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The ’60s folksong revival that captured the world’s attention also played out in Utah. Meet some of the U alumni who helped define an era.
by Linda Marion
The lines were long, stretching out the doors of the auditorium at Highland High School in Salt Lake City on a brisk evening in January 2007. Gray heads bobbed up and down as patrons purchased tickets and made their way into the ample auditorium, occasionally stopping to peruse event memorabilia along the way.
2007 concert photos by John Schaefer, archival photos courtesy Polly Stewart
The occasion was “Urban Pioneers,” a concert-reunion featuring many of the musicians who had participated in the folk music revival that took place in Utah and throughout the country in the late ’50s and ’60s. (See “Urban Pioneers” in the Winter 2006-07 Continuum.) The decidedly over-55 crowd—those who had experienced firsthand those tumultuous times—had come to re-experience the music and recapture the moment.
The folk music revival, also known as the “roots revival,” occurred concomitantly with social and political unrest in the United States. The movement was characterized by young musicians and singers performing traditional music for new audiences, often adding or enhancing relevant social and political components.
Students gathered in coffee houses across the country to listen to folksingers such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez, and commercial groups like The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, and others—and to perform their own songs. While their music helped galvanize a generation, the revival began to peter out around 1965-66, supplanted by pop-rock and hard-rock music. It was ultimately relegated to the sidelines, where it remains to this day.
The Utah “Urban Pioneers” project began almost by accident, when folklorist Polly Stewart BA’66 discovered, in reviewing the manuscript of the anthology Folklore in Utah, that virtually nothing about the local urban folk music revival had been included. Stewart considers the period significant “culturally and historically,” but notes that it and the stories of the performers who made it happen were “almost completely ephemeral” and would vanish unless something were done to catalogue that period in Utah history. That realization led her to begin conducting oral history interviews with key players and recovering historical photographs and memorabilia of the era.
Stewart’s interview with Bruce “Utah” Phillips—who became and remains a major national folksinging name, and who, along with Rosalie Sorrels, was a primary mover and shaker in the Intermountain West’s folk music revival—set off a progression of phone calls and e-mails that ultimately brought about the January event.
The lineup for the revival concert included a number of University of Utah alumni (profiled below). (Bruce W. Cummings BS’66, vocalist, guitarist, original member of the Utah Valley Boys, and an inspiration for many of the younger musicians, was scheduled to perform but had to bow out due to illness.) Non-alumni performers included singer, former U of U English professor Barre Toelken; U of U professor of architectural history Tom Carter, U of U professor of art and noted graphic designer McRay “Mac” Magleby, and other well-know locals, such as Brent Bradford, Chris Montague, Tim Morrison, Peter Netka, Ryan Orr, Cary Howard, and Gloria Rowland. A special place was carved out in the concert for Western folk legends Phillips and Sorrels.
Brent Bradford BS’70
The Stormy Mountain Boys perform at the Urban Revival concert last January (L-R): Ryan Orr, Tim Morrison, and Brent Bradford. The group has performed together for the past 44 years.
In the early ’60s, folk music was flowing into the mainstream, albeit as a counterculture movement. Like many others of his generation, Bradford became interested in the revival by tuning in to the sounds and songs of the times. His passion for folk music was piqued in junior high school when he and a group of like-minded friends, including Hal Cannon (profiled below), came upon an anthology of southern hill music produced by the Smithsonian Institution, Mountain Music Bluegrass Style. “I fell in love with that sound,” says Bradford.
“In the summer, Hal and I [and other friends] spent a lot of time under the apricot tree in our backyard playing music,” explains Bradford. “We’d get together almost daily.” They also periodically ventured into Woolworth’s to take advantage of 99-cent sales of “cutout records” (marked with a cut in the sleeve indicating the record was sold at a discount). “The treasure in rifling through those early LPs,” he says, “was to find a Bill Monroe or a Stanley Brothers album. We’d take them home, listen to them, and then try to figure out the chords to the songs and work on vocal harmonies … That’s how we learned.”
