Randy Sparks, The New Christy Minstrels and Trying To Figure Out What Exactly is ‘Folk Music’

David Hinckley
5 min readFeb 18, 2024

After Randy Sparks dropped out of Berkeley in the early 1950s with the long-odds goal of writing and performing folksongs for a living, he got the following advice from veterans in the field: Be circumspect.

“When I started at the Purple Onion in San Francisco in 1954,” Sparks told Donald Freeman of the Chicago Tribune in 1962, “some people told me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t call yourself a folk singer. That’s a bad word.’

“In the public image a folk singer has always been some drifter who looks seedy, carries a guitar and gasps out a few irregular notes.”

The young Randy Sparks.

Fortunately for Sparks, he didn’t buy either the advice or the stereotype. In 1961 he formed the New Christy Minstrels, whose clean-cut style and folk-based music propelled them to million-selling albums, their own TV show and a level of international acclaim that by the mid-1960s had made Sparks a multimillionaire.

The early New Christy Minstrels. Sparks, front and center.

That in turn enabled him to spend the rest of his life, among other things, writing and making music. When he died February 11, age 90, he was marking 70 years in the music-making game, and right up to the end he was telling anyone who asked how much he had loved it.

Sparks and the New Christy Minstrels, because of their popularity, also factored prominently into the long-running conversation — okay, sometimes a debate, okay, sometimes a heated debate — over exactly what constitutes folk music.

Sparks had been playing folk-style music, including his own compositions, through most of the 1950s. Sometimes he played solo, sometimes with a partner or two. Those configurations had been around since ancient times when singers would stroll through the village with a lute or a drum, and by the mid-20th century Americans often did associate folk music with Woody Guthrie or Burl Ives or Cisco Houston or Josh White or Leadbelly — singers who sometimes played with partners and accompanied themselves with a guitar.

Sparks liked that. He called Ives, a classic troubadour who played the songs America sang, his musical idol. Late in Ives’s life Sparks spent years teamed up with him.

By the late 1950s, folk music had ascended to a higher profile in American popular music. The early rock ’n’ roll era opened pop music’s doors — that is, radio’s doors — to a cornucopia of musical styles, folk among them, leading to airplay for artists like Harry Belafonte and the Tarriers.

When the Kingston Trio surged to the front of the pack with a string of hits like “Tom Dooley” and “MTA,” that helped kick off what the late Dave Van Ronk bemusedly called “the great folk scare” of the 1960s.

Many folk traditionalists and purists scorned the Kingston Trio, charging them with hijacking the true folk form to make, gasp, commercial recordings.

Randy Sparks didn’t see it that way. He heard folksongs being performed in places they had never reached before, like on albums by the Norman Luboff Choir, and his reaction was that packaging those songs in more accessible ways wasn’t desecration. It was victory.

The New Christy Minstrels were named for a famous 19th century minstrel troupe who performed in blackface and whose program was rooted in the racial attitudes of the time. Sparks discarded the blackface and the attitudes — though the revolving membership of the New Christy Minstrels was almost entirely white — and focused on the original Christy premise of a high-energy, upbeat show that made audiences just plain feel good.

Sparks was convinced he could do this and still keep the show firmly rooted in the folk music tradition. For starters, all the instrumentation was acoustic and their early repertoire was classic folksongs. Their debut album in 1962 kicked off with “This Land Is Your Land” and included “Railroad Bill,” “O Shenandoah,” “Nine Hundred Miles,” “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “Springfield Fair” and similar tunes that were part of our national musical heritage — though, alas, fewer Americans know that heritage today.

Where he saw the New Christy Minstrels departing from the folksinger stereotype was the delivery of those songs, with eight, 10 or more musicians creating a swell of vocal harmony.

Folk musicians had gathered in multi-voice groups before, most recently and prominently the Weavers. Sparks made it bigger, and his vision clicked. The New Christy Minstrels had top-20 singles (“Green, Green”), became regulars on The Andy Williams Show and performed on the steps of the White House, at the invitation of President Lyndon Johnson.

They made folk-rooted music look fresh-faced, wholesome and exhilarating. They delivered toe-tapping melodies and pleasant banter. Small wonder that millions of Americans loved them.

Small wonder, too, that more than a few traditionalists felt wholesome and clean-cut was exactly what real folk music was not. Sure, folk music could be fun, or funny, but it also poked into the darker corners that commercial pop music mostly shunned. While the first few verses of “This Land is Your Land” could be played as a joyful anthem, Woody Guthrie’s full composition noted that too much of America, and by extension the American dream, is off-limits to those without privilege.

That’s a discussion without a conclusion, of course, because defining “folk music” is like figuring out what your dog is thinking. You may get part of it. You will not get all of it.

That’s demonstrable from even the briefest sampling of folk musicians from the 1960s. Van Ronk, Tom Paxton, Richie Havens, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Patrick Sky. Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, Carolyn Hester. Mississippi John Hurt, Son House and Skip James, a voice from another galaxy. Arlo Guthrie, Leonard Cohen. Ian & Sylvia, Fairport Convention, Limeliters, Peter, Paul and Mary. Clancy Brothers. Some guy named Dylan. And yup, the Serendipity Singers, the Rooftop Singers and the New Christy Minstrels.

The older Randy Sparks.

From Randy Sparks’s interviews in his last few years, you got the sense he embraced all of that. He told Recordnet.com in 2019 that he had written 200 songs in the past three years. There was no market for them, he added, but he wrote them just to enjoy singing them. “I’m still in love with my life’s work: songwriting,” he said. “What a joy.”

If you ever have to define folk music, or any other music, that’s not a bad place to start.

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David Hinckley

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”