Obliged to acknowledge these ersatz offerings and in the same breath dismiss them forever, Pankake and Nelson located their first enduring neologism at the intersection of genuine “folk” and carnival “hokum.” “Folkum” meant just what it sounded like it meant, and in its utter brevity implied far more. Readers never knew when the next howls of empty-calorie outrage would carry all the way to Minneapolis from some professional schlockmeister sitting on a stack of cheese-ball musical arrangements on the east or west coasts.

In the end, dustups and skirmishes furnished a continual long-running source of irreverent humor – reliable, proven, patented riffs for the shared amusement and righteous satisfaction of Little Sandy’s most sympathetic and devoted partisans. From all of this came a legendary reputation for hardball and an image of irascibility which often ignored their larger editorial purposes.

Just as they began, Nelson discovered the 1952 edition of The Anthology of American Folk Music, which had been assembled by Harry Smith and released for libraries by Folkways. This collection was eye-opening in ways that are hard to imagine today, because what Smith had assembled were commercially released 78s from some of the largest record labels of the twenties and thirties. This put something like a lie to the accepted idea of folk music as having been discovered by Alan Lomax out beating the brush amongst the primitives.

Mainly, Pankake and Nelson in tandem wrote critical pieces informed by contemporary ideas in the arts which lent depth and perspective to their central focus, the quality and enduring vitality of American roots musics. Over time, the value of these reviews grows more apparent as the recordings themselves – re-packaged and re-issued multiple times by now – gain increasing stature as landmarks in the emerging consensus on a formal American roots canon. For all of this to happen, though, the editors of The Little Sandy Review first had to invent, essentially from scratch, the foundations of modern rock journalism.

In truth, LSR (as it called itself) had no interest in rock of any kind. At the precise moment of its birth, early 1960, commercial American rock had utterly tanked, flat-lined, bought the old Dick Clark farm, a case of self-immolation from flying terminally close to the monolithic pop flame. More and more rock and roll’s original mid-50s explosion seemed long ago, far away, well past, exhausted, gone forever. Writing for a collegiate and young-adult audience consciously and aggressively alienated from adolescent mass-Pop hardly required stating the obvious.

Early on, for instance, readers received a caveat about John Lee Hooker’s new releases on the Vee Jay label increasingly featuring a ‘rock’ backing, a minor qualm for rabid Hooker fans and for anyone not aware of the great bluesman’s earliest raw Detroit singles. Among other things, however, “rock” surely meant cheapened.

Nonetheless, as Pankake and Nelson, soon joined by Barry Hansen, developed growing interest and expertise in, respectively, old-time string music, contemporary folk performers, and acoustic or electric blues, each unwittingly held strands of the American nerve which would soon fold back into and weave transformations in the greater tapestry of rock and roll itself. And in Dinkytown they were not alone.

Surrounded by a tree-lined neighborhood of aging, inexpensive, multi-story wood-frame housing in the city’s Cedar Riverside riverfront university district, by 1960 Dinkytown’s well-named tiny retail crossroads gave just slight evidence of a nascent local bohemia – such bare obligatory late-50s beacons of the underground as a small radical bookstore and a coffeehouse with a stage for live performers. On the threshold of the new decade, blues and folk music had insinuated their away alongside jazz as the preferred choice of younger beats and older hipsters; and while modern jazz maintained its hegemony on Twin Cities FM and in dorm record collections, on the stage at the Ten O’Clock Scholar, Dinkytown’s lone hang-time café, live jazz wound up stepping aside.

For as luck had it, the local acoustic music underground already demonstrated its own strong, decidedly-unusual bent for traditional styles of playing and delivery. Five-string banjoist Pankake joined with Willie Johnson and other Folksong Society of Minneapolis players, forming Uncle Willie’s Brandy Snifters and putting their collective stash of old string-band 78s on reel-to-reel tape to real use on stage.

Meanwhile, early LSR reviewer and blues harpist Tony Glover, along with Dave Ray and John Koerner, performing around Minneapolis and Saint Paul in various combinations, would soon win wide acclaim for elevating white acoustic “coffeehouse blues” into an intense, driving, near-surreal evocation of archaic styles almost recalling the West Virginia “white blues” artists of the 1920s (Frank Hutchison, Clarence Greene, and Leonard Copeland).

In years hence even The Doors would acknowledge their debt to the Koerner, Ray and Glover albums produced by Paul Nelson. And years before Bob Dylan hit the Village, Dinkytown singer nineteen year-old Bob Zimmerman heard his first Ramblin’ Jack Elliott records, rare 10” British records, in the Spartan quarters of a little local folk music magazine.

