November-December 2007

Folk music was confused by these changes on one level, but also very much a driving force. When the recording industry realized that there was a new sound coming from places like San Francisco, they fell all over each other trying to sign the “next big thing.” Most of these next big things were folk musicians that had altered their minds, their set lists and plugged in their guitars. Many of the groups associated with the psychedelic Summer of Love started out as folk, bluegrass or blues players. The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia was a banjo playing bluegrasser. Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen was a discipline of the country blues, particularly the fingerstyle guitar work of the Reverend Gary Davis. Jessie Colin Young of the Youngbloods had already released a solo folk album before strapping on the electric bass, then the electric guitar, for his rock career. And the first single for Big Brother and the Holding Company was The Cuckoo, though there is no record of whether Roscoe Holcomb heard Janis Joplin’s version.

By 1967, folk rock boom was starting to wane. The Byrds of Los Angeles moved from jangly Bob Dylan tunes to psychedelic modal songs. Donovan went from his Woody Guthrie/Jack Elliot/Bob Dylan stage to a new persona, where caftans and incense were di rigueur. Former New Christy Minstrel Barry McGuire had chart success with the mega-histrionic Eve of Destruction, but even he chafed at a tune called San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers In Your Hair) written by the Mamas and the Papas’ John Phillips. So the backing track was used with Scott McKenzie warbling the tune. It became a smash in 1967, which doesn’t lead much credence to the myth that all 1960s music was great. Or even good.

Although there were isolated cases of tie dye fever impacting folkies, for the most part the folk ingredient in the Summer of Love was more the slightly altered folk tradition of singing in the park, but the Summer of Lovers were communing with nature while singing about peace, love and brotherhood rather than The Erie Canal.

Probably the greatest impact of folk music on the Summer of Love was much more philosophical in nature. Although the fame of The Beatles, Stones, etc., sent millions of teenagers and guitars into their garages and sometimes on to the rock and pop charts, there was a decidedly marked separation of audience and performer. One sat or stood screaming for your favorite rock band. Folk music had always been an inclusive music, where that differentiation of audience and performer are often much dimmer. Since a large portion of the new psychedelic rock bands had folk roots, this distinction now was blurred far more than in other forms of popular music. True, it was the Dead on stage in the park, but rather than the be-all of the be-in, they were just one fragment of the overall “experience.” The dancers, the mimes, the jugglers, the communing with nature in a crowded urban park: all these were component of what was happening. The band improvising over a haze of burnt rope was certainly important, but not in the manner that a “concert” in the park, with the more traditional audience/performer stereotype.

he Summer of Love seemed to collapse under its own weight, and much of the urban hippie scene derogated into hard drugs. Many of the hippies decided a rural existence made more sense, moved out to the boonies and this was also reflected in the flavor of the music, with the Dead’s Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty as prime examples.

But pop music doesn’t stand still, so the audience/performer dichotomy became the norm soon enough. However, one could postulate that part of the popularity of the Dead, and even some of the younger “jam” bands, is due at least in part to the familial nature of these groups and their fans and followers. With this familial nature, some of the traditional “backstage boundaries” are removed or softened. The event includes a musical experience, but that musical experience may not be the main focus for some participants.

Folk music survived the Summer of Love, although those of us that saw Tom Paxton in a Nehru jacket may never be able to shake the image.


Dennis Roger Reed is a singer-songwriter, musician and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He’s released two solo CDs, and appeared on two CDs with the newgrassy Andy Rau Band and two CDs with the roots rockers Blue Mama. His prose has appeared in a variety of publications such as the OC Weekly and MOJO magazine. Writing about his music has appeared in an eclectic group of publications such as Bass Player, Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Blue Suede News and Sing Out! His oddest folk resume entry would be the period of several months in 2002 when he danced onstage as part of both Little Richard’s and Paul Simon’s revues. He was actually asked to do the former and condoned by the latter. He apparently knows no shame.


Previous Columns