The Strange Career of Folk Music
Article from Michigan Quarterly Review
It is a quiet evening. The stars are bright, and the meal has been eaten. The city, if there is one, is far away. There is no electricity, no media. It is not yet bedtime, so someone picks up an instrument and begins to sing. The song is old, but nobody has ever written it down. Rather it has been transmitted orally through many
generations, with many different versions, some preserved and some lost. No one knows who first created it. But everyone can and does sing it.
Is this a folk song? If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears, does it make a sound? Folk music has existed for ages, but to the people who first played it, it was just music, without an adjective like folk to distinguish it. To be folk it has had to be heard, self-consciously, by an outsider. And so, in a curious turn, the story of folk music is never really about the folk. It is about the outsiders. And in this country at least, that has meant not just the musicologists marching into hill country with their dusty recording devices, but a variety of highly opinionated listeners, by whose attentions folk music has come to be defined.
It was Europeans such as the English music transcriber Cecil J. Sharp (1859–1924) and the Hungarian collector and composer Bela Bartok (1881–1945) who first worked out the basic definition of folk music. Roughly, they understood folk music to be: (1) Rural and slow to cange, not urban and dynamic. (2) Continually varied, with no definitive version. (3) Simple, straightforward, and plain. (4) Transmitted orally, not through formal training or writing. (5) Focused more on group sharing than on individual expression.
These criteria were never strict, but their influence lingers. For example, the Folk Song Society of Greater Boston (FSSGB), a 45-year-old organization devoted to traditional folk repertory, mostly British and British-American, ignores the first, treasuring many songs from urban settings. But the members do adhere, more or less, to the other four.
This emphasis was on display recently at a home in Concord, Massachusetts, where 30 or 40 members of the society, mostly people who looked as though they could remember the 1960s counterculture,
showed up for an FSSBG “house concert.” They were there to hear Louis Killen, a native of Gateshead-on-Tyne in the industrial northeast of England, tell dialect tales, sing, and accompany himself on the English concertina. Killen introduced one old chestnut as a song he’d collected from a Northumbrian shepherd.
Is this an accurate portrait of the contemporary folk scene? Not really. Groups like the FSSGB have always been part of the scene—as one member commented, “We were here first.” But unlike Boston’s WUMB-FM (“folk radio”) or the folk-oriented Club Passim in Harvard Square, the FSSGB does not look all that kindly on what is now the dominant figure in contemporary folk music: the singer-songwriter.
According to member Ruth Perry, who is also a professor of literature at M.I.T. and (together with Northeastern University musicologist Judith Tick) teaches a graduate seminar on British and American folk
music, “The best folksingers are interested in preserving for people and passing