In his introduction to the Swedish audio edition of Bob Dylan's 2004 memoir 'Chronicles, Volume One,' the writer, folklore enthusiast, and promoter Israel "Izzy" Young states, "All I wanted in life" was "to be a part of American folkmusic." He was specifically referring to the Folklore Center, his Greenwich Village shop that served as a de-facto headquarters of folk-related activity in New York City from 1957 to 1973, which--as editor Scott Barretta points out--placed Young at the heart of the national folk revival as well. Both an active participant in and an astute observer of the activity around him, Young documented the scene in various personal journals, self-published writings, and magazine columns that Barretta has collected in 'The Conscience of the Folk Revival: The Writings of Israel "Izzy" Young,' the latest edition in Scarecrow Press' American Folk Music and Folk Musicians Series.
A blues writer and researcher familiar to longtime readers of 'Living Blues' as a former editor and frequent contributor, Barretta met Young when he relocated to Sweden in 1992. Young himself has resided there since 1973, where he operates the Folklore Centrum and promotes concerts of indigenous and international folk music, much as he did during the American folk revival while living in his native New York.
Young's most famous association during those years was with Bob Dylan, who became a frequent visitor to Young's establishment soon after arriving in the Village. Young also promoted Dylan's first formal concert in New York City, held at Carnegie Chapter Hall in 1961. Along with Young's own writings on Dylan--fond, yet critical and clear-eyed in turns--the appendix includes Dylan's handwritten manuscripts of two unrecorded songs, "Go Away You Bomb" and "Talking Folklore Center."
Besides Jewish roots and a passion for folk music, Young also shared with Dylan a refusal to be pigeonholed. Young's own folk music initiation came via his involvement with the local folk dance community, and he chose the name "Folklore Center" for his business by virtue of his varied cultural interests: "I think Pete Seeger at the time said it should be called Folk Music Center or Folk Dance Center, but I felt under the strict term `folklore,' I had complete freedom. I could do whatever I wanted."
Likewise, Young was liberal politically without being an ideologue. Possessing a dislike of communism rooted in his working-class upbringing, Young told Irwin Silber, "I still hate you commies, but I'll write for you," when the latter asked him to join the staff of 'Sing Out!' magazine. Young's column, entitled "Frets and Frails," is presented here in its entirety. It largely consisted of brief notations of various happenings both in the Village and in the greater folk music scene: births, marriages, deaths, arrivals, departures, performances, group roster changes, and the like. Besides providing a real-time account of the folk revival's lifespan, the sheer number of names Young listed in his column is a reminder that it involved many more than the handful of most famous figures, rendering this a necessary reference volume of the musical and cultural movement.
More engaging are Young's refreshingly blunt opinions on various issues, which are scattered throughout "Frets and Frails." "American Blues are being recognized in England and Europe while they are not encouraged enough here--especially by Folk Music Journals and Magazines," he wrote in the winter of 1959-1960--a full decade before the founding of 'Living Blues.' He was particularly concerned with matters of copyright: "Did you know that John Lomax Sr. wrote 'Goodnight, Irene'?" Young asked in his second "Sing Out!" column, and over the years he openly criticized those who recorded and copyrighted traditional songs without properly crediting their source or explaining their methodology. In a paper entitled "Folk Music and Copyright, Lomax and Leadbelly," written in the 1990s and included here, Young expanded upon this topic, calling for clarification of the manner in which John and Alan Lomax copyrighted songs recorded by Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter. (See [...] for an explication of the Lomaxes' association with Ledbetter.)
Young is quoted as saying that he has no plans to publish an autobiography, but rather will "write short `stories,' from time to time, that are more like historical accounts, and that feels good to me, sort of my mind actively helping and encouraging me to write the way I like to." This seems a shame, as Barretta notes in his preface the delight Young took in recounting his memories of musicians such as Big Joe Williams, Robert Pete Williams, and Reverend Gary Davis--stories that remain unpublished. Hopefully Young will commit these and more to print, but until then, 'The Conscience of the Folk Revival: The Writings of Israel "Izzy" Young' is the definitive account of his folk revival experiences and observations.
(I originally wrote this review for 'Living Blues'; it appeared in Issue #224/April 2013, p. 68. Re-used here with permission.--Melanie Young)