As folk music is often about honoring the past, 2009 was a year when folkies perhaps looked back even more than in prior years, celebrating its icons from both past and present.
Two legends of the folk revival, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, both had good years. Seeger received the Best Traditional Folk Album GRAMMY Award in February. In May, he celebrated his 90th birthday and the folk community threw him a Madison Square Garden hootenanny. PBS was there to tape every minute for the "Great Performances" series and even showed a few of the performances to the world in between solicitations for donations. Appleseed Records released an archived concert recording from Seeger in his prime, Live in '65. And, for the first time in over a decade, Seeger was the number one artist receiving folk radio airplay for 2009, according to the charts compiled by the FOLKDJ-L.
Meanwhile, Dylan went back into the studio and the resulting album, Together Through Life, garnered the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 album chart the week of its debut, on its way to GRAMMY nominations for Best Americana Album and Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance. And then he released perhaps the most-talked about Christmas album of the decade, including the surreal video for “Must Be Santa.”
While Seeger and Dylan keep performing, the folk world continues to lose people who were significant in the folk revival of the late '50s/early '60s. In 2009, the following significant artists passed away:
- Mary Travers, of Peter, Paul And Mary, died on Sept. 16 at age 72 after suffering from leukemia for several years. Peter, Paul And Mary were instrumental in bringing folk music to the pop charts, scoring Billboard chart hits with songs by both Dylan and Seeger (as well as a young John Denver). In fact, Peter, Paul And Mary were so popular that they won two GRAMMY Awards each for Seeger's "If I Had a Hammer" (1962, 5th GRAMMY Awards) and for Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" (1963, 6th GRAMMY Awards). To put that into perspective, Seeger himself did not win a GRAMMY until 1996 and Dylan did not win a solo GRAMMY Award until 1979.
- Liam Clancy, the last surviving member of the Clancy Brothers, died on Dec. 4. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were in large part responsible for the revival of traditional Celtic music in the United States and paved the way for such groups as the Chieftains and even "Riverdance."
- Mike Seeger, half-brother of Pete Seeger and member of the New Lost City Ramblers, died Aug. 7. The New Lost City Ramblers were one of the most important string band groups of the folk revival, and many of the more obscure folk tunes reintroduced to the world by this group have now become folk music staples.
- Tim Hart of British folk/rockers Steeleye Span died Dec. 24. Steeleye Span was immensely popular in Britain with chart hits there and introduced British folk/rock to a new American audience while opening for Jethro Tull in the mid-70s.
It's also worth noting that three of the 10 albums nominated in the two folk categories are tribute albums.
It is in many ways exciting and gratifying to see great artists with long careers honored with GRAMMY nominations in their latter years (this year's honor roll in the American Roots Field includes Bob Dylan, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, John Hammond, Levon Helm, and Mavis Staples). However, the members of the folk revival generation are continuing to pass, and the folk world continues to await the next great artist who can make folk music a viable force in popular culture once again.