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`Hootenanny' returns, tamely

The ABC folk jamboree series, which played it safe in the '60s and alienated some acts, is revisited in a `best of' DVD collection.

January 12, 2007|Richard Harrington | The Washington Post

In 1963, just as the nationwide popularity of folk music reached a pinnacle, ABC's "Hootenanny" became the first (and, it turns out, last) weekly network series devoted to folk music, a traveling folk jamboree taped in front of students at college campuses across the nation. Jack Linkletter, son of Art, hosted what was pretty much nonstop music, sometimes talking over performances as if he were taping "Wild Kingdom."

"Mild Kingdom" was more like it. ABC decided there would be no Marxist minstrels and blacklisted Pete Seeger, which led to a boycott of the show by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary. "The Best of Hootenanny," a new three-DVD collection ($44.98) from Shout! Factory, shows that viewers instead got the Limeliters, the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Brothers Four and solo acts such as Theodore Bikel and Judy Collins, the latter only briefly. When ABC insisted Collins revise a lyric to "Anathea" (included here) to transform the song's villain to a "righteous" man, she refused any more appearances.

Still, "Hootenanny" proved popular enough for a second season, and the half-hour show expanded to an hour. ABC even offered to drop the Seeger ban -- provided he sign a "loyalty oath." When that was made public, some acts that had appeared in the first season refused to return. Ironically, Seeger and his mentor, Woody Guthrie, were the ones who'd popularized the term "hootenanny" for a gathering of folk singers in concert; 91 performances are captured on the DVDs in black-and-white, taken from kinescopes of the live shows.

With a longer running time and a dwindling talent pool, ABC compensated by adding bluegrass and country artists (Flatt & Scruggs, Johnny Cash, Eddy Arnold), an occasional jazz act (Herbie Mann's "Down by the Riverside" is no harbinger of folk-jazz) and pop artists such as Trini Lopez, whose 1963 version of "If I Had a Hammer" had gone to No. 3. The DVD set also features such stand-up comedians as Louis Nye, Jackie Vernon, a young Woody Allen and Bill Cosby making his network TV debut.

By 1964, folk was fading as a result of the Beatles and the British Invasion, and ABC made one final countermove by bringing in the popular New Christy Minstrels and the Serendipity Singers to alternate as headline acts.

By September, "Hootenanny" was history, revisited 40 years later in Christopher Guest's comedy "A Mighty Wind." Watching that film's New Main Street Singers, you'll recognize the Serendipity Singers and New Christy Minstrels: 10 smiling, fresh-faced young men and women earnestly singing upbeat songs in big-voiced unison reminiscent of Mitch Miller and Up With People. Guest's faux folk trio, the Folksmen, was a perfect distillation of all the milquetoast trios found here in their suits or striped shirts, with a uniform lineup of two guitars (and/or a banjo) and stand-up bass -- all strum, no Drang -- delivering songs with an eagerness and earnestness that has little emotional connection to the material.

It's not always easy to differentiate from among the Travelers Three, the Chad Mitchell Trio and the Journeymen, the last singing "Stackolee" fronted by a very clean-cut, future "Papa" John Phillips. At least the Limeliters had Glenn Yarbrough's pure high tenor; the Rooftop Singers, those 12-string guitars. There are fun celebrity sightings, including a very serious Carly Simon, half of the Simon Sisters, singing "Winkin', Blinkin' and Nod" and Seeger's "Turn, Turn, Turn"; the Dillards, who would not be popular until they signed on three years later as the Darling Family on "The Andy Griffith Show"; Barry McGuire, a rough-hewn Minstrel two years away from his "Eve of Destruction"; and Dian & the Greenbriar Boys, whose mandolinist, Ralph Rinzler, became a Smithsonian curator for American art and music and co-founder of the annual Folk Life Festival.

Wonderful acts such as Ian & Sylvia and the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem play alongside the forgotten Joe & Eddie, Richard & Jim and Jimmie Rodgers (sadly, not the father of country; this Jimmie's big hit was "Honeycomb"). There's a touch of gospel (Clara Ward, Marion Williams), a dab of world music (Miriam Makeba, Bikel) and the inevitable mass finale featuring the collegiate audiences singing and clapping in fierce 4/4 time. Funny moment: For the "Kumbayah" finale that closes Disc 1, producers insisted it be performed at a hyper-paced tempo so the show would have an up-tempo ending. In protest, Bob Gibson replaces his assigned verse with the subversive "someone's kidding, Lord -- Kumbayah."

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