Lo these many decades after the folk music wave of the 1950s and 1960s — the one the late Dave Van Ronk jokingly called “the great folk scare” — history tends to telescope the era into its most famous alumni and alumnae, like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell.
They reserve that recognition. But the movement, ragged, free-spirited and often contentious by nature, incorporated a much larger and more diverse group, many of whom sadly have reached or are now reaching the age where they’ve strummed the last chord.
In that spirit, it’s worth pausing to say goodbye to Patrick Sky, who died Thursday at the age of 80. According to his friend and fellow artist Eric Anderson, he was living in Asheville, N.C., and had been in hospice care.
Sky didn’t write or leave a large body of songs. He achieved mild fame in the 1960s mostly for “Separation Blues,” a toe-tapping and humorous tune owing heavily to the country blues tradition embodied by vintage black artists like Furry Lewis and Mississippi John Hurt, whose lovely final 1960s sessions Sky produced.
On a more serious note, Sky recorded Peter LaFarge’s bitter “Ballad of Ira Hayes,” about the “Pima Indian” who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima and returned to a country that refused him respect or dignity. While Johnny Cash’s version is better known, Sky’s is both more subtle and more powerful.
Sky combined humor and sharp criticism on what some consider his signature record, the 1973 “Songs That Made America Famous.”
An unfiltered satiric commentary on everything from race relations to rock music and child abuse, the record offended almost everyone — which was, of course, the point. If you didn’t get it, you were offended.
Sky spent two years, from 1971 to 1973, finding a label that would release “Songs That Made America Famous,” and it got virtually no radio play or promotion. It is sometimes described as a cult fave from the era, though songs that were posted on Youtube in 2014 have racked up fewer than 600 listens. That’s a small cult.
Sky presumably didn’t care. He conceived “Songs That Made America Famous” as a middle finger to 1) a record industry that he felt exploited artists and mistreated their art, and 2) a country he felt regarded way too many human beings the same way.
He had pretty much stopped recording albums by then, which made him a pioneer in a movement that’s grown exponentially with the Internet: artists who drop out of the traditional music biz, but remain active in music.
Since Sky didn’t have the Internet option, he founded his own record company, Green Linnet, to produce and release the traditional Irish music that became the passion of his post-folk career.
He was known as a first-rate guitarist in his folk days, notable particularly for his finger-picking, and he later mastered the uilleann pipes. He built them, and wrote books on their history and use.
At the 1976 memorial concert for the late Phil Ochs, a fellow ’60s folksinger, Sky played a haunting melody on the pipes while former Attorney General Ramsey Clark spoke about Ochs’s character.
Sky occasionally performed, mostly with his wife Cathy, well into the 21st century. He dropped in a folksong or two from time to time, suggesting he hadn’t forsaken that part of his musical life.
Your basic folk music fan might know him best for the wistful and timeless traveling song “Many A Mile,” which he wrote in the 1960s and has been recorded by dozens of artists over the years.
“Many A Mile” also pops up in folk music anthologies, which is good if potentially a bit misleading, because it suggests Sky was the folk scene version of a one-hit wonder.
He wasn’t. He was a lifelong musician who told Pete Seeger on Seeger’s wonderful Rainbow Quest TV show in 1966 that the first song he wrote was about unemployment, in the wake of being fired from a job because he tried to organize a union.
He was a player in that whole 1960s folk scene, a good friend of Van Ronk and others. His songs were known for their humor, whose integral role in folk music sometimes get overlooked.
Like much humor of the era, some of Sky’s might meet resistance today. A recurring theme is reflected in the concluding verse from “Separation Blues,” which begins “All this goes to show since time began what those women can do to men / It’s better to buy than to be sold to the gutter for a bottle of gin.”
When Seeger jokingly suggests Sky sing one of his “anti-women” songs, Sky jokingly replies he prefers to think of them as “pro-men.”
At the same time, he also wrote flat-out love songs. including “I’m Gonna Fall in Love With You (Keep on Walking).”
So maybe what all this really goes to show is that after you’ve defined the “1960s folksinger” box, pretty much none of the 1960s folksingers fit into it.
Patrick Sky among them.