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The Kingston Trio was VERY popular. The singing was good and some of the songs were witty, like the MTA song, but I seem to recall that the Trio was regarded as superior to most popular music, and the word was that it was OK to admit to liking their music. They had an album “The Kingston Trio at the Hungry i,” supposedly meaning the hungry intellectual, which played into the notion that this was music for those who hungered for something better than most popular music. Kind of snobbish, I guess. Anyway, I listen to their music occasionally.
Yes, they were very successful commercially — a lot of groups in the folk revival of the 50s and 60s aspired to their kind of success. They also gave record labels a commercial rationale for recording folksingers of any kind. Their base was college-age kids, which explains their collegiate attire and intellectual pose, but they had national chart hits, like “Tom Dooley”. They didn’t try for an “authentic” folk sound and were resolutely apolitical, which made them anathema to many hardcore folkies, but they were very good at what they did. Even Bob Dylan has said he liked them.
Their Christmas album is excellent.
“The first thing that turned me on to folksinging was Odetta . . . from Odetta, I went to Harry Belafonte, the Kingston Trio, little by little uncovering more as I went along.” — Bob Dylan
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