On the Sunny Side
In their time, just about exactly 30 years ago, they put the hoot in hootenanny. Peter, Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, Dave Van Ronk, Maria Muldaur, Taj Mahal: They were major figures of the ’60s folk scene, setting American lore to music, railing against social injustice, selling a whole lot of records. The folk craze may be long gone, but some of its biggest stars are back — strumming somewhat different tunes. Suddenly, it seems, the giants of the folk age-like their core audience of middle-aged boomers — are less interested in the hootin’ than they are in the nanny.
Of course, folkies have never ignored children. Peter, Paul & Mary scored one of their biggest hits with a kiddie tune, ”Puff the Magic Dragon,” in 1963, and a couple of Paxton’s early songs — ”Going to the Zoo,” ”The Marvelous Toy” — have long been kids’ classics. Recently, though, the kids’-music scene has been invaded by the veterans of the folk era. Even Bob Dylan’s latest album, Good as I Been to You, with its simple, campfire performances of such tunes as ”Froggy Went A Courtin’,” fits the trend.
Yet what does the folkies’ plaintive style offer to kids of the rap generation? Let’s start with Peter, Paul & Mary, and their brand-new Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too, a concert available as a video and, in shorter form, as an album. A sequel to 1969’s Peter, Paul & Mommy, this performance smoothly blends the entertaining and the political. Whether hamming up an animal story with duck quacks or attacking the exploitation of migrant workers, the trio sings with warmth and even a little fervor. This concert is enough to bring a tear to the eye of an old lefty, or an old lefty’s descendants.
That isn’t the case with Tom Paxton’s kid stuff, which sets out to entertain in terms accessible to every child. His Peanut Butter Pie and Suzy Is a Rocker, both released last year, are chockablock with catchy Paxton originals. You’d never know from ”Dinosaurs at Play” on the charming Pie that this guy shook his fist at LBJ and the Vietnam War. Of course, these are albums for children — not necessarily liberals in training — but Paxton seems to coast on a lot of the tunes, particularly on Suzy.
Dave Van Ronk provides an even sharper contrast. His nice ‘n’ easy folkie retelling of Peter and The Wolf — fleshed out with kazoo and jaw harp — follows a ruggedly iconoclastic career that has included the notorious ”Cocaine Blues.” At least his husky, low-key delivery suits this mild-mannered story better than it did his more recent album of artsy Bertolt Brecht tunes.
Maria Muldaur and Taj Mahal always seemed more interested in musicology than politics. Muldaur’s charming jug-band tendencies, somewhat subverted by her slinky 1974 hit ”Midnight at the Oasis,” are still missing on 1990’s On the Sunny Side, but she has replaced them with snazzy string-band arrangements. Mandolins, fiddles, and piano offer exquisitely swinging support for her needle-sharp renditions of such familiar songs as ”Would You Like to Swing on a Star?” and ”Side by Side.” On Shake Sugaree, Mahal brings his relaxed soulfulness to bear on the blues and on Caribbean and African music. At times — ”Talkin’ John Henry,” for example — this album has all the easy charm of Mississippi John Hurt at his best.
Judy Collins’ 1990 video and album of lullabies, Baby’s Bedtime, tends more to cabaret than folk, but that has always been her bent. Unlike the others, and nearly everyone else who sings for kids, Collins doesn’t make the music cute. By really and truly singing the words to a chestnut like ”Rock A Bye Baby,” she actually makes it seem fresh. This may be an album of bedtime songs, but Collins’ crystal-clear singing is good enough to be savored in daylight. Mommy, Too (video and album): A Pie: B Rocker: C- Peter: C Sunny Side: B+ Sugaree: B+ Bedtime: A