Guitarist, banjo player, and well-respected arranger of folksong Erik Darling, who passed away last week at the age of 74, tended towards the leeward side of fame: he was the guy who replaced Pete Seeger in the Weavers, if that rings a bell among any of the oldguard folkies who remember a time before Dylan. He was also an Ayn Rand libertarian in the midst of a solidarity-minded social revolution, which caused friction in the midst of the pro-labor, liberal folk revival of the fifties and sixties, and probably contributed to the fact that you have no idea who he was.
But significantly, despite his political incompatibility with much of his audience, Darling had a gifted sense of how to reframe and update older, more traditional folksongs in ways which made them more atractive and fun for the predominantly young, white urban and suburban audiences that were discovering folk music in the fifties and sixties.
The impact of this on folk, writ large, cannot be underestimated.
Though Darling was well known within the folkworld for his virtuoso stringwork, which graced early recording sessions of Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Judy Collins, Jean Ritchie, and others before becoming part of the core sound of such early folk groups as the Folksay Trio, The Tarriers, The Weavers, and later, the Rooftop Singers, it is no accident that his peers and fans, in their obituary quotes and radioplay tributes, have primarily celebrated him for his talents as an arranger. Darling's deliberate approach to building song structure and song performance to maximize a given song's power was a revelation; the half century of folk groups and folksingers who followed in his footsteps owe him a huge debt of gratitude. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Darling's short exposition on the Anatomy of an Arrangement is a tight treatise that should be required reading for all songwriters.
In tribute, then, to Darling and other group members and early folkies who have faded out of our consciousness, while their work lives on as part of the folk tradition: roots folksman Dave Alvin with a swinging barrelhouse take on Erik's arrangement of old folksong Walk Right In, which was one of the early folkworld's biggest hits, and the beginning of the twelve-string craze; The Tarriers with their "original" version of what would become one of Harry Belafonte's longest-lasting chart-toppers, though the song, which was actually created by fusing two Jamaican folksongs, was a #4 hit for the Tarriers themselves; and the Grateful Dead with a very ragged but more traditional take on old Kingston Trio standard Tom Dooley, which turns out to have been based on Darling's arrangement from his early days with the Folksay Trio.
- Dave Alvin: Walk Right In (trad.)
- The Tarriers: The Banana Boat Song (trad.)
- Harry Belafonte: The Banana Boat Song (trad.)
- Grateful Dead: Tom Dooley (trad.)
Bonus points: actor Alan Arkin was a member of the Tarriers, too. Yeah, that Alan Arkin. Really.