The Woodstock Folk Festival

February 8th, 2011
Eleanor Walden and Fellow Musicians

Dan Adams, Eleanor Walden and Gerry Parsons at the Woodstock Folk Festival in 1962

Eleanor Walden, social activist and folksinger, recently told me in a phone interview that she believes she was the catalyst for the first Woodstock Festival. That festival took place in 1962 at the Woodstock Estates on Friday, September 14th, through Sunday, September 16th.

Pete Seeger donated concert proceeds from an August gig at the Woodstock Playhouse to help fund the festival. According to the program there were square and folk dances, demonstrations, dulcimer-making workshops, storytelling and a hootenanny. The model for the festival was to bring country traditional singers and city topical-political songwriters into the same arena to share influences. Altogether there were nine co-founders and organizers. They included folksingers Eleanor Walden, Mona and Frank Fletcher, Sonia Malkine, Billy Faier, producer Bill Hoffman and folklorist Sam Eskin. Pete and the co-founders mentioned above, plus Barbara Moncure, Harry Siemsen, Squire Elwyn Davis, and recording artists Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Hedy West and Native American singer/songwriter Peter LaFarge, all performed during the festival. Fiona Fletcher, Mona and Frank Fletcher’s daughter, said that she and her siblings had a blast. They were allowed to stay up late, and they had the run of the event.

Eleanor Walden took a circuitous route to Woodstock. She was raised in New York’s Greenwich Village and her father was a Wobbly. She grew up knowing Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Lee Hays. She remembers the weekly songfests in Washington Square Park in the 1940s.  In 1948 when the Progressive Party organized the singing Wallace Caravans she went on one of those multi-state tours with Pete Seeger. Walden says she was not a good musician, but she did sing well. In fact, when Lee Hays and some others were forming a group, she was invited to join them. She says she laughed off the invitation, claiming that she was too young. This berth was offered to Ronnie Gilbert, and The Weavers, as the group became known, went on to fame and fortune with such hits as “Goodnight Irene” and “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena.”

Walden’s inner voice led her in a different direction. In 1950 she left the safe confines of Greenwich Village and moved to Atlanta, Georgia. There her liberal New York inclinations caused her to form alliances with black musicians like Buddy Moss and SNCC Singers’ alto Bernice Johnson Reagon. She was stunned by the depth of the hatred exhibited by certain whites towards their black neighbors. She herself readily admits that she arrived with several prejudices of her own. For example, she naively assumed that all whites were hostile to blacks and that the Southerners’ drawl was an indication of bigotry and ignorance. She was relieved of these preconceptions when she met indigenous anti-racist whites like Myles Horton, of Highlander Folk School, and rural native folk. Walden says that they had unfathomable knowledge and insights into human conditions that she has drawn on to the present day.

In 1960 Walden arrived in Woodstock with Bill Hoffman and her five children. Soon she met the established folk singing group and a folk society was formed. Out of this evolved the first Woodstock Folk Festival. Walden says her proclivity is to impulsively jump into projects, and like a cat find her way. She and her family didn’t stay in Woodstock long. When a kerosene delivery failed to reach her log cabin home in time for the first snows she decamped with her brood back to Atlanta. Using the Woodstock Folk Festival program as a model, she helped stage the Atlanta Folk Festival in 1965 and 1966.

In the early 1980s she moved to the Bay Area of California where she promoted the Freedom Song Network in 1982. More recently, in 2008, she organized a petition drive to nominate Pete Seeger for the Nobel Peace Prize: www.nobelprize4pete.org.

What lies ahead? Well, Eleanor Walden, co-founder extraordinaire of folk festivals, may be returning to Woodstock for a gig. Stay tuned!

~Weston Blelock

3 Responses to “The Woodstock Folk Festival”

  1. The Georgia phase of my “checkered past” also includes promoting the Atlanta Folk Music Society and the Atlanta Folk Festival in 1966 and ’67. Besides bringing great Black and white artists together, Bessie Jones and the Sea Island Singers, Buddy Moss urban blues man, Ernie Marrs songwriter (Plastic Jesus etc.), Len Chandler composer singer, Chuck and Nan Perdue folklorists, the festival staff received a letter from then Governor Jimmy Carter thanking us for “peacefully integrating the GA State Park System.” And we were just having fun!

  2. Miki Davis says:

    I worked with Eleanor on the Atlanta Folk Music Society, and the festivals, and many of the other adventures we had in folk music in Atlanta during the 1960s.

    Also included in this close bunch of good frends were my husband Bud Foote, Van and Martha Hall, and a host of other terrific people. Living in Atlanta in the 1960s was the most fun I have had in my long and wonder-filled life of 74 years!

  3. Eleanor Walden emailed me the following comment: Miki was involved in the Atlanta folk music scene as the wife of Bud (Irving ) Foote, an instructor at GA Tech, who was an excellent songwriter (The Sloop Clearwater), singer, and raconteur, he was central in the development of the Atlanta Folk Music Society. The Society developed a large following of folky types and then produced two Festivals in the State Park in Mt. Saint Helens in 1966 and ’67 following the experience and success that had been achieved with the Woodstock Festival. I was the main instigator but the administrators were Bill Hoffman, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Bud Foote, then the host of heavy lifters and hordes of cultural workers, including Miki, who supported and encouraged the publications, the logistics, and the fund raising. Because we attracted Black and white signers and songwriters and invited many Black traditional cultural figures with no distinction as to Southern racist conventions we received a letter from then Governor Jimmy Carter thanking us for “peacefully integrating the GA State Parks.” We were just having a folk festival or as might have been said in the south “singing on the grounds.” From my point of view the most amazing part of the experience was seeing Black and white musicians learning verses and licks from one another in small safe groups like they have done for 300 years. That demonstration of the folk process was the most memorable influence of the Atlanta Folk Festival.

    When I left Woodstock in 1963 Holley Cantine’s log cabin was snowed in and I was pregnant. I decided that one more child was no more trouble than the 5 I had but the weather was a problem. So I took off for Atlanta where I had friends and a healthy reputation as a singer. I rented a huge abandoned house on Spring Street in Atlanta; Bill Hoffman followed with a big red Irish Setter; we financed the house by renting out rooms to Georgia Tech students, a friend with a small child, Jeannie Muse, moved in and provided meals at $5 a day. Ernie Marrs took over the cellar and remodeled the space like a tight ship’s cabin and joined in all the nightly hootnannies or folk jams that took place seemingly spontaneously but ubiquitously. When folk performers played Atlanta they came to our house on Spring Street. I remember Josh White getting reacquainted with his old friend Buddy Moss there, Jesse Fuller from San Francisco (Sittin’ On the Dock of the BAy), Barbara Carns, Bob Dylan, Van and Martha Hall, Tom Paxton, Jolly Robinson, Phil Ochs, Frank Fletcher, Chuck and Nan Perdue, Len Chandler, Guy and Candie Carawan, Bessie Jones….

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