Friends of Old Time Music

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edited excerpt from Staging the Folk: New York City’s Friends of Old Time Music by Ray Allen:

In March 1961 the New York Times music critic Robert Shelton announced that “Five farmers from the Blue Ridge Mountains brought a ripe harvest of traditional music to the city Saturday night.”   The farmers turned out to be a group of unknown mountain musicians led by Tennessee banjoist ClarenceAshley and featuring the blind guitar virtuoso Arthel “Doc” Watson.

The concert, held at P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village, was sponsored by a loosely knit organization of urban folk enthusiasts with the down-home moniker the Friends of Old Time Music (FOTM), a group Shelton characterized as “a sort of Anglicized, folk-oriented Pro Music Antiqua.”

A month prior to the Ashley/Watson presentation the FOTM had staged their inaugural concert with Kentucky banjoist and songster Roscoe Holcomb, and over the next four years would sponsor performances by an array of country, blues, and spiritual singers.   FOTM artists Mother Maybelle Carter, Dock Boggs, Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Almeda Riddle, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, Gus Cannon, and Bessie Jones, along with the aforementioned Ashley, Watson, and Holcomb, would become heroes to  folkies who favored homegrown southern styles over the sanitized commercial folk music that had reached a national audience in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

John Cohen admitted that:

“There was a misconception about Clarence Ashley by many of us who had heard him originally on the 1952 Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music LP. Here is this man with an incredible, high, clean voice, carrying on with great naiveté the purity of this music, the Appalachian sound. And this old guy comes out on stage, snapping his suspenders—he was a Vaudeville entertainer—in that tradition. And then we found out he had done blackfaced comedy. He was a great entertainer, but we couldn’t cast him in the mold of the pure mountaineer, when the pure mountaineer wasn’t so pure.”

The Friends of Old Time Music’s attempts to present white mountain musicians in the heat of the civil rights movement to a progressive New York City audience steeped in the leftist folk song tradition of Guthrie and Seeger proved politically sticky. John Cohen recalls a group of young students hanging out at Izzy Young’s MacDougal Street Folklore Center in early June 1961 wondering out loud if the upcoming FOTM concert would showcase “those southern white guys in the white sheets.” When the March 1961 Ashley/Watson program ended with all the participants singing a powerful rendition of “Amazing Grace,” Cohen observed that the secular, heavily Jewish audience was deeply moved at what some New Yorkers might have viewed as a display of redneck Bible-thumping. Later he realized:

“The act of finding linkages between people who would otherwise be opposed to one another was interesting and political. We were putting our stamp of approval on these white guys who [whose culture] until that time had been stereotyped as racists, lynchers, and all those nightmarish things about the South. We were trying to turn Ashley and Watson and the Stanleys into real people, and I thought this was a good thing—acknowledging those people and their culture was political. … We were looking for deeply human, positive connections rather than confrontations.”

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