In 1958 three young men, recently out of college, reached the top of the charts playing a version of a decades old murder ballad. The Kingston Trio had only officially formed the year before when they played their first gig in a San Francisco night club called The Purple Onion. Their act leaned into the recent Calypso craze, and combined Caribbean tunes with a wide range of folk source material. Their partnership with Capitol Records produced an astounding five #1 records and an additional eight records that made the top ten.
The success of the Kingston Trio quick became a template for other acts. The Brothers Four were founded at the University of Washington in 1957. By 1960 they had a #2 hit with “Greenfields”. Similarly, the Highwaymen signed with a major label and had two top 40 hits.
The trend of folk on the pop charts peaked in 1963 when ABC began airing a weekly concert series called Hootenanny. Every week took place at different college campus and acted like a mini advertisement for the university. Each episode was a breathless whirlwind of acts, performing before a packed college gymnasium. The audience was made up of university students who gamely clapped and sang along.
These groups were just the most visible on the pop charts, but the wider impact of this development in folk music was a Do-it-Yourself spirit. Acoustic guitar sales sky-rocketed as young people began hosting their own folk sing-alongs all over the country.