Q&A with Michael Hayde, author of Hootenanny, The Craze and Controversy of TV's Folk Music Series
Q: Why did you choose to write about Hootenanny?
A: Historically, it’s a misunderstood, neglected program. It was network TV’s first music show targeting young adults, and quickly became one of ABC’s biggest successes. Teens had American Bandstand, and the middle-agers and seniors had Sing Along with Mitch (Miller) and The Lawrence Welk Show, but if you were a young married couple or in college, folk music’s primary audience, you had to wait for its musicians to turn up on Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson or any other typical variety series until Hootenanny came along. For years it was believed to be a lost show, since the original videotapes had been erased and reused. All that remained was what had been written about it, the gist of which was that the producers had banned Pete Seeger for his leftist politics, leading to a boycott by significant artists like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary and others, so all that remained was commercial claptrap: the kinds of ersatz folksingers that were parodied in Christopher Guest’s comedy A Mighty Wind (2003). As with most blanket generalizations, there’s more to the story.
Q: How did you discover this show?
A: My father was a graduate student when Hootenanny was airing, and he audiotaped several of them. My earliest musical memories include hearing those tapes. When he could afford a decent stereo system, among the first records he bought were artists that appeared on the show: Judy Collins, Ian & Sylvia, The Chad Mitchell Trio. So, I grew up with folk music and it stayed with me. In college, I was a deejay at the campus radio station and hosted a folk music show. I even played in a folk trio with two buddies, mostly for fun. In my spare time, I hit the college library’s newspapers on microfilm, tracked down the airdates for my dad’s tapes, and of course dug deeper into the show’s backstory. Years later, when home video became a thing, finding a Hootenanny became something of a holy grail. Although I knew the tapes were erased by the network, there was always a chance a stray kinescope would turn up. Finally, one did, and then another, and eventually I learned there were 18 shows existing at least in part. I’ve since seen them all.
Q: So, is this a book you’ve been planning for a long time?
A: Actually, no. My original thought was to compile an oral history of the entire folk era: that period between 1958 when the Kingston Trio hit it big, to 1964 when the British Invasion pushed folk music out of the marketplace. I hoped to speak to many of its artists and other participants, and got to know a few along the way, but it was too big a project for a working guy with a family. Other less complicated subjects came along, taking up my spare time, and I just gave up on it. It was while manning BearManor’s table at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention in 2022, and seeing books like Mark Villano’s on Insight and Sheldon Catz’s on Columbo that I realized I could scale down the project to just a look at the series. Research was fairly easy, given all the newspaper databases now online, and when I discovered many college newspapers had been digitized, making it possible to read about the show’s production at the various campuses, that sealed it.
Q: The book is subtitled “The Craze and the Controversy.” Tell me about each.
A: Well, TV is a mass medium, obviously, and even though young marrieds and college students were its primary viewers, Hootenanny caught the fancy of other demographic groups, and viewership went into the tens of millions. That created a market for “Hootenanny” compilation albums, magazines, touring shows, even toys. Billboard and Variety reported on its money-making capacity. There had been a Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, but it was a poor stepchild compared to the city’s more prestigious Jazz Festival, until the summer Hootenanny first aired. That year, it outdrew the Jazz Festival by over 10,000 attendees. And, of course, artists that had done the show were on the bill. As for the controversy, I’ve already mentioned the blacklisting of Pete Seeger and the resulting boycott. No question it hurt the series, especially when artists that had signed prior to this news coming out did their one or two shows and then never returned. Even so, there was more to that story. Seeger didn’t especially want a boycott. He’d always hoped the music’s popularity would spread nationwide, and if good artists failed to appear, the result would be mediocrity that would do long-term harm. The producers tried to make up for it by allowing Seeger’s songs, like “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “If I Had a Hammer” to be performed. Bob Dylan was represented by occasional renditions of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Full-out anti-war songs like “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” and “Come Away, Melinda” were permitted. And the civil rights movement was given an undeniable boost simply by having interracial performances in nearly every show.
Q. What do you hope to accomplish with this book?
A. Well, firstly of course to bring about a re-evaluation of Hootenanny’s place in TV and pop culture history. There wouldn’t have been a Shindig! or Hullaballoo without Hootenanny having blazed the trail. It should also be remembered that the series spotlighted non-white performers in nearly every program, and not just Americans, but singers and musicians from Africa, Australia, Ireland, Latin America and Canada. But I hope the story is also viewed as a cautionary tale of the danger when one side holds all the power. Hootenanny would’ve been a much stronger show without blacklisting. You’d think we would’ve learned by now not to do it anymore, but political blacklisting is still going on, in entertainment and elsewhere. Sadly, it’s even happening on college campuses, whereas in the Hootenanny days, students were actively protesting against it. Artistic suppression based on politics is wrong whether you subscribe to “Make America Great Again” or “Defund the Police.” Free speech means everyone has the right to be heard, just as Seeger did back then.