Beyond their regional outpost, out across the wide but narrow folk diaspora, subscribers on Little Sandy’s miniscule mailing list soon included, as Jon Pankake recalls with wonder and real pride, “an unusually large proportion of record company owners, label presidents, producers, agents, and industry insiders. It went to influential people.” When both Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman and Vanguard’s Manny Solomon corresponded with the magazine, they gave the little publication immediate credence and gave its editors much private comfort. More letters soon followed, including a rare correction of a Barry Hansen blues review by none other than Moses Asch of Folkways Records, august and legendary eminence grise of the entire 1940s and 1950s folk music Renaissance.

Among LSR’s other early subscribers, Jon Landau in Boston, later Bruce Springsteen’s guiding guru, would cut his teeth on all five years of Little Sandy’s sporadic output before beginning his own career writing record reviews for fledgling Crawdaddy! magazine, the first serious rock journal and initially stapled together in the fanzine manner. Landau’s editor at Crawdaddy!, founder and author Paul Williams, well remembers LSR’s pioneering precedent: “The Little Sandy Review was a kind of forerunner of Crawdaddy!, in a sense. It was strictly a folk music magazine but it had that fanzine kind of feeling to it.”

Indeed, the model or prototype for a publication like Little Sandy barely existed, with all its closest possible antecedents – distant cousins at best – falling well below the horizon, all but invisible among the nation’s many well-established and widely-circulated periodicals. Sing Out!, the only national magazine devoted to “folk music,” founded in 1950 and with a readership in the thousands, had been a venue almost exclusively for song lyrics espousing fleeting Leftist political causes. Nearly always derived from old songs and familiar melodies, the newly re-written versions, cursed with an evanescence and an atomic half-life in fatal milliseconds mostly demonstrated that even preaching to the converted had its pitfalls.

In fact, two years before LSR’s first issue, Sing Out! had finally bowed to economic reality and invited Folkways Records to purchase a 45% share in its ownership, thus providing a source of virtually in-house advertising revenue – formerly non-existent – while allowing the editors to retain those vestiges of the publication’s political past corresponding with Folkways’ own idiosyncratic agenda. To expand its readership, Sing Out!’s editors looked beyond topical songs, letting the extensive Folkways catalog inspire a far wider frame of reference calculated to embrace the rising sales of records, guitars, and banjos for an audience utterly oblivious to its original ideological mandate. As Sing Out!’s sole constant, its one important point of continuity, Pete Seeger’s long running “Johnny Appleseed, Jr.” column remained in place, anchored by Seeger’s new 10% interest in the magazine and expressing the pitch-perfect tone of Seeger’s own, newly-generalized crypto-didactic social idealism.

Beyond Sing Out! – at that point a quarterly – both Caravan in New York City and later, Broadside in Boston regularly printed issues with general articles on the emerging folk music subculture. But like other small folk ‘zines around the country, even these big-city efforts contented themselves with promoting and supporting their lively local scene, its performers, retailers, live venues and hometown readership in general ignorance of everything beyond an economically and editorially circumscribed, entirely regional preoccupation.

On the subject of Little Sandy’s prototypes, both Pankake and Nelson point to the late-50s phenomena of small, specialized “fanzines” devoted to subjects like chess or specific types of jazz, as their most obvious source of inspiration. Describing these publications in detail, Jon Pankake drew the closest points in common with LSR at a symposium in 1991:

“Several characteristics define the fanzine. It is always the product of one or two voices. That is, the fanzine speaks in a personal voice – like getting a letter from someone…. The defining characteristic of the fanzine as a form of journalism is that it conveys a strong point of view on a topic of interest to the publisher. “Fanzine” is, of course, a portmanteau word – a shortening of ‘fanatic’s magazine.’ It is published by a writer who feels very strongly about a subject….”

The somewhat oblique, convoluted connection between LSR and, in this case, larger, mass-pulp movie star and pop record fanzines actually begins with its very name. “In the late 50s,” Pankake explains, “in lower level courses at the university, you would see these young co-eds sitting down in the front of the class – blond pony-tails, sweaters, gold circle pins – and they all carried current issues of fan magazines with black and white and color photos of their favorite stars, and a surprising number of these girls were named Sandy. We were starting a magazine about our own favorite music and our very own stars, so Paul and I decided to name it after all those little Sandys and call it The Little Sandy Review.


2 Responses to “Little Sandy Review”

  1. REED MARTIN Says:

    Thank you for the history lesson. Those of us who grew up during those years never knew this stuff….we just lived it.

  2. Helene Stewart Says:

    Hi, I wondered if you have any way of contacting Jon Pankake please? I’d like to speak with him about a digital archive of The Little Sandy Review. Many thanks! Helene

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