July 19th, 2007 by Bruce Edwards
In the Spring of 1963, when ABC was the upstart ugly stepsister (read: FOX network) of broadcast TV, its programming heads would try anything to garner ratings away from venerable NBC and CBS, all to try to get their meager affiliate base off of UHF channels. Someone very groovy and cool decided it would be a good idea to try to introduce middle America to the powerful music and satiric humor of the growing civil rights and anti-war movements. The result was the remarkable but short-lived show called Hootenanny. It survived almost two years.
I loved it, even at eleven, and even not catching all of the clever allusions and biting ironies of the lyrics and stand-up patter. And I can say to this day, Hootenanny helped me define the boundaries of my worldview, proving once and for all that music and comedy can save the world.
What was “Hootenanny”? The airing of live, spontaneous, in-the-round concerts from college campuses, featuring wily, winsome protest songs, acoustic virtuosos on banjo and guitar and on the harmonica (think: before the British invasion and before the dominance of amplified sound), reviving as well as reliving traditional American folk ballads and Negro spirituals drawn from underground railroad days, all the while demonstrating fearlessness in tweaking the establishment through topical humor.
What prompts this reverential reverie? The fact that somebody very groovy and cool at The Shout! Factory saw fit to resurrect the silvery kinescopes of this inimitable 60s show and sell them as a 3 DVD “greatest hits” set. This is pre-videotape archiving, mind you, so the residue of their rescue efforts is grainy, rough cut (remember, this was live TV), and monophonic. But gloriously black and white and improbably moving.
Hosted by All-American, cardigan-sweatered, perpetually smiling Jack Linkletter, the son of then ubiquitously famous TV personality and host, Art Linkletter, Hootenanny featured his intrusively earnest voiceovers introducing the proverbial, now stereotyped, “singer-slash-sensitive-slash-songwriter” artists and duos and trios and quartets on campuses from coast to coast. Hootenanny focused ABC’s minor key audience unabashedly on youth (as “collegiate”) culture and conscience, an antidote to the “graying of America” prophesied by many dour social prophets in the post WWII era.
Indeed, Hootenanny arrived near the end of Camelot (the JFK years), an era of high optimism (“a man on the moon before the end of the decade!”); my aging junior high in Akron, OH even got into the act, as the misspelled ticket on the right demonstrates how popular the format would get, albeit a little too late to be hip, even by Akron standards. Without Hootenanny, nobody could possibly grasp the magnificent mimicry of Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind, nor should they try. Hootenanny was somewhat the tv equivalent of a one-hit wonder: imagine– a live concert every Saturday (or, after a ratings drop, Tuesday), holding up a savage mirror to docile, peace-time Americans to reveal their seething racism and militarism? Preposterous!
The cavalcade of quality, legendary performers-before-they-were-stars who appeared on Hootenanny is astonishing and includes the following: Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, Carly Simon, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Jimmie Rodgers, Miriam Makeba, Barry McGuire (New Christy Minstrels lead singer), John Philips (late of the Mamas and the Papas), and Trini Lopez. What they sung is the soundtrack for most socially conscious grown-ups of the era: If I Had a Hammer, Marching to Pretoria, Kumbayah, Michael, Row the Boat Ashore, Turn, Turn, Turn, and Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.
Here, on network TV, are Ian and Sylvia, the great Canadian duo, singing “Jesus met the woman at the well,” free of cynicism, and The Chad Mitchell Trio mocking the radical right-wing “John Birch Society” in an eponymous song that cost ABC some sponsors no doubt. There is something wonderfully archaic yet oddly contemporary about these three discs that commend themselves to the wistful and melancholy among us babyboomer romantics who had their own, unique “summer of love” four years before Sgt. Pepper.
Besides the music, the first episodes capture the spectacle of what campus audiences in 1963 looked like: amazingly “clean-cut” boys and well-coiffed “coeds” fill the bleachers and the deck chairs around the stage, unashamed to “sing along” and “clap their hands” when instructed to do so. Most of them, maybe all of them, do.
But then, this is before the “day the music died” (when Jack Kennedy is shot in Dallas), and before the Birmingham church bombing that killed the four little girls. And it’s certainly before the ordeal of Viet Nam grows to its alienating peak.
The Best of Hootenanny lets us look through the window panes of history to help us glimpse a time when entertainment could also be edifying, TV could nearly be epoch-making, and deeply-felt lyrics could be more than merely electrifying, even though it was all quite unplugged.
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