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Folk City

New York and the American Folk Music Revival

By Stephen Petrus and Ronald D. Cohen

Foreword by Peter Yarrow

From Washington Square Park and the Gaslight Café to WNYC Radio and Folkways Records, New York City’s cultural, artistic, and commercial assets helped to shape a distinctively urban breeding ground for the folk music revival of the 1950s and ’60s. Folk City explores New York’s central role in fueling the nationwide craze for folk music in postwar America. It involves the efforts of record company producers and executives, club owners, concert promoters, festival organizers, musicologists, agents and managers, editors and writers—and, of course, musicians and audiences.

In Folk City, authors Stephen Petrus and Ron Cohen capture the exuberance of the times and introduce readers to a host of characters who brought a new style to the biggest audience in the history of popular music. Among the savvy New York entrepreneurs committed to promoting folk music were Izzy Young of the Folklore Center, Mike Porco of Gerde’s Folk City, and John Hammond of Columbia Records. While these and other businessmen developed commercial networks for musicians, the performance venues provided the artists space to test their mettle. The authors portray Village coffee houses not simply as lively venues but as incubators of a burgeoning counterculture, where artists from diverse backgrounds honed their performance techniques and challenged social conventions. Accessible and engaging, fresh and provocative, rich in anecdotes and primary sources, Folk City is lavishly illustrated with images collected for the accompanying major exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York in 2015.

Stephen Petrus is an Andrew W. Mellon Research Fellow at the New-York Historical Society, where he is working on his second book, a political and cultural history of Greenwich Village in the 1950s and ’60s. At the Museum of the City of New York, he curated the exhibition “Folk City,” on view until January 10th, 2016. Petrus received his Ph.D. in history from the City University Graduate Center and has taught at Lehman College in the Bronx. He lives in Brooklyn.

Ronald D. Cohen is Emeritus Professor of History at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, Indiana. He is the author of numerous books on the history of folk music including The Pete Seeger Reader (Oxford University Press, 2014) and was the co-producer/writer of the 10-CD boxed set Songs for Political Action: Folk Music, Topical Songs and the American Left, 1926-1954 (1996).


Folk City is a magical token back to a clattering, incandescent New York, where Popular Front hootenannies gave way to the fretted hip of Gerde’s, the Gaslight, and the Folklore Center. Stephen Petrus and Ronald Cohen have written the best history yet of the city’s influential folk music culture, packed with astonishing photos that finally see the light of day.”—Sean Wilentz, author of Bob Dylan in America

“Yes, dear readers, there was a time not so long ago when urban troubadours sang of flowers more powerful than guns; a time when ideals put to song helped transform a culture. With compelling artistry, Stephen Petrus and Ronald Cohen capture the history behind that special moment and how New York’s diverse creative class made it happen.” —Thomas Kessner, Distinguished Professor of History, City University of New York Graduate School

Folk City is beautifully written and illustrated, a mesmerizing history of one of the great moments in New York cultural history. The prose fairly sings off the page, and the photos and old poster and song sheets are fascinating. This will make you wish you were there.”–Kevin Baker, author of The Big Crowd

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Folk City
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