Sunday, April 10, 2011

Gil Robbins of The Highwaymen (1931-2011)

Music on Sunday @ The Reaction

Gil Robbins died on Tuesday (April 5th). He's the one in the middle of the picture to the right with the oversized Mexican six-string guitar.

For some, this is notable for the fact that Mr. Robbins was a member of a folk music group in the early '60s called The Highwaymen, which had some success with songs like "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore" and the Lead Belly classic "Cotton Fields." 

Others might note his passing in part because he is the father of well-known actor Tim Robbins, who has not been averse to making use of the folk genre as a part of his performing personae. I am thinking here of the wonderful satirical mockumentary Bob Roberts, which plays on the relationship between conservative politics and American populism -- proving the sad fact that populism can be co-opted for any number of contradictory political and social ends.

But enough about Tim, who has gotten plenty of ink in his lifetime.

The Highwaymen were one of those groups, which came to prominence in what has become known as the Folk Revival of the late '50s and early '60s. Other groups like The Kingston Trio and solo artists like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and so many more are associated with the period. Hard to believe, but for a few short years folk music was pretty hot.

Needless to say, folk music has never really gone away. It's just been repackaged and renamed to make it appealing to a mass audience. James Taylor, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and every other modern-day troubadour with an acoustic guitar owes a great debt to those who came up in the middle part of the twentieth century either to sing classic, frequently beautifully harmonized folk songs or to write their own singer-songwriter fare much in the tradition.

For those who might not know, folk music is alive and well today, and not just for those of us who can play a few chords and sing in the living room amongst friends -- although that is an important part of my life.

There are countless folk festivals all over the world. There are thriving, albeit small, record labels recording and marketing the music. There are more commercially successful artists who may characterize their music as something else but still fit comfortably under the folk banner.

Importantly, because of the ease with which recording can happen and micro-markets can be accessed, folk music is probably doing better now than in much of the past.

Anyway, folk music is a thing with me. And I like to recognize the passing of those who helped it along the way, as Gil Robbins obviously did.

(By the way, just to avoid confusion, in the mid-'80s and early-'90s a "country supergroup" came along also calling themselves The Highwaymen. The group consisted of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. While they did a fairly consistent menu of country songs, they didn't mind doing covers like Woody Guthrie's "Deportee" or Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans" -- folk songs by any measure. Yeah, it's hard to keep these music categories straight. Makes me wonder why we should bother, unless we intentionally want to keep a bunch of traditional music enthusiasts up all night arguing over the definition of folk music -- but I don't recommend it).

Here's the Highwaymen doing "Cotton Fields":

(Cross-posted at Music Across the 49th.)

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