2022 April 14—The Singer of Folk Songs

jerry garcia at the 1962 winter berkeley folk music festival & rethinking folk revival modes of interpreting traditional music @ the 2022 virtual popular culture association/american culture association conference.

In the photograph, Sam Hinton—zoologist, oceanographer, illustrator, science museum director, and also songwriter, folk singer, and folk thinker—speaks of folk music tradition in the futuristic Pauley Ballroom at the University of California, Berkeley. Hinton is likely introducing Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, the Greenbriar Boys, Jean Ritchie, and other featured performers at the December 1962 Winter Berkeley Folk Music Festival. Sitting upright and attentive, front row center, is a familiar-looking beatnik. He listens intently to Hinton intently as Hinton perhaps draws on ideas from the previous day’s workshop “Learning to Sing Folk Songs—Tradition and Imitation,” held with esteemed folklorists Ralph Rinzler and Charles Seeger, and also building on Hinton’s ideas in his 1955 Western Folklore essay “The Singer of Folk Songs and His Conscience.” The young man is none other than aspiring folk/bluegrass musician Jerry Garcia. This and other newly discovered photographs of Garcia at the 1962 Winter Berkeley Folk Music Festival ask us to revisit how the young musician absorbed ideas from the folk music revival, particularly what an “imitator” could do with traditions not his own. These ideas would stay with Garcia for the rest of his life and career. Taking in Hinton’s words, singing along with the Georgia Sea Island Singers at a “Fireside Sing,” hanging out with Rinzler, Ritchie, and other performers and attendees, Garcia encountered debates about what it meant to try to incorporate folk music styles into one’s very being rather than merely present them as antiquated museum specimens. Garcia’s Zelig-like presence at the 1962 Berkeley Folk Music Festival raises important questions about race, class, region, and authenticity as they moved through vernacular musical expression in the early 1960s, particularly in Atomic Age California; this helps us reconsider what a transmitter of tradition could be within the disorienting context of post-World War II America.

Watch the talk.

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