"Johnny Rivers Rocks the Folk" was a 1965 album by Rock N Roll singer Johnny Rivers, consisting of him playing live versions of folk songs in a Rock n Roll style. At the time he released the album, he had been releasing singles and albums for around eight years, and had a #2 single the previous year with a cover of Memphis, originally by Chuck Berry.
The album consists of both traditional folk songs, dating to the 1800s, and folk songs of the 1950s and 1960s, including two Bob Dylan covers.
- Tom Dooley (Traditional)
- Long Time Man (Traditional)
- Michael (Row the Boat Ashore) (Traditional)
- Blowin' in the Wind (Bob Dylan)
- Green, Green (The New Christy Minstrels)
- Where Have All The Flowers Gone (Pete Seeger)
- If I Had a Hammer (Pete Seeger and Lee Hays)
- Tall Oak Tree (Dorsey Burnette)
- Catch the Wind (Donovan)
- 500 Miles (Hedy West)
- Mr. Tambourine Man (Bob Dylan)
- Jailer Bring Me Water (Bobby Darin)
(Note that some of these songs are based on traditional songs, so have no single author, but I am going by the writing credits on the album)
Folk music has an odd place in musical history. For a while, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, between the first wave of Rock n Roll music and the British Invasion, folk music was probably the most relevant form of music, both socially and musically. However, most folk songs have since been turned into children's song, the things of campfire singalongs, and most of the lyrics seem a bit twee and affected now. The songs on here by Bob Dylan and Donovan (who had only released "Catch the Wind" a few months before this album was released), would presage musical developments in the later 60s and beyond. But some, like "Michael (Row the Boat Ashore)" are seen as mostly traditional songs without much relevancy. I bought this record in the dollar bin for the novelty value, but once I started playing it, it became one of my favorites, in a totally non-ironic way.
The secret is that Johnny Rivers makes these songs swing, he reinterprets them as rocking songs, while at the same time preserving their folk nature. After listening to Rivers' versions, I listened to the originals, and found that many of them, indeed, seemed corny and affected. But Rivers plays them in a style where they seem raw, emotional and real. There isn't a dull moment on the album, and he plays the whole thing with great energy.
A question that the album did raise for me was how much Rivers wanted to convey the meaning in the songs. The album contains both contemporary "protest" songs such as "If I Had a Hammer" and "Blowin' in the Wind", as well as traditional folk songs such as "Long Time Man" whose origin as an African-American prison song has clear social and political roots. Did Rivers wish to communicate some sort of social and political message, and was using traditional songs to do it? Or, did he just believe that these songs had a good beat that people could dance to? Or perhaps somewhere in the middle, they all had some relevance to the human condition, but not a specific message? In any case, when I hear Rivers rock through a sad anti-war song like "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?", I wonder if he was aware of the irony---but I enjoy it all the same.