By high school, Bradford and Cannon had inaugurated their musical careers as The Stormy Mountain Boys. Bradford also played with The Utah Valley Boys and (briefly) the Salt City Bluegrass Boys in college, until he graduated from the U (in biological science, with a minor in chemistry).
Afterward, Bradford spent a couple of years in the Army, and later received a master’s degree in public administration. He eventually worked for the State of Utah’s Air Quality Program, where he spent 32 years focusing on environmental programs. He retired as deputy director of the Department of Environmental Quality and now resides in Plain City, Utah, west of Ogden.
Hal Cannon BS’70
Getting involved with the folk music revival was, says Cannon, “a powerful thing and very counterculture. It was really intriguing to feel like we were part of an underground scene.”
Hal Cannon (center), Tom Carter (left), and Chris Montague perform as “Uncle Lumpy.”
After his days as a Stormy Mountain Boy, Cannon eventually went on to form Uncle Lumpy, the Deseret String Band, Red Rock Rondo, and the Secondhand Band. (See “A Modest Proposal: Hal Cannon, Poet Lariat” in the Fall 2004 issue of Continuum.)
As a student at the U, Cannon studied “anything that resembled folklore,” he says, although the options in that area were few at the time. Instead, he received a degree in journalism, then turned his attention to photography and filmmaking, which led him to pursue a graduate degree in filmmaking (1972) at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Cannon has since carved out a notable career as a Western folklore specialist. In addition to founding the Western Folklife Center and the Cowboy Poetry Gathering, he has made a number of recordings about the folk arts of the West, including a bestselling anthology, Cowboy Poetry, A Gathering. He has also produced a number of public television and radio features, including Voices of the West, a six-part series focusing on folk art traditions, and co-produced the award-winning documentary Why the Cowboy Sings, which was aired on public television in 2003. He has received numerous awards for his work, including the Utah Governor’s Award in the Arts in 1999, the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the U’s Communication Department in 1999, and the Governor’s Award in the Humanities in 2002.
David K. Roylance BS’64 PhD’68
According to Roylance, the constant presence of music in his family in one form or another (his father played oboe with the Utah Symphony) made him vulnerable to the infectious “germ” of folk music when it appeared on the scene during his teen years. Like Cannon and Bradford, Roylance spent a goodly amount of time listening to various forms of folk music—The Kingston Trio, The Weavers, Pete Seeger—and was drawn to the banjo and guitar. He taught himself how to play by slowing down records and figuring out the chords, reproducing what he heard. His plucking eventually became so proficient that he began offering banjo lessons to other folk artists.
Polly and the Valley Boys, 1965 (L-R): David Roylance, Polly Stewart, and Bruce “Utah” Phillips.
Polly and the Valley Boys reunite at the Urban Pioneers Concert this past January (Phillips, center; Roylance, right).
In 1964, Roylance and Bruce Phillips of the Utah Valley Boys joined with Polly Stewart to form Polly and the Valley Boys, a vocal and instrumental ensemble with old-time string-band instrumentation. They played and sang together—labor and traditional songs, Phillips’ own compositions, and bluegrass variations—for two years. Phillips was lead singer and guitarist, and an occasional mandolinist; Roylance played five-string banjo and flatpick guitar, and sang bass; Stewart strummed the autoharp (chorded zither) and rhythm guitar, sang harmony to Phillips’ lead, and performed vocal solos.
Realizing that “there are no career moves in folk music” (a saying attributed to Utah Phillips), Roylance majored in mechanical engineering, continuing at the U through graduate school. The group broke up in 1966 when Stewart left for graduate school. And a year later, Roylance was in the Army.
