Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens all show up at your college campus to perform acoustically in the middle of the student union, surrounded by a seated audience at rapt attention. Sing-alongs are encouraged; duets materialize out of thin air. David Cross comes on mid-set to tickle your ribs with some timely observations, and then a much-loved local band takes the stage to the shouted encouragement of you and your friends. Predictably, the Arcade Fire brings the house down before inviting the other performers back onstage for a rousing farewell. The entire show is ?lmed and will be broadcast on a major network, raking in record ratings and critical aplomb. And next week it will happen all over again at another school in another town.
Sadly, this isn’t the format of a new show that will be hitting your plasma screen anytime soon; it’s one that was conceived and produced over 40 years ago. Hootenanny debuted on ABC in April 1963 and quickly found a wide audience, capitalizing on the cross-generational appeal of folk music to the eager ears of small-town America. Once thought to be lost forever, nearly all of the original performances have now been recovered, tweaked and repackaged for three-DVD collection The Best of Hootenanny.
In the wake of Christopher Guest’s masterful send-up, 2003’s A Mighty Wind, much of the ’60s-folk canonization here seems downright goofy despite the pure intentions: College students going apeshit for The Rooftop Singers’ rendition of “Froggie Went A-Courtin’” is damn funny, and Vaughn Meader’s moldy Jack Kennedy impersonation is not. But, before spewing potato chips across the generation gap, a prescient viewer might observe some glaring similarities: The Serendipity Singers are to Hoyt Axton as The Polyphonic Spree is to M. Ward, as Meader is to Jon Stewart, etc. So who’s laughing now, Junior?
While not exactly history-making, this collection does contain plenty of gems that easily transcend nostalgia. Early performances by Carly Simon (appearing with sister Lucy), Glenn Campbell and Woody Allen are all worth a look. The spirituals of Leon Bibb and Marion Williams are stunning, and someone should give the show’s producers a posthumous medal for slipping the orgasmic moans of Miriam Makeba’s “Love Tastes Like Strawberries” past the network censors.
Hootenanny also was unafraid to push the artistic and political envelopes of its day. Best of includes show-stoppers by The Carter Family, Flatt and Scruggs, and Johnny Cash that provide a welcome reprieve from the clean-cut trumpetry of the folkies, while the jazz of the (then-unheard-of-on-television) racially mixed Herbie Mann Sextet is smoky and serene.
So it’s ironic that Hootenanny died a somewhat political death after just two seasons. The show banned Pete Seeger from its stage because of his Communist leanings, inciting a boycott by most of Hootenanny’s marquee performers. Beatlemania and mini-skirts were quickly relegating the folk movement to the cultural archives anyway, so ABC pulled the plug on the show in late 1964. It was quickly replaced by Shindig!, and though the world has learned to live without perky coeds and three-part harmonies, the folk lives on in this collection.