This month, our friends at the East Tennessee Historical Society are hosting a first-ever History Hootenanny.
The word has a down-homey feel, which makes it a little surprising that it’s actually not a very old word, as words go. It began appearing sometime in the early 20th century as a word for a gadget, a synonym for thingamajig. Other meanings I’ve found allude to a strange animal by that name, a mythical country place, and a faddish 1920s dance step.
It wasn’t until after World War II that it took on a whole new meaning, partly inspired by a young banjo player and singer named Pete Seeger. By 1946, with American Youth for Democracy, he was involved in something called “The Workers’ Hootenanny.” They were known to popularize “People’s Songs.” Knoxville’s own Brownie McGhee was involved in one at New York’s Town Hall, that year, with the theme “Sing to Kill Jim Crow.”
If that particular movement caught on in Knoxville, it was under the radar.
The very first time I’ve seen the word Hootenanny in reference to a musical event in a Knoxville newspaper was in a 1956 column by New York-based syndicated columnist Frederick Woltman. He was an anti-Communist, albeit an anti-McCarthy one. Woltman explained that Hootenannies, which involved folk music and square dancing, were part of a Soviet plot.
But “Hootenanny,” launched in early 1963, was a folksy mainstream musical variety show hosted by Jack Linkletter, the youthful son of widely known host Art Linkletter. It was on ABC, the youngest of the three national networks.
In Knoxville, ABC was the UHF station, rather hard to pick up, sometimes fuzzy even if you had the extra antenna it required.
With no clue what was ahead, the Beatles, then the war in Vietnam, then the Hippies, TV stations and recording studios were trying to keep up with whatever was current. And in 1963, the hippest thing around was still the Folk Revival.
Some of it was authentically old stuff, as the half-forgotten Carter Family was enjoying a revival and Flatt and Scruggs were bringing bluegrass to the mainstream. Some of the new music turned out to be interesting new variations on the old styles, sometimes with an incisive message, with Bob Dylan leading the way. Much of it was clean-cut, overscrubbed young people doing cheerful versions of old murder ballads. Some of it was overtly political. Much of it was just silly. I have older friends who are fans of all of it. But to get what bluegrass has to do with the New Christy Minstrels, maybe you really had to be there.
ABC’s “Hootenanny” was regarded with skepticism by some folk revivalists. “Hootenanny” was devoutly anti-political, except to the degree that it was specifically anti-communist, which some critics considered a betrayal of the Hootenanny ideal as created by Seeger. In fact, as ABC tried to steer clear of any taint of controversy, word got around that they were declining to invite the lefty folksters like Seeger. The more radical folksingers of New York, like Joan Baez and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, announced a performer boycott. It says much about Seeger himself that he opposed the boycott, because he believed getting folk music on the air on prime time was always a good thing.
The show did promote some interesting talent. Several respected performers made it to Hootenanny, including Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, the Staple Singers, and Flatt & Scruggs—as did several musicians who would later be prominent in the counterculture, like John Sebastian, “Mama” Cass Elliott, and Gene Clark of the Byrds.
To try to pry open the youth market, Hootenanny traveled to host shows on college campuses. Very few of those were in the South. But in January, 1964, the big show came to UT. The event was not in Alumni Auditorium, where Nina Simone performed that year—but in a venue that might have seemed more folkie-authentic at the time: the Brehm Animal Sciences Building. It had a big auditorium where students got to look at live cattle.
A rumor got around that ABC wanted UT students to wear blue jeans to the show, to give the audience a sort of farmboy authenticity for the camera. But it was 1964, not 1969, and many UT students found the suggestion insulting. A petition circulated around campus to boycott the show. It had nothing to do with excluding Pete Seeger. UT students didn’t want ABC-TV to spread the stereotype that Tennessee students were the sort of hillbillies who wore blue jeans to concerts.
About 3,000 attended anyway, many wearing trousers of some sort, and they witnessed quite a show unlikely to repeated here or elsewhere, ever.
In Knoxville, Jack Linkletter introduced a wacky assortment of Hollywood stars, country legends, and a few talented people who wouldn’t be famous until years in the future. Most performed just a couple of songs, then yielded the stage to the next act.
Some performers were familiar locals, including the Cumberland Trio, a UT group who sang the gospel tune “Ride All the Way, Lord.” Especially famous, and still popular after decades in the business, were Homer and Jethro, nationally popular musical comedians whose pop-parody albums were college-party favorites, perhaps the precursors of Weird Al Yankovic. The duo had begun their career in Knoxville 30 years earlier. For the show, they did their famous parodies of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” and Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons,” as well as a local favorite of their own, “Tennessee, Tennessee.” For the Chicago transplants, it was their first show in Knoxville in four years. That in itself made it a sensation.
