January-February 2021

The Third Rail

By Art Podell

third railBefore we get into the weeds, I’ve got a mea culpa. In a previous article, I mentioned that my early folk music group, Art and Paul (Columbia Records, 1961) had enough positive response that our parent label hired two songwriters to write a song just for us. The song was Sealed With A Kiss. As I painfully recalled in the article, we rejected it because it just wasn’t a pure sounding folk song. Yikes! Looking back, I suddenly realized that in plain English, we were being “politically correct”! Us. Me. Yes, so as not to offend our precious Greenwich Village folk music “community,” we stifled our instinct to go for stardom in favor of not losing favor with our peer group.

Everyone knows what a third rail is. Right? As a kid growing up in New York holding my mother’s hand at the BMT station platform on Avenue J in Brooklyn, she would point to the shiny elevated rail next to the tracks and describe the horror that awaited anyone who merely touched it. From that day on, I never stood closer than two feet from the edge of the platform. Even in later years, if my impatience urged me to peer down the track hoping to catch sight of my train, I always checked my position so that no errant shoulder might inadvertently bump me over the edge into the dreaded crocodile kiss of the third rail.

So what’s this got to do with the ’60s and the music business? As fortune would have it, the gravy train that rolled up when it was my turn (1961-2), was the formation of a group called The New Christy Minstrels. Stardom beckoned and when our first hit record broke on the charts, history played the trump card (I know, I know, it’s just an expression). The year was 1962 and we had just released our first album Presenting The New Christy Minstrels. Columbia Records was eager to promote us and while everyone was deliberating which of our songs was to become our single release from the album, in a sudden twist of fate, the Cuban Missile Crisis struck. Naturally, the Woody Guthrie anthem This Land is Your Land, the first track on that album, rocketed us to the top of the charts and The New Christy Minstrels were suddenly on the map. In subsequent years, the group never made any political statements. True, we honored traditional American heroes, Paul Bunyan, Casey Jones, Joe Magarac, Mount Rushmore, but no current politics. The Vietnam war raged on and we remained silent. We remained true to the roots of early American folk music and never went near current events. There were nine of us and each had his or her own views. Our audience was in tune with us so why rock the boat? Business. You know.

Our silence was felt as the sixties rolled along and there was no question that we were slowly becoming marginalized by the new ‘folk movement’ which was solidly behind the anti-war movement and civil rights and their audience was in lock-step with them. But our group started to become downright scorned by some for our silence. Not that we didn’t agree or disagree but each of us was different and we sang for an audience that loved us the way we were. But when all is said and done, we were politically correct as a group. No doubt about it. Blindfold please. Ready, aim, fire!

I remember the first time I felt it keenly. It was a cold feeling. Joan B. was at the top of the star list in the folk music world at the time (probably still is) and we were all part of a gala performance at Madison Square Garden in New York. We were slated to sing two or three songs as I remember and she was scheduled to follow us later in the program. I looked for her backstage, eager to see this icon of major folk music stardom up close and perhaps say hello. Then I saw her and her body language message was very clear. “Stay away!” Huh? Weren’t we all guitar picking troubadours who had risen to fame during the sixties? Apparently not.

The folk movement had become clearly identified with protest and who were we? Relics. Yet, we made music and made lots of people happy.

Which brings us to today’s protest climate in a once again (still?) divided nation. Nothing new there. Think back to the civil war. Great music on both sides.

Today, the music of the sixties anti-war, peace, love, and all the etcetera, echoes faintly in the folk music community as it struggles for identity. Songs of unity reach ears that need definition. True, there is a core belief that favors one version of America’s heart, but the divide is a silent third rail that waits for some errant musician to touch it. Once he or she does…they are branded. Group think is now dominated by (this one’s obvious) the social media outlets…you know, Face-thing, Insta-thing, Twit-thing. Step over the line and Katy Bar The Door. Branded. Believe it or not, social media has taken the place of the street corner bard.

So, the big question. How does a virile music community express itself with divergent views of public discourse in a divided nation? Walk into a song circle of guitar pickers here in the west and sing a well-crafted song that points in the “wrong” direction? Poof! Branded! Many a sincere folk singer has felt the sting. It is a path yet to be explored and adventures into the forest of divergent ideas face dangerous predators.

In a recent email exchange about the subject, a friend commented the following:

"Fascinating times ... The underlying issues that have been in play for decades [are] coming to a head.  It should he a rich time for folksingers, and some are singing of it...but they are singing the overexposed topics already covered by the media and Hollywood celebrities. Their past influence as a clarion voice of truth has been supplanted by talking heads on countless 24-hour news networks. The notion that today's folksingers are getting "out-hooted" by the barrage of media bouffants might become a healthy rallying cry...rich with opportunity for snide humor.

He further comments that he’d love to hear a song called “Johnny Can’t Read” or one called “Mary Can’t Add” commemorating the dumbing down of our schools. So if there’s a folkie out there who is willing to take up the challenge and risk offending some unions and legislators, send the song to me and if it’s good I’ll play it on the air during my radio show on KPFK.

For historical perspective, I offer this short musical history lesson.


Or, for the healing power that music has, perhaps this Bob Gibson/Tom Paxton/Annie Hills folk classic:


and if you are not tired of me, here’s one of my latest:


There you have it. Folksingers, get out there and rattle the cage no matter what side you are on.

And always remember that you just never know for whom you sing. And no matter what you believe, put it to music. Maybe some sense can come of this disturbing age we live in. No?

 “… and for my next song”…Zap! Ouch!

Art Podell was one half of the iconic Greenwich Village duo Art and Paul before moving to L.A. in 1961. An original member of the New Christy Minstrels, Art wrote songs for many of the artists of the day. He continues to perform and write and he rotates as a host of KPFK’s Roots Music and Beyond.


All Columns by Art Podell