Hootenanny: more than just a knees-up
Hoedowns, throwdowns, and shindigs have long been a way of letting loose, each suggesting the sort of physical release that arises from dancing along to an impromptu musical performance. And within that spectrum of revelry lies the hootenanny. Jools Holland hosts one annually to salute and celebrate the end of the year, but the term has a rich history beyond its party signification.
Originally from the US, ‘hootenanny’ was first used like ‘gadget’ or ‘thingamajig’, an expression denoting the need to communicate something concrete when all that came to mind were inexact descriptors. That same nebulous essence made its way into the musical events that came to define the term in 1940s America. ‘Hootenanny’ represented a catchall meant to convey the simultaneously planned and spontaneous experience of getting together to play music. What kind not only depended on the players but also the audience.
Hootenanny and the folk movement
Folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger borrowed the term when he helped found People’s Songs after being released from the army in 1945. The organization intended to foster and bolster American musical traditions, especially folk, and thereby expose listeners to an array of players, songs, and history. If the American public could hear and sing their past, ensconced as it was in songs – a form of oral history – they could better understand and fight for their present. As part of their mission, People’s Songs held sessions or concerts known as ‘hootenannies’. They were, at their core, gatherings where people could trade songs, performing the work of oral storytelling that early folk music exemplified. Seeger believed in music’s power. As the 2007 documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song expounded, he saw songs as tools for social change. They did more than bring people together, they informed and organized and fuelled. Through songs like ‘We Will Overcome’, Seeger infused hootenannies with meaning and purpose. They were more than a good time; there was real political action inherent in such a get together.
But such gatherings were not solely meant to repeat the past. Their popularity throughout the 1950s and early 60s arose alongside the burgeoning folk movement, and that movement was teeming with fresh voices. As writer Elijah Wald summarized in his book, Dylan Goes Electric, ‘folk music was more than just another pop trend; it was a social phenomenon expressing the concerns of a generation’. Seeger had long penned original music in addition to performing traditional fare – he co-wrote ‘If I Had a Hammer’ with Lee Hays, and the anti-war song ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ – but songwriters like Bob Dylan began sharing new, politically bent songs that reflected the confusing world many were beginning to experience in the turbulent 60s. The word blossomed. Hootenannies became areas of exchange, where those steeped in the country’s musical traditions could take what they had learned and apply it to the present for an even greater impact.
Hootenanny goes commercial
Noting the popularity surrounding the folk movement, and eyeing the potential to earn ratings by showcasing its major players, ABC announced a new program, Hootenanny!, in 1963. But all similarities to the concerts curated by People’s Songs, and later held by Seeger, ended with the title. Seeger was not allowed to appear due to due to his Leftist stance. (In 1955, he was called to testify before the House of Un-American Activities Committee, and refused to comply with their questioning. He was later sentenced for contempt, according to Rolling Stone.) Popular folk singers like Dylan, Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Peter, Paul, Mary boycotted the program over its censorship, pushing back against the way ABC and network censors treated the founding father of the folk movement.
That ABC spotted an opportunity and exploited it is no aberration in musical history; music and commercialism have long been bedfellows. In fact, the commercialism that drives music recording and distribution has in many ways offered listeners a depth and breadth of music they wouldn’t otherwise have heard. But the meaning of ‘hootenanny’ shifted when ABC launched its show. It wasn’t exactly that hootenannies couldn’t exist without Seeger – they took place all over the country without his curatorial leadership or supervision – but the spirit bound up in the word was no longer as potent, even though the broadcast reached hundreds of thousands more listeners than an average hootenanny gathering ever could. The show’s commercialistic purpose co-opted the underlying principles that informed the humble ‘hootenanny’. It no longer exclusively represented a spirit of togetherness or information or exchange; instead, it became about popularity and ratings, which interestingly enough leads us back to Jools’ Annual Hootenanny.