The Geezinslaw Brothers were also a guitar-mandolin musical comedy duo, based in Austin, Tex., younger folks perhaps inspired by Homer and Jethro. Their new album was called The Kooky World of the Geenzinslaw Brothers. They sang “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More.”
Joan Toliver was there, a striking woman with short dark hair and a distinctive style that combined pop with soulful blues. She hushed the crowd with her beautiful rendition of “Flowers Are Forever Blooming.” The singer had a big year, later on the Mike Douglas, Johnny Carson, and Today shows. Her album was called The Most Unusual Joan Toliver. She’s hard to track after that. She’s on the pop-culture radar in 1964, not much before or after.
The Serendipity Singers, formerly known as the Newport Singers, had evolved from the show itself. They seemed modern, but they represented a genre on its last legs, at least as a pop-music stalwart: the tightly disciplined choral group singing folk songs, in the tradition of the New Christy Minstrels. In Knoxville, they sang several songs, but the only ones that got the reporter’s attention were “Let Me Fly” and “Mud.” But when the nine singers were in Knoxville, they were just about to release the crypto-Calypso song, “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down,” which would be a big, happy radio hit a few weeks later. That song’s peak may have represented the very end of the calypso vogue that had been around the fringes of American pop for 20 years.
A mostly Hawaiian group called the Travelers 3, featuring Hawaiian singer Pete Apo, were there, singing “Roll Along.”
Most of those you might expect at a folk-music show aimed at Middle America. But the Knoxville bill seems dominated by surprises.
Stretching the folk idea to its limits, and maybe beyond, was 33-year-old New Orleans clarinetist Pete Fountain, performing with his band the instrumental tune “Put on Your Old Gray Bonnet,” as well as “Lady Be Good.” A local reporter described it as “progressive jazz.”
One of the most recognizable performers to UT students was Sheb Wooley, who most knew as a TV cowboy star who’d had speaking roles in several movies, including High Noon, but better known more recently as scout Pete Nolan in the primetime Western series “Rawhide.” When it started, Wooley was more famous than his co-star, Clint Eastwood. He was also a singer, and in 1964 some college kids may have known him best for a hit song, a novelty piece in ’58 called “Purple People Eater.” Onstage, he dressed like his cowboy character, and was one of the few targeted by autograph seekers.
Vaughn Meader was, three months earlier, one of the most popular comedians in America, known for his spot-on impersonations of John Kennedy. The young president was a fan, himself. But Meader was only 27 when his career had ended the previous Nov. 22. Nobody wanted to make fun of an assassinated president. Meader was trying some different kinds of comedy in Knoxville. It still wasn’t clear any of it was going to work. He told jokes about Barry Goldwater and John Glenn.
Bill Monroe, hailed in retrospect as the inventor of bluegrass, was there. The mandolinist was then 51, no longer young and raw and surprising, but not yet acknowledged as an American legend. According to country-music scholar Paul Campbell, Monroe and his band, which at the time included Del McCoury and Bill Keith, both virtuosos and future stars in their own right, had been in Knoxville that week anyway, performing with Monroe on the Cas Walker show a couple of days before. Apparently Keith was sympathetic with the boycott, and in any case neither he nor McCoury performed with Monroe on “Hootenanny.” Monroe found a couple of Knoxville musicians, banjoist Joe Drumwright and fiddler Benny Williams, to take their place. Monroe’s vigorous, uncompromising years had been in the 1940s, and in the 1960s, he was relaxing his ideas about what constituted true bluegrass, playing around with pop music and featuring a female lead singer. The blonde mentioned in news stories appears to have been Bessie Lee Mauldin, whose status as Monroe’s girlfriend was then a secret known mainly to his band. A News-Sentinel reporter called them a “folk-singing group.” Their tunes included “Gotta Travel On.”
Mother Maybelle Carter had once been a significant third of the original 1927 Carter Family whose records put country on the popular-music map, but at 54 she didn’t turn many heads in Knoxville. She was leading her reconstituted Carter Family, including her three daughters, including June, then 34, before she got involved with Johnny Cash. The Carters had lived in Knoxville about 14 or 15 years before; some in the audience may have remembered when the Carters signed records at Sears, or helped open gas stations on Kingston Pike. On “Hootenanny,” they wore coordinated blue jumpers and sang “It Takes a Worried Man.”
