A Folklore Society – Early Organization Attempts (Part 1)
by Don Firth

The Seattle Folklore Society  came into existence in 1966, founded by John Ullman, Phil and Vivian Williams, and several others. I was not involved because I was unaware at the time that this was taking place, so my knowledge of the details is limited.

Prior to this, several attempts were made to form a folklore society in the Seattle area. One attempt got off to an excellent start in 1953, but after an auspicious beginning, it met a bizarre and unexpected fate. It was a grim reminder that even in our ivory tower, we were not immune to current events, and many people, including me, became leery of making any further attempts.

Almost totally by correspondence, Harvard professor Francis James Child compiled the definitive collection of British Island folk ballads. Cecil J. Sharp, an Englishman, accompanied by Maud Karpeles, tramped o’er hill and dale and collected English folk songs and ballads in the Southern Appalachians. John and Alan Lomax collected folk songs and ballads all over the American Southwest, including the first major collection of cowboy songs as sung by real cowboys. Others, such as composer Ralph Vaughan Williams in England and poet Carl Sandburg in the United States, collected folk songs. Many states and regions had active folklore societies busily accumulating traditional material within their defined areas.

Was anyone collecting, except in the most haphazard manner, such material in the Pacific Northwest?  Not as far as we knew.

Not long after the first hootenanny in The Chalet (described in the July 2002 issue), Ken Prichard, Bob Clark, Walt Robertson, Ric Higlin, Janice Tennant, Dick Landberg, and several others decided that what this area needed was a folklore society: an organization charged with collecting such material before it all went away.

We tried various names for the organization. The Washington State Folklore Society  had a nice ring to it, but someone mentioned that they thought there already was one. If so, it didn’t seem to be active now, but it may still have existed on paper. The Seattle Folklore Society  sounded a bit limited. There may be some folklore in Everett, Tacoma, or Sequim, and, if so, we didn’t want to miss it.

The Pacific Northwest Folklore Society  became the working title. Considering the size of the area and the variety of material it included, it was biting off much more than we could chew, but we were ambitious and we planned on growing. The Folklore Society’s primary function would be to cover the academic side, particularly collecting and cataloging material. Its secondary function would be to present concerts, workshops, and other events, hoping to raise the money necessary to fund its other activities. More would be added as we gained experience.

The East 42nd Street Arts Association  came into existence at the same time. It was made up of the same people. One of its purposes was to initiate an annual arts festival to take place on some convenient weekend – Memorial Day, perhaps, or Labor Day.

The Pacific Northwest Folklore Society  and the East 42nd Street Arts Association  held a joint inaugural event. With all the city permits and the cooperation of the local merchants, N. E. 42nd Street between University Way and 15th Avenue N. E. was barricaded off. As I recall, the festival was wide open; anybody could display anything. Movable partitions were brought in upon which paintings could be hung. People set up card tables, or improvised tables with boxes and boards, or just sat on the sidewalk as in a Middle Eastern bazaar and displayed their crafts – jewelry, weaving, pottery, whatever they had.

Janice Tennant was involved in Methodist student activities at Wesley House, located just across N. E. 42nd Street from The Chalet.  Janice didn't sing or play an instrument, but she was an avid folk music enthusiast and often helped in making arrangements to use Wesley House facilities for Folklore Society  and Arts Association  events.

More formal exhibitions of paintings, crafts, and such were set up in the auditorium in the lower level of Wesley House. These exhibits were cleared away in time for the evening concerts.

The concert series included performances by Walt Robertson, a program of Northwest Indian dances by Bill Holm and his wife, Marty (Marty, as I recall, was a Native American), and programs by the Scandia Folk Dance Club, and Dance Circle, a local group interested in Balkan Dancing. This was the first of several such festivals.

Shortly after, a huge city-wide hobby fair was held at the Hec Edmondson pavilion. The expansive floor of the sports pavilion was covered with booths where hobbyists could disseminate information and display or demonstrate their activities, and stages were provided to accommodate music, dance or theater performances. We were there with our own information booth and stage presentations. Membership grew.

The East 42nd Street Arts Festivals  continued for several years, expanding to include East 41st Street where a performance stage was set up. Various kinds of folk music were presented, from bluegrass to flamenco. The lower potion of University Way was also barricaded to accommodate the skirling, drumming, and precision marching and of the Keith Pipe Band.

In October of 1954, the Pacific Northwest Folklore Society  had an opportunity to sponsor a concert by Pete Seeger. Held in the Wesley House auditorium, it was packed. Pete did a marvelous performance, which was thoroughly enjoyed by everyone.

Pete's concert was totally apolitical. But others – who were not there – construed it differently. The bizarre aftermath of this event caught us completely by surprise and spelled the doom of the Pacific Northwest Folklore Society.

