The exact origin of this group is vague, but we know that it has existed continuously as a Cornell organization since the early 1950s. It was the time of the beginning of a folk song revival that culminated in the "folk scare" of the 60s. Folk music had been available to the public through the 30s and 40s as a sort of novelty. If you went to a big enough record store you could find albums (real albums containing several 78 rpm records in paper sleeves!) of traditional music by singers like Burl Ives, Jean Ritchie, Richard Dyer-Bennet and John Jacob Niles. If you went to a record store in a big city you might find records on Folkways and other obscure labels by Pete Seeger, Peggy Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, Ed McCurdy, Oscar Brand and other "revival singers."
The breakthrough came at the beginning of the 50s when the Weavers hit the charts with recordings of songs like Goodnight Irene, Wimoweh and On Top of Old Smoky. (These performances didn't exactly sound like the folk music we enjoyed a few years later--they were accompanied by the big-band sound of the Gordon Jenkins orchestra.) The boom went bust a couple of years later when the Weavers were blacklisted after Pete Seeger refused to answer questions before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
During the "dark years" of the mid-50s Pete Seeger appeared in several concerts at Cornell, usually sponsored by left-leaning campus organizations like the Labor Youth League, although it appears that one of the last of the small Seeger concerts was sponsored by the newly-formed Folk Song Club. These concerts happened mostly in the Memorial Room of Willard Straight Hall and drew audiences of three or four hundred people.
In 1955 the Weavers gave a landmark reunion concert at Carnegie Hall, and live albums of that performance put out by the then upstart Vanguard label were widely circulated on college campuses. Hearing what you could do with just a guitar and a banjo for accompaniment, a lot of students started picking and singing on their own, or at least singing along with the records. At Cornell, people started getting together to share songs. Group sings were held at Risley Hall and the Watermargin co-op, and at Outing Club events. Noteworthy organizers of these sessions were Ellen Stekert, who went on to make at least one commercial folk music record and later became a folklorist at the University of Illinois, Dan Isaacson, a New Yorker who came to Cornell already steeped in the music he had heard in The Village, and Joel Hendler, the first person to appear on campus with a five-string banjo.
In 1957 the Kingston Trio had a hit record with Tom Dooley and the music industry began to climb on the folk bandwagon. The Cornell Folk Song Club probably became a formal organization at about that time--we know that it existed in the spring of 1957. One of the first presidents was Peter Yarrow, later to be part of Peter, Paul and Mary.
The club began simply as an organization that met once a week for sings. After a couple of years it was approached by a professional entrepreneur to co-sponsor concerts by major folk artists. A series of concerts in Bailey Hall followed, with performers including Theodore Bikel, Josh White and the later incarnation of The Weavers, with Erik Darling replacing Pete Seeger.
We haven't found anyone who remembers much about the 60s, but by the 70s the club had evolved to presenting small coffeehouse-style concerts every Friday night in the old Temple of Zeus in Goldwin Smith Hall. There was still something of a folk boom on college campuses, although the mainstream entertainment industry had moved on to country and then back to new variations of rock.
In the 80s, the "second revival" began to fade, and traditional folk music has again become a special interest--though with a lot more devotees than it had in the 30s and 40s supporting folk music clubs and coffeehouses in almost every decent-sized city and many large annual festivals. A visiting scholar recently told us, however, that we may be the last surviving folk music organization affiliated with a college or university.
What is now known as the Cornell Folk Song Society presents three to five concerts a semester, mostly in the 125-seat auditorium in McGraw Hall, with occasional forays into larger auditoriums for special events. We hold singing parties once a month, rotating at the homes of off-campus members; we have yet to find a location on campus that has the relaxed and informal atmosphere needed--not to mention one that would let us keep going until 2 a.m. There is yet another "revival" in progress, this one consisting of a proliferation of "contemporary acoustic" performers whose roots are more in popular than traditional music, but whose performance style is informal and "folky." We continue to promote traditional music wherever it can be found, but support anything that encourages people to make music for themselves.