It was the mid-1960s, and the Vietnam War raged overseas, consuming a generation.
At Penn State, like college campuses nationwide, opposition to the war steadily grew. The draft loomed large for many graduating seniors — an ominous specter on the horizon. They were troubled, roiling times, but some students found solace through the chords and harmonies of folk music.
Saul Broudy, John Allen Frink, Peter Kessler, Lynn Margileth and Jerry Zolten found voices.
Sunday night at The State Theatre, the five musicians and former Penn State Folklore Society members will harken back to the era in a special reunion concert. The friends have reunited to play together regularly over the past years, but never like this.
Starting at 8 p.m., “There’s Something Happening Here: Remembering the Vietnam Era at Penn State through Story & Song” will feature songs and stories from a period when the escalating war began to tear apart America.
Audience members will be invited to share their own recollections, and WPSU Penn State will film the concert for later broadcasts. The station is taking part in a national dialogue about the Vietnam War by creating programs that draw on personal stories to explore how Pennsylvanians experienced the conflict.
For Zolten, a noted local musicologist and professor, and his circle, the campus folk music scene provided a haven in a tumultuous world.
“The ’60s era was particularly turbulent what with the war itself and frustration on the homefront with issues including racial and gender equality, freedom of speech, poverty and general social injustice,” he recalled. “Making music was sometimes just a way to relieve stress and entertain ourselves, but at other times, it was a means of expressing where we stood relative to these issues.”
The heart of the scene lay in the Hetzel Union Building, the HUB.
“It was a time when music was in the air, the interest in folk music an alternative to the otherwise rock ’n’ roll dominated popular music of the day,” Zolten said. “During those years, the on-campus HUB was a place where we students could gather and make our own music.”
Guitars, banjos, mandolins, fiddles — they all showed up in the beloved “music room.”
It wasn’t fancy, just a large, carpeted space crammed with office-style chairs, couches and coffee tables. Against the walls were several booths with chairs, a turntable and a speaker — perfect places for escaping into lilting melodies and trenchant lyrics.
From the Folklore Society’s album collection in the HUB, members could bring records to the booths. Joan Baez. Bob Dylan. Phil Ochs. Tom Paxton. Dave Van Ronk. Pete Seeger. They became the teachers when needles dropped to vinyl, but the musical education extended beyond the grooves.
“I remember going up there almost every day, guitar case in hand, and hanging out between classes,” Zolten said. “There was always somebody making self-made music and an awful lot of talent that you could learn from if you were just starting out.”
Picking and strumming together, they delved into blues, ballads and bluegrass, from traditional styles of roots music to the singer/songwriters of the period. Another tie to the folk world came from the society’s faculty adviser, Samuel Bayard, an internationally respected folklorist and contemporary of pioneer musicologist, composer and teacher Charles Seeger.
Those days of jamming in the music room or around campus formed bonds still strong after decades.
“Over the years, we became a close-knit group learning from each other and learning the art of performance ... and of course, when some graduated we lost track of them,” Zolten said. “But many of us stayed in touch. Some like Saul Broudy went on to careers as professional musicians while others, a good many of us in fact, kept performance and music making in our lives.”
Begun in the 1980s, their reunions have endured, and so has their legacy. “Come gather ’round people wherever you roam/And admit that the waters have grown,” Bob Dylan sang in 1964, and musicians are still gathering to reflect on “a-changin’ ” times and to celebrate joy and heartbreak, heroes and outlaws.
“One of the heartening things about students today is how many of them are taking an interest in the music of the past,” Zolten said. “I think that the folk music scene today at Penn State and surrounding areas is richer than it ever was back in our day. They may not be an organized group like our Folklore Society, but young music makers seem to be everywhere today.”
Fifty years ago, young men were dying in a distant war erupting like a wildfire. American society convulsed in upheavals. But when Zolten and his friends picked up their instruments, the world made sense, if only for a little while.
“In the end, no matter what the style, making music together brought us together,” he said. “Lifelong friendships grew out of those times and along with the music, I think that is what we celebrate when we get together for our reunions.”
Chris Rosenblum writes about local people, places and events. Send column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
What: “There’s Something Happening Here: Remembering the Vietnam Era at Penn State Through Story & Song”
Where: The Attic at The State Theatre
When: 8 p.m. Sunday