There was a time, a long time ago, when things were oh-so-cool, daddy-o was the coolest beatnik on the block and folk music was personified by the likes of Leadbelly, the Weavers and Woody Guthrie.

It is a time remembered fondly by those who grew up in the '50s and early '60s. To form a band, all you needed was an acoustic guitar, an upright bass and desire.It was a simpler time. It was also a time that disappeared almost as quickly as it came. Oh sure, the early '60s gave birth to such folk icons as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, but the innocence of the early folk movement was soon trampled in the social protest of the rock 'n' roll generation.

The folk era may be gone, but it's not forgotten.

The spirit of the early '60s folk movement is alive and well, rekindled by the quirky folk band the Washington Squares - the hippest, coolest folk trio since, well, Peter, Paul and Mary.

The Washington Squares are back with their second Gold Castle record, entitled "Fair and Square" - a collection of tunes that elicit an unquenchable urge to snap your fingers, tap your feet and sing along. In other words, they typify the very essence of folk music.

The band, comprised of Tom Goodkind, Bruce Paskow and the angelic-voiced Lauren Agnelli, is a throwback to the days of three-part harmonies, simple tunes and idealistic lyricism. "Our love of beatniks, bohemianism, poetry and Greenwich Village history fueled us," said Agnelli.

The result, quite frankly, may be the best contemporary folk trio to come along in the past 20 years (they were nominated for a 1988 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album).

The reason is simple: The trio puts back into folk music the element of fun, idealism and melody. Their music has an unmistakable rock bent, but its heritage is first and foremost folk. "Folk-rock is rock music played soft," explained Goodkind.

The album's single "Everybody Knows," a tune penned by Leonard Cohen, is one of the better tunes on "Fair and Square," but by no means the best. The best would certainly include Agnelli's "La Roue de Fortune" and "Charcoal," a captivating tune inspired by the poetry of Robert Blake.

In fact, if the band has a weakness, it's that they don't exploit the extraordinary vocal and songwriting talents of Agnelli as much as they should. Her songs, more than the others, reach out to touch the human heart, and her voice just may be one of the very finest in all of pop music today.

Unfortunately, Agnelli's voice takes center stage only twice on "Fair and Square."

Other good tunes include the haunting "Neal Cassidy" (written by Paskow) and Goodkind's "All Over the World," which is similar in tone and substance to Arlo Guthrie's song of the same name.

Most of all, though, "Fair and Square" has heart. Even the rather average tunes have something to say and a tune to say it with. Explained Agnelli, "You can't afford not to have a social conscience in these days of post-modern plagues."

And nobody's saying it better right now.