Following a stint in Vietnam, which, says Roylance, “opened my eyes to reality,” he eventually snagged a job teaching engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he has remained for the past 32 years. Even though the study of polymers (“plastics,” in the parlance of The Graduate) has occupied his attention during that time, Roylance maintains that “the folk music era was the highlight of my life.”
Polly Stewart BA’66 and Heather Stewart Dorrell MA’94 MEd’06
It’s natural that the musical careers of Polly and Heather Stewart would follow similar paths because, well, they’re sisters and shared similar influences growing up. Both recall their affection for the songs of Burl Ives and attribute their penchant for folk music, in part, to their mother for encouraging their singing folk songs and spirituals to and from the Stewart family cabin in Provo Canyon—a ploy, says Polly, “to keep us from killing each other in the backseat.”
Heather Stewart (above) as a fledgling folksinger in 1972 and (below) performing in the Urban Pioneers Folk Music Revival in January 2007.
Heather, like many other revivalists, taught herself to play the guitar. “I just fiddled around with the frets until I found how I needed it to sound, and that’s how I learned the chords,” she explains. Her motivation for getting involved in the folk music revival was, she says, “the idealism and the truth behind the words we were playing and singing.” In high school, Heather and classmate Hal Cannon formed the Folk Music Club; and in the mid-’60s, she and fellow high-school student Ray Carlisle became a duo, appearing in high-school assemblies and Park City gigs.
In college, however, Heather became disenchanted with the direction the country was headed. “President Nixon had just bombed Cambodia, and a lot of people were going to Canada in protest … People were saying ‘Love it or leave it,’ and a lot of us took up that challenge and left.”
At age 22, Heather headed for Europe, where she performed in the coffee houses of Amsterdam and ended up teaching English and busking on the streets of Paris.
Some 20 years later, Heather returned to Salt Lake City with her Welsh husband, playwright Mike Dorrell. She also resumed her studies at the U, where she received two degrees (her M.A. is in linguistics). She is currently a vice principal at a local junior high school.
For Polly, a major influence was Rosalie Sorrels and her family, who moved into the Stewarts’ Avenues neighborhood when Polly was in high school. In the evenings, the Sorrels and friends would gather on their front porch to sing and play guitar, and Polly soon found herself a part of the group. “It was a neighborhood thing,” she says.
Sorrels and her husband, Jim, eventually formed the Intermountain Folk Music Council, whose purpose was to promote folksinging in the state of Utah. In June 1961, the group produced its first concert in the Orson Spencer Hall auditorium, and Stewart was one of the performers.
“I had a little bit of a repertoire at the time,” says Polly, “but mainly I just was like a sponge, learning all of these new songs that were floating around.” It was under the tutelage of Sorrels, who “was an extremely generous and thoughtful impresario,” that Stewart blossomed as a performer. “[Rosalie] really wanted people to develop their talents, and she was extremely generous with her time, helping young performers become secure and feel okay about singing publicly.”
Following graduation from the U, Stewart received a graduate fellowship at the University of Oregon, where she studied medieval and linguistic subjects, as well as folklore with former U of U English professor Barre Toelken. After receiving her doctorate, she taught at Salisbury University in Maryland until her retirement in 2004, when she returned to Salt Lake City. The “Urban Pioneers” project put her back into the environment she left behind more than 40 years ago.
“You know, I’m glad we did it,” Polly says of the concert, “but 40 years does take a toll on body and soul. We [Polly, Phillips, and Roylance] got together for this one performance—a small comeback of about 10 minutes—and it was very sweet. But, nobody pretended that we were recreating the past,” she says, laughing at the thought. “We hadn’t played together for so many years, and musically, it was not very satisfying, but, the audience loved it and I was glad we were there.”
Special thanks to Jennifer Bott, who interviewed many of the folk music
revivalists for her Weber State University senior thesis, Utah Sings
Out: The Folk Music Revival (1950-1960s).
— Linda Marion BS’67 MFA’71 is managing editor of Continuum.
Return to Fall 2007 table of contents