Pacific Northwest Folklore Society – Concert Review
By Stewart Hendrickson
In the October Victory Review I wrote about the upcoming reunion concert of Don Firth and Bob Nelson. Bob and Don were folksingers in Seattle in the early ‘50s and ‘60s. This was a period prior to the folk scare of the ‘60s when folk music was being rediscovered in Seattle. Now that their concert is past, I would like to say more about this interesting period of folk music here, and present two reviews of their concert.
In the early ‘50s the folk music scene in Seattle consisted of Walt Robertson, “the Dean of Northwest Folk Music,” and some students around the University of Washington. One of those students was Don Firth, who with Walt Robertson and a few other students, founded the Pacific Northwest Folklore Society.
According to their mission statement, The Society is devoted to the understanding and development of the folklore of this area. Collection, study, preservation, publication, and performance are all aspects of the Society's activities. The people of the Pacific Northwest are heir to a rich heritage of legend, song, dance, and other forms of lore. This study greatly aids the understanding not only of ourselves, but of our forebears and the land from which they sprung.
The Society sponsored many concerts, including some by Guy Carawan, Earl Robinson, Pete Seeger, and Sonny Terry. They also had ‘hoots’ and organized some street fairs featuring folk music and crafts in the U District.
Unfortunately, the Society fell victim to the McCarthy-era red scare when folk musicians were thought by some to harbor Communist sympathies, if not actual party membership. It was inactive for many years. But a couple of embers remained, and we recently brought it back to life (see: home.comcast.net/~pnwfolklore/index.html).
Coffee houses in Seattle where folk singers would perform and ‘hoots’ would happen included The Place Next Door, The Pamir House, and The Cafe Corrobboree in the U. District.
Walt Robertson had a weekly 15-min TV program in the early ‘50s on KING TV where he sang folk songs. In 1959, Don Firth did a television series, "Ballads and Books," on KCTSTV. Don and Bob Nelson also did occasional TV and radio broadcasts of folk music in the early ‘60s.
During the ’62 World’s Fair in Seattle these local folksingers performed in front of the United Nations Pavilion at the Seattle Center, and an LP recording of their concerts was produced.
These interesting times were relived in the concert by Bob Nelson and Don Firth.
Concert Review By John Ashford: Local guys sing folk…
(John Ashford has been around folk music for over 70 years. He was a member of the Pacific Northwest Folklore Society in the early ‘50s, and later president of the Seattle Folklore Society.)
On October 14th the duo of Bob Nelson and Don Firth presented ballads and tunes, some new and a few that I've enjoyed many times. The setting for the concert was a church with a beautiful old world interior. The hard pews and lack of amplification did not seem to dampen the enjoyment of the audience. The two men have a loyal following and one that knows the repertoire. Their audience attends to hear certain favorites and recover the memories of folksong gatherings held in Seattle's University District in the '60's and '70's or beyond.
The material of the two singers consists largely of songs collected, not written, although Bob sang one song that he wrote. Don is an uncompromising singer of British Isles ballads, some performed in Scottish dialect. It was refreshing to hear him do traditional ballads, such as Three Ravens and others dealing with soldiers and maidens.
Bob, also, is uncompromising in his enthusiasm for folk songs. Close your eyes and you're back in a coffee house in the 1950's.
When he entered the stage, Bob asked the audience, "How many of you are surprised to see me in church?"
I wasn't a bit surprised. Bob's religion is folk music.
He has to be considered the dean of Northwest folksingers due to his longevity and undying faith in the music. His songs are mostly optimistic and energetic, with a thumping accompaniment. Exceptions were the unaccompanied "Sully's Pail", a haunting song about a mine tragedy written by Seattle-ite Richard Gibbons, and "Wild Flying Dove" by songwriter Tom Paxton.
Both Firth and Nelson are singers of the folk revival. They present their songs with a point of view, whether or not it is stated. Their performance is an advocacy of traditional songs from historical periods, labor conflicts, or an anonymous poet's heartache. The category broadens to include anything else they enjoy singing.
I have heard many of the same songs performed in clubs in Vancouver, New York, California, and even in village pubs in England. A case of familiarity breeding conviviality.
Not only is there an audience for this music in Seattle, there is an international audience. It's their music, after all.
Concert Review By Jordan Myers (John Ashford took his 18-year-old grandson to the concert. It was Jordan Myers first folk concert.)
The light from the stained glass windows washed the little church with an autumn glow as we filed into the pews, excited murmurs filling the space where we waited for the music. As Bob Nelson and Don Firth were being introduced, I felt like I was looking in on a closely knit family joining in reunion: the audience, the announcer, the performers- there was an intimacy that truly surprised me. As they began, a complete hush fell over the crowd, allowing their voices and the sounds of their guitars to fill every corner of the room.
Watching the two perform, separately or in unison, one feels that behind their good-humored faces hides the history of hundreds of lives. Simple and real and earnest, they are like actors of short stories, giving us a small slice of another era through which we can enjoy a full spectrum of feeling and experience that would otherwise be entirely lost in the sands of time. Though reading a history book can give you times and places of events and an idea of what happened, an essential grain of humanity is lost in transition from the lives of history to the text. Bob played a few songs of cheek and vigor that had me envious of such a vital, simple time, wishing I could travel back and sit around a campfire with the protagonist, or be told secondhand of the extortion of a father by his daughter and her beloved.
One song struck me in its beauty of form and execution: a simple, sad Scottish ballad of longing sung by Don without accompaniment. His great voice rose and rumbled up in mourning to haunt the rafters of that fragile church with the memory of a love now centuries dead; the beauty of the ballad and of his steady voice struck me with a kind of pure sadness that is all but impossible to find in modern music- for a moment I felt as if I, too, were wandering the hills and valleys of Scotland singing a hopeless plea for companionship. I had always liked folk music, but never really pursued it- after seeing Bob Nelson and Don Firth perform, I have no choice but to seek it out whenever possible.
Stewart Hendrickson is Chemistry Professor Emeritus – St. Olaf College, Research Professor Emeritus – University of Washington, and in his new career, an unemployed folk musician (voice, fiddle, guitar; http://stewarthendrickson.com).