We all know the women of the folk movement: Infamous 27-club member Janis Joplin who yelled of heart-break, while draped in feathers and beads. Then there’s Joni Mitchell and her high-pitched dreaming and Carol King, whose every song was imbued with her strong sense of home and friendship.
These women broke records in music history and popularised the folk movement along with other greats like Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel and Woody Guthrie.
But what about those female folk singers who sought action beyond singing the stories of community and life: those who sought to strike a match and cause a reaction?
Joan Baez, Melanie Safka and Vashti Bunyan were three of those who fought, in their own ways, for the political and social plight from which the folk ideology had stemmed.
Joan Baez, an ex of Bob Dylan’s, did more than just attack him through song. Joan’s actions are found in her folk concerts where she dedicated hours to presenting ideas for political harmonies as solutions to contemporary problems. While this sounds more like a lecture than a concert, Joan’s use of the peaceful notes of folk melodies combined with an ethereal almost operatic voice created a soothing experience during which her call to action came through as calming encouragement.
At concerts Joan sang of how the world as a group “shall overcome” its problem by walking “hand in hand”. She recalls contemporary history, speaking of forgiving the Germans after the Second World War, the Russians after the Cold war and she reminds her audience of the Spanish Civil War as well.
From 1962 Joan became involved in the American civil rights movement. She held concerts at different colleges promoting non-discrimination policies, protested the Vietnam War, anti-gay laws, the death sentence, and advocated in favour of workers’ rights and on behalf of the Free Speech Movement. Joan even participated in a march with Dr Martin Luther King protesting the beating of black children who were trying to enrol in schools post segregation.
Joan did not simply address the issues that struck a chord with the youth of her day, but took public action, providing the 1960s youth with direction and a path of action.
Her creation of The Institute for the Study of Nonviolence puts Joan in a realm of her own, with the exception perhaps of music-artist John Cage and poet Allen Ginsberg. This school, argued Joan, sought to teach people to use non-violent means to make change in the world: theoretical and song-driven activism at its finest.
Vashti Bunyan also sought change through non-violent action, although her girly singing does not immediately make this obvious. Her happy, child-like tunes obscure the fact that Vashti subtly preached the benefits of socialist and communal living, promoting farming and self-sustainability.
“Just a blade of grass
Just another bale of hay
And the horses pass
Just another field to plough
Just a grain of wheat
Just a sack of seed to sow
And the children eat
Just another life to live
Just a word to say
Just another love to give
And a diamond day”.
While Vashti continues the tradition of story-telling through song, her folk melodies encourage the type of action sought by several utopian groups, most notably the hippies. Posthumously, the hippie-dom of the 1960s seems ubiquitous, but it in fact only denoted one group of youth that settled in San Francisco. In regards to fashion and ideas of freedom, the symbol and image of the Hippie was adapted around the world, but in terms of action, that is, self-sustainable, communal living, the ideology of the original hippies was not adopted or taken up as commonly as we, today, imagine. Vashti’s songs of communal dreams express the theories and hopes of a few who moved to Israel to live on Kibbutz or to rural America or Australia to create such communities, but does not to any great extent define the action of the times. Although Vashti herself merely sang rather than taking action, the power of her song encouraged or at least reminded people of the value to be found in self-sustaining communities – a lesson still being taught today!
Melanie Safka did not promote group action or group living as a way of life but was rather an individualist. Today we tend to read this in the context of feminism. She writes of the pain of losing love, but also recounts playful tales often told in folk songs, as did her counterparts, Vashti Bunyan, Carol King and Janis Joplin. Yet Melanie’s sorrow and tales are overridden by her determination to “make it on (her) own.” She decries the destruction of her own song in “Look What They’ve Done to my Song Ma”, which has a haunting metaphorical meaning, and sings of her personal everyday rituals, which although often melancholy, have a strong sense of self-determination behind them. From the more mundane: “when I finish my laundry, And air out my head…Gonna make it without you, And that’s what’s so sad”, to the self-aware: “All the things, That I have known, Became my life, My very own.” Melanie creates her own narrative in doing this. For the 1960s, Melanie is staunchly independent and self consciously so. While we take this for granted today, Melanie is a forerunner to the snarling female rappers of our time. In a much less aggressive manner and with a subtle but very real feminism, we hear how a woman carves her path in the world. This is not a grandiose tale but rather, with the use of folk song, it becomes a song of every woman.
From everyday feminism and encouraging communal life to seeking an end to political violence and hate, these women were very much a backbone of the social and political psyche of the folk movement. Better still, they were the true movers and shakers; forget rock n roll!