The Folk Box: ‘the kind of album that changes lives’

Wednesday, April 23, 2014
The Folk Box: ‘the kind of album that changes lives’

by Ted Olson

The Folk Box is the kind of album that changes lives—I know this because it changed mine, assuredly for the better. And over the years I have heard that The Folk Box played an important formative role in the lives of many other people.

About the time I was learning to stay upright on a bicycle (1967), I discovered my parents’ record collection, which contained a host of titles—classical and jazz, mostly—that held little appeal to a six-year-old. But one album captured my interest—a thick box set with an appealingly rustic, unpretentious front cover. Somehow that cover spoke to me, in a rough yet reassuring voice, saying “Listen here.” And so I obliged, spinning one and then all of its four LPs on the family turntable. From the speakers wafted voices and songs that were at the same time familiar and mysterious; it was as if I was being summoned to hear news from a world I needed to know about, even if I was too young to fully comprehend that world. The ultimate evidence that that album — The Folk Box — had gotten through to me: I wanted to hear more—more of humanity’s other folk music.

Within a few months of my discovery of The Folk Box, I had memorized some lyrics and tunes of songs from that compilation (I particularly recall learning “In Good Old Colony Times,” “Jesse James,” and “The Coo-Coo Bird”), and I often sang those songs to myself. It didn’t occur to me then to focus on the musicians who performed those songs on The Folk Box. After studying folk music for many years (prompted by early exposure to The Folk Box), I know that in this particular music genre the song’s the thing. Each song (or ballad or tune) is a world unto itself, a distinctive space of beauty and wisdom into which anyone’s imagination may enter and ultimately be awakened and enlivened. Nevertheless, I grew to recognize that The Folk Box had incorporated treasured recordings from a veritable who’s who of musicians active in or legendary during the urban folk revival of the 1950s and early 1960s. Indeed, The Folk Box is chock-full of singularly memorable recordings, whether of musicians who specialized in interpreting traditional music or from musicians who were extending those traditions into more personal sound-spaces. I grew to realize that I loved those songs precisely because the musicians who originally recorded them loved them.

In 1964, as The Folk Box was being compiled and released, hysteria was spreading over the arrival to these shores of the music of the British Invasion. Within a year, Bob Dylan would publicly reject the folk music scene, disgruntled at the pressure to serve as that scene’s spokesperson. Such events rang the death knell for the urban folk revival. But folk music was not dying—it was being transformed. Ever since Dylan started recording his own songs, musicians across America had began to compose and perform new songs overtly modeled on or inspired by the older folk music. This development was chronicled in The Folk Box, which featured some contemporary “folk” songs performed by their composers (Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton). In essence, the album documented the rise of the singer-songwriter movement out of the ashes of the urban folk revival.

Jac Holzman, who founded Elektra Records in 1950, was perhaps the first to notice and to correctly interpret folk music’s transformation. While many of his peers feared what they perceived as a compromise to their beloved music genre, he was fascinated by the possibilities for change within the music and also within the broader culture. Holzman decided to explore this transformation by producing The Folk Box, which celebrated America’s folk music in all its rough-hewn glory—its past and present, and its variety of genres, themes, performers, styles, and ethnic influences. If the music was changing, Holzman decided, he and Elektra would follow it.

To include the broadest possible range of folk music, Holzman augmented recordings from the Elektra back-catalog by licensing carefully selected tracks from other labels, especially from Moe Asch’s Folkways Records. In fact, Asch was included in the project as an artistic director, and leading music critic Robert Shelton was invited to contribute album notes. As a result of this powerhouse collaboration, The Folk Box was a textured, balanced, and visionary compilation. Although unavailable for decades, the album will always be culturally relevant — it will always serve as a time-box safeguarding America’s folk music legacy and as a heartening reminder of an era when people were passionate about singing time-tested songs—songs that will never grow old.

Fifty years later, the songs and performers that grace The Folk Box continue to inspire America’s music and culture (for a sense of the lasting impact of the folk music of the urban folk revival on subsequent musicians, see the specially created Spotify playlist entitled “The Sons and Daughters of The Folk Box”). It is, therefore, both vital and inevitable that The Folk Box is finally being reissued (by Rhino/Elektra, on Record Store Day 2014). Featuring the original version’s classic cover art and 83 tracks over four LPs, The Folk Box: 50th Anniversary Edition reprints Shelton’s original album notes alongside two new essays—an enlightening foreword by Holzman and an historical reassessment by the author of this blog piece. A bonus 7” single—coupling two Elektra recordings: Tom Paxton’s 1964 recording of his best-known song, “The Last Thing On My Mind,” and Judy Collins’ 1965 recording of the song that Dylan composed for her the previous year, “I’ll Keep It With Mine”—is a poignant reminder of where folk music was headed at the auspicious moment of the album’s initial release. The Folk Box: 50th Anniversary Edition will delight the album’s longtime if long-lost friends, but younger people are the real beneficiaries of this reissue project, since this album may change their lives, assuredly for the better.

The Folk Box: 50th Anniversary Edition is now available at your local record store.