What’s striking about local newspaper coverage of the event is the lack of obvious reverence toward either Bill Monroe or Maybelle Carter. They’re legends today, considered seminal figures in the evolution of one of the most popular forms or American culture. By 1964, they’d already accomplished everything that makes them immortals, in Halls of Fame meriting significant portions of the recent Ken Burns documentary, Country Music.
But in 1964, Bill and Maybelle were perceived as just creditable has-beens, talented musicians still gamely trying to entertain us even when their day was obviously over. In Knoxville, they didn’t cause as much of a stir as Sheb Wooley and Vaughn Meader, younger pop-culture figures who’d gotten much more TV exposure in recent years.
It happened to Elvis, Duke Ellington, Buster Keaton, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In fact, most of the legends of American culture have a trough in middle age when what they pioneered no longer seemed relevant. Some of them live long enough to be rediscovered and venerated for their contributions. Many don’t.
Probably getting more attention than anybody when he walked into the Brehm building that week was tall, lantern-jawed Eddy Arnold, the Tennessee Plowboy himself, who’d been a crossover pop star since the ‘40s. The Eddy Arnold Show had been canceled in ’56, and he was 45 now, but he was still a star in his home state. He obliged fans with autographs. He was working on reviving his career with a new style suitable to a middleaged voice, but “Make the World Go Away” was still a couple of years in the future.
Another was a 25-year-old newcomer. “Big, burly Hoyt Axton, an Oklahoma boy,” as described in the News-Sentinel, he was not widely famous at the time, but his song “Greenback Dollar” had been a hit for Kingston Trio the year before.
A group from Minneapolis called the GoldeBriars were there, singing a song called “Sarah Jane.” One of them, a 20-year-old singer and guitarist, was Curt Boettcher, who later achieved some success and a bit of a cult following as a songwriter and producer of associated with “sunshine pop,” working with bands like the Association and the Beach Boys, before his death at age 43.
One family act was the Simon Sisters, “with long hair and wearing bright red dresses.” Surely aware of the boycott controversy, they sang their own distinctive rendition of Pete Seeger’s recent song, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” more than a year before the Byrds recorded it. The Simons would have a minor hit single in ‘64, “Winkin,’ Blinkin,’ and Nod.” Only 20 when she played in the Brehm Animal Science Building, the younger of the two Simon sisters would later have a few more hits under her own name.
One performer from our region is one of the most surprising on the list. Doc Watson, the singer and guitarist from up the road in Boone, NC. He’s remembered as a legend today. In ’64, he wasn’t young, but just getting started with his recording career. He had debuted at the Newport Folk Festival the year before, but most folk fans had never seen him before when he sang “Deep River Blues.” When he performed, few knew he was blind, and wondered why Pete Fountain got up to help him off the stage.
The UT students persuaded to wear blue jeans in public for that show went back to wearing sensible twill slacks. I’m not sure what they all got out of “Hootenanny,” or how they remember it.
Just 18 days after the close of the Knoxville “Hootenanny,” another mainstream live-audience music show with a similar format but a broader range of genres welcomed a band who would change everything. It was the “Ed Sullivan Show,” featuring, for the first time, the Beatles. It wasn’t their fault; the lads from Liverpool liked folk music, and had sometimes performed it. But the cliché that nothing was the same after that night is partly true. You didn’t hear folk music on the radio much after 1964. Before the year was over, ABC’s “Hootenanny” was canceled.
Some performers adapted to new times and new tastes.
Musicians live hard. Very few of the known performers at the Knoxville “Hootenanny” of 1964 are still alive today. Pete Apo, singer and songwriter for the Travelers 3, returned to his native Hawaii and has been a politician and outspoken activist there. As of this summer, he still performs now and then. He’s one exception.
But two of them are among the future success stories. The older member of the Simon Sisters was Lucy Simon, who later wrote for Broadway, including a Tony-nominated score for The Secret Garden, a 1991 adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s famous story.
Right about seven years after they performed in the Brehm Animal Science Building, the younger member of the sister act had a solo radio hit, one called “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be.” Her name was, of course, Carly Simon.
I’ve asked around, and haven’t yet found anyone who remembers being in the crowd at UT’s Hootenanny, and seeing a show not exactly like any other in history.
Bill Monroe, Maybelle Carter, Eddy Arnold, Homer and Jethro, Doc Watson, Hoyt Axton, and Carly Simon. Go to a Hootenanny, next time you have a chance. You never know what you’re going to witness.