Folk music exploded onto the charts in the early 1960s — and disappeared almost as fast. But Christopher Guest and his cohorts are keeping the spirit alive and get more than a little hoot out of an old-fashioned hootenanny.
Guest and fellow comics Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean satirized the folk fad earlier this year in A Mighty Wind in the same way they lampooned dog lovers in Best in Show and community theater in Waiting for Guffman.
But on Saturday, they stepped on stage at New York's Town Hall, where old-guard folkies got to decide if the music they make is anything more than a joke.
Guest, 55, clearly loves traditional music, though he's best known for thrashing through the most gruesome form of heavy metal as a member of Spinal Tap. The audience could tell he was one of them, and perhaps the spirit of the folk movement can be best conveyed with a little humor.
An Amusing Fall Into Oblivion
The folk boom was tucked between America's first taste of rock 'n' roll with Elvis and Chuck Berry, and the British invasion, when the Beatles took over the charts.
While performers such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins went on to mainstream success, the performers in A Mighty Wind are the type who faded into oblivion, like Charlie in the Kingston Trio's fateful "MTA."
Guest, McKean and Shearer — the trio best known as the members of Spinal Tap — perform here as the Folksmen, and they mimic the Kingston Trio perfectly, down to the their matching mock turtleneck outfits. Their ballad of a doomed train in a coal mine, "Blood on the Coal," recalls the Trio's woeful "Tom Dooley."
Levy — who co-wrote A Mighty Wind — hadn't played guitar in years, and with his monotone delivery, hardly anyone believed he could sing. But he and all the other stars — who improvise most of their lines in Guest's movies — learned to sing and perform.
In the film, Levy and O'Hara play Mitch and Mickey, the darlings of the folk world, who end their signature tune "Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" with a smooch that defined an era — which ended when they broke up and he went crazy.
Along with the Folksmen, Mitch and Mickey were joined Saturday with the other group featured in A Mighty Wind, the perpetually perky New Main Street Singers — a self-described "neuftet" that sustains itself by playing gigs at amusement parks as roller coasters rumble through the din of their harmonies. A Formula to Avoid Controversy
In the show — part of a New York folk festival — none of the comics broke from character, offering a reverential wink to a brief era when folk music held the national spotlight and shows like ABC's Hootenanny featured acts such as The Limelighters and Peter, Paul, and Mary.
In 1952 the folk movement began its climb to popularity on two fronts. The Folkways label released a six-LP set called The Anthology of Folk Music, reminding fans of the genre's American roots.
At the same time, folk virtuosos The Weavers, who had already played Carnegie Hall on the tails of their hit "Goodnight, Irene," were being investigated by a J. Edgar Hoover-led FBI for alleged ties to the Communist Party. Group leader Pete Seeger was called to testify during the House Un-American Activities Committee and was indicted for contempt of Congress.
Shows like Hootenanny looked to avoid such controversy, and instead booked clean-cut acts. A formula developed for this commercialized folk music.
Large ensembles, such as the New Christy Minstrels or the Serendipity Singers, and well-groomed collegians like the Kingston Trio or The Brothers Four, populated the airwaves. Sweetheart duos also found great success, especially with television audiences.
A Mighty Wind picks up on Mitch and Mickey 30 years later, and their stage performance Saturday conjured wistful performances from Levy and O'Hara.
Levy even held his own on the guitar as he portrayed the washed-out musician with a comically vacant stare. He made multiple attempts to introduce a nonexistent drummer.
The sweet but whimsical "Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" was followed by the two wrapped in comical passion.
To close the evening, the three groups gathered as a force to sing a song of liberation. As the ensemble sang "A mighty wind's blowing … it's blowing peace and freedom, it's blowing equality," the audience enjoyed the nostalgic sounds of an era — and thanks to Guest and company, it will not soon be forgotten.