Nick Reynolds can be seen as the lead singer in the Kingston Trio’s version of “M.T.A.” on this YouTube video:
[dsl:video youtube=”3VMSGrY-IlU” size=”small”]
The death of Nick Reynolds, one of the Kingston Trio, on October 1 at age 75, provoked fond memories of one era and painful reminders of another.
The fond memories are of the folk music revival that began in the late 1950s with the clean-cut, college-boy Kingston Trio and within a few years was closely linked to crusades for justice. The painful ones come from remembering that the period was accompanied by the cold war and the McCarthy era, when what you sang– as much as what you said–could get you in trouble.
Reynolds, Bob Shane and Dave Guard formed the Kingston Trio in 1957, originally as calypso group. The next year, their first hit, a rendition of the traditional folk song “Tom Dooley,” earned a gold record and a Grammy. Thirteen of the group’s albums, which included such hit songs as “A Worried Man” and “Tijuana Jail,” reached the Top Ten. In 1959 alone, they had four albums at the same time among the ten top-selling albums.
Purists often derided the Kingston Trio for watering down folk songs in order to make them commercially popular and for remaining on the political sidelines during the protest movements of the 1960s. But the group deserves credit for helping to launch the folk boom that brought recognition to older folkies and radicals like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and for paving the way for newcomers like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, who were well-known for their progressive political views and topical songs. By the time these younger folk singers arrived on the scene, the political climate had changed enough to provide a wide audience for protest music.
Reynolds was candid about the difficult position that the Kingston Trio took to navigate their way through those interlocking eras. In an interview last year, he told us that the members of his group were “big fans of the Weavers,” the folk group with Pete Seeger that had a number-one hit in 1950 with “Goodnight Irene” but were blacklisted for their left-wing sympathies and forced to break up in 1952.
Reynolds, who was friends with Weaver member Fred Hellerman, acknowledged that what happened to the Weavers caused the Kingston Trio to choose a different course.
“We decided that if we wanted to have our songs played on the airwaves, we’d better stay in the middle of the road politically,” he explained. Asked if the Weavers had warned the trio to avoid controversy, he replied: “They didn’t have to.”
Even after they’d made it big, the group never aligned itself with protest causes, said Reynolds, who described himself as a “very liberal Democrat.” Onstage, “the most we ever did was give a plug for John Kennedy” during his 1960 campaign against Richard Nixon.
Reynolds recalled that despite their personal support for the civil rights movement, the Kingston Trio didn’t performed songs like “We Shall Overcome” at their concerts.