Thursday, October 26, 2023

THROWBACK THURSDAY: In Praise of Faux-Folk

Old Hickory leads The Wonderful 99 at the Battle of The Alamo

In the late 1950s and early '60s there was a fun little trend in country music. With songs like Johnny Horton's "The Battle of New Orleans," "El Paso" by Marty Robbins, and Jimmy Dean's "Big Bad John" suddenly there were all these story songs on country radio -- with many of them crossing over to Top 40 stations.

With many such hits concerning historical events and characters, this phenomenon sometimes is referred to as "faux folk." Some say faux folk was a response -- basically a chance to cash in -- on the rising popularity of actual "folk" music, such as the surprising success in 1958 of The Kingston Trio's "Tom Dooley."

Also, I suspect that at some of these were reactions to current events of the day. More on that later.

"The Battle of New Orleans" probably is the best known of the faux folk songs. But Johnny Horton sang others as well, including "Sink the Bismark," a historical song about more recent history, the 1941 sinking of a German battleship during WWII:

In addition to "El Paso," (Fun fact: El Paso is the only city in New Mexico that is not a city in New Mexico) Marty Robbins also sang of a bigger violent skirmish in the great state of Texas. Robbins' "The Ballad of The Alamo" was a tie-in with the 1960 John Wayne movie The Alamo. The melody, which can be heard in the movie, was composed by Ukrainian-born Hollywood soundtrack genius Dimitri Tiomkin (whose other "hits" include "Do Not Forsake Me" from the Gary Cooper classic High Noon). The lyrics were by Paul Francis Webster, who also wrote the words for "Black Coffee," The Twelfth of Never" and the Spiderman theme (!). 

There's no known recording of Marty Robbins singing "Spiderman."

Speaking of New Mexico, here's some faux folk from Johnny Cash:

Also from that era came "The Ballad of Davy Crocket," which tied in with the huge Disney-inspired Crocket craze of the mid '50s. (Here's a good recent podcast about that phenomenon.) This version below appeared on a Doug Sahm album, with some help from The Gourds:

I wrote about Claude King's "The Burning of Atlanta" in an old Tune-up column a few years ago. So being the pompous cheeseball that I am, allow me to quote myself:

This 1962 single was the follow-up to Claude King’s biggest hit, the country classic “Wolverton Mountain.” In many ways, the song — which concerns Gen. William Sherman’s torching of the Georgia city in Nov. 1864 — fits in the “faux folk song” phenomenon of that era ... But “Atlanta” has an edge to it, especially considering what was going on with the civil rights movement in the South in 1962. King singing, “We don’t care what the Yankees say, the South’s gonna rise again,” was more than a little charged in this context.

Like all trends in popular music, the faux-folk era ended quietly and faded into the mist of our memories. Many of the songs live on, "El Paso" being the best example. (The blast couple of times I've seen Marty Stuart, he's sung the song by that other Marty.)

But a few decades later, John Prine and Peter Case (who's appearing in Santa Fe on Nov. 12) co-wrote a little tune called "Wonderful 99," which satirized the faux-folk era. It appeared on Case's 1992 album Six-Pack of Love.

The first verse goes:

You've heard about the dirty dozen and the tales of the green beret

The men that sank the Bismarck and the fighting C.I. A. 

But if you're talkin' danger then one name comes to mind 

Make an unwise decision call the wonderful 99

I can see Johnny Horton smiling from beyond 

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