In Part 2, I will describe what happened. It is a strange and ominous commentary on the spirit of the times.

A Folklore Society – Early Organization Attempts (Part 2)
by Don Firth

The Pacific Northwest Folklore Society, in conjunction with the East 42nd Street Arts Association, sponsored several successful events in 1953 and 1954. In October of 1954, Pete Seeger sang a concert in the Wesley House auditorium, sponsored by the PNFS.

On the day of the concert, while sitting in a University District restaurant, a friend of mine and I were approached by a folk music enthusiast of our acquaintance. He was quite upset. Pete Seeger, he said, was being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. As an aeronautical engineering student who planned to go to work for Boeing when he graduated and thinking that he might need to get a security clearance, he wanted his name removed from the PNFS  mailing list. He didn't want his name associated with any organization that had anything to do with Pete Seeger.

That evening, Seeger sang for nearly three hours to an enthralled capacity crowd. Although he did include a couple of old labor songs in his program, one could hardly make a case that there was anything political about his performance. Certainly nothing subversive.

Nevertheless, the following day furtive telephone calls came into The Chalet restaurant (unofficial headquarters of the PNFS ) from people who almost cringingly insisted that their names be removed from the mailing list. Why? The PNFS  had sponsored a concert by a suspected Communist. It seemed Kafkaesque. Within a few days, the mailing list had dwindled to less than a dozen names. After what seemed like an auspicious beginning, the PNFS  ceased to exist.

And interestingly enough, although the PNFS  and the East 42nd Street Arts Association  were composed of the same people, the latter organization continued unaffected.

At the time, an atmosphere of paranoia seemed all-pervasive. This was the height of the McCarthy Era, and somehow folk musicians in particular had become a sort of lightning rod. This didn't diminish anyone's interest in the music, however, nor did it stop us from getting together informally.

In late 1956 or early 1957, a few of us decided to try again. Someone made a general announcement prematurely, and several people unknown to us showed up at what was to be a small planning meeting. They made it quite plain that their interest was less in folk music than it was in using the organization as a tool for disseminating their particular political agenda, and as a possible source of raising funds for their causes by having folk singers give benefit concerts. Not what we had in mind. So we canceled our plans. From that point on, many of us were leery of attempting to form another folklore or folk music society. And we were even more leery of others who might want do so.

That this was not just rampant paranoia was amply demonstrated when one of us was visited by a pair of FBI agents who wanted to know who was at the meeting. And they encouraged us to go ahead with the organization, because they wanted to use it as a fishbowl.

Although folk music is often associated with political causes, our interest was in the collection and preservation of this region's folklore. Not in anybody's political agenda.

In 1957 and '58, I was attending the School of Music at the University of Washington and teaching guitar, so my time was limited, as was that of most of us. But we did continue to get together on weekends for hoots and songfests. In 1958, we became aware that a “Seattle Folk Music Society” had formed and was meeting every Saturday evening in Eagleson Hall. The antennae went up and we wondered just what kind of organization this was.

I attended a number of these meetings. Conducted with a light hand by a young man named Tom Hartnett, it was much like the Seattle Song Circle is now. People took turns singing and many were just beginning to play and sing. Still prior to the official  beginning of the popular folk music revival (the release of The Kingston Trio’s recording of Tom Dooley), it was obvious that folk music appealed to a lot of people, and these people wanted to participate. One or two old labor songs were sung, but there was nothing at all overtly political about the organization that I could see. Nor did there seem to be any particular interest in the academic side, such as collecting and archiving Pacific Northwest material.

Apparently Tom Harnett had to drop out, because shortly thereafter Bob Nelson was asked to head up the organization. Bob kept it glued together for a time, but he, too, found other things to do. In fact early in 1959, he and I formed a duo and began performing professionally in the Pacific Northwest and California. The actual fate of the Seattle Folk Music Society is unknown to me, but when I looked again, it was gone. It may be that the sudden proliferation of coffeehouses with folk music entertainment drew them away.

In late 1962 and early 1963, in the aftermath of the Seattle World's Fair, yet another attempt was made to form a local folklore society. Several planning meetings were held and a number of organizational schemes were examined, but eventually all of this came to naught. Determined that this would be an organization with solid academic roots, we had been led to believe that we would receive organizational assistance and financial support, probably in the form of grants, but this was not forthcoming.

In 1966, the Seattle Folklore Society  was formed by John Ullman and Phil and Vivian Williams. Initially, their efforts were confined to presenting and recording strictly traditional musicians, with no interest in "revival" performers, local or otherwise. In the 1970s, the organization expanded, opened its membership, and initiated the monumental Northwest Folklife Festivals, held every Memorial Day weekend at the Seattle Center.

Pacific Northwest Folklore Society