Looking back, we see the '60s as a decade of turbulence, technological change, social upheaval — a country in search of itself.
But mixed in with the peace marches, flower power and strange fashions were new music styles that included not only the British Invasion and the rise of the Motown sound, but also the urban folk revival.
Although this revival actually began in the '40s and continues even now, it peaked nationally in the '60s, says Polly Stewart. After 1970, "it dropped off precipitously and virtually disappeared from the mainstream of American popular music."
Utah took part in the revival, but until now it has been a "brief, incandescent and almost completely undocumented slice of Utah history," says Stewart, who has set about to change all that.
Stewart, who recently retired from the English faculty of Salisbury University in Maryland and moved back here to her native state, knows about the urban folk revival in Utah because she was part of it. Her current interest in reviving the story of the revival came when she was asked to review the manuscript for the "Folklore in Utah" book, published in 2004.
At first, she says, "I was shocked to see no mention of the folk music. Then I realized there are few people left who have direct knowledge of the period, and there's little documentary evidence of it."
Stewart decided to create a document and began researching the period for an article that appeared in the Utah Historical Quarterly last summer.
As part of that research, she talked to Bruce "Utah" Phillips, one of the key participants in the movement. "He said we ought to have a reunion," and that has led to a concert, which will be held Wednesday at Highland High School.
Billed as "Urban Pioneers: A Concert of the 1960s Folk Music Revival in Utah," it will feature Utah Phillips and Rosalie Sorrels — the two Utahns who went on to achieve the most national acclaim — as well as Hal Cannon, Tom Carter and Chris Montague of the group Uncle Lumpy; Brent Bradford, Cary Howard, Tim Morrison, Ryan Orr and Art Hansen of the Stormy Mountain Boys; Dave Roylance and Polly Stewart of Polly and the Valley Boys; and Heather Stewart Dorrell, Barre Toelken, Bruce Cummings, Mac Magleby, Pete Netka and Gloria Rowland.
With so many people involved, "it took a long time to track them all down and figure out a time for a concert," says Stewart, "but we're very excited."
The term "urban folk revival" refers generally to the trend of taking folk songs, which were often collected by folklorists from various ethnic and cultural groups, and modifying and presenting them to wider audiences. Nationally, such groups as the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary were making headlines. But groups everywhere were doing the same thing.
"Of course, we thought what we were doing was more 'pure' somehow," says Stewart, "but it really was the same thing."
Her own experience with folk music started at an early age. When her family took long road trips, "the way Mom kept us kids from killing each other was to sing Burl Ives songs."
Then, in the late '50s, a family moved into their neighborhood, "and they held hootenannies on their porch on summer evenings. I was enthralled." That family was Rosalie Sorrels and her then-husband Jim.
Rosalie ended up teaching guitar lessons through the Extension Service at the University of Utah. She had hooked up with Harold Bentley, director of Extension. "Bentley was the kind of man that believed if the world could sing folk music, there would be no more war. He was a wonderful supporter and was instrumental in bringing a lot of folk performers to Utah."
One of those groups was the New Lost City Ramblers. "They gave a concert that was life-changing for a lot of young folks," Stewart adds.
Those young folks were the driving force of the revival, in part because this music was different from the music of their parents. A lot of the groups were formed by high school and even younger students. "The Stormy Mountain Boys was started by Hal Cannon and Brent Bradford when they were in the eighth grade. Hal left the group in '66 to form Uncle Lumpy, which was modeled after the New Lost City Ramblers."
Bruce Phillips, before he adopted the "Utah" nickname, originally sang with the Utah Valley Boys, "but there was some confusion about what the group was doing. Was it straight bluegrass? Should they do their own compositions? Bruce eventually left the group, and the other two approached me, so we became Polly and the Valley Boys."
The youth of many of the performers was one thing that contributed to the waning of the revival. "I left in 1966 to go to graduate school. Dave Roylance also went on to grad school and eventually became a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT.
"Bruce left Utah literally in the dead of night — his life was in shambles. Due to his political and labor stands he couldn't find a job. I still think of him as 'Bruce,' although he went on to be known nationally as 'U. Utah Phillips."'
There are two stories about that name, she says. "One is that as he was growing up, he was a fan of cowboy music and T. Texas Tyler, so he started calling himself U. Utah Phillips. The second story is that when he was in the Army in the Korean War, his buddies called him Utah. There's probably truth in both stories. His mom always said he should be called 'O. Ohio,' because that was where he was born."
Leaving Utah turned out to be a good move as far as his musical career went. "He and Rosalie are really the only ones that didn't have to have a day job. They both ended up on the road more because of circumstances. They were thrown into it. But I admire the personal and professional risks they took."
Along about 1968, things changed for the folk singers, however. "That was a horrendous year nationally, with the riots and all. The Urban Folk Music Revival sank out of sight. The music industry stopped promoting it, and the singers went below the radar, no longer appearing in the big national venues. Bruce and Rosalie kept singing.
"They've actually been more effective on the below-the-radar circuit. They have a lot of devoted fans out there, and they're not dependent on the big music companies."
Phillips, for example, has recently released a box-set retrospective of his career, "Starlight on the Rails: A Songbook," that his son Duncan calls "as close to an autobiography as you're going to get."
Locally, Hal Cannon went on to form the Deseret String Band, which continued to make a mark for several more years. Then he discovered cowboy poetry. "He has such a complete love of music combined with scholarship. He is touched by the artistic value of music and helps other people see that."
But even though those heady days of the '60s are gone, they should not be forgotten, says Stewart. "It was a very special time in Utah."
If you go
What: Urban Pioneers: A Concert of the 1960s Folk Music Revival in Utah
When: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Highland High School, 2100 S. 1700 East
How much: $15, $8 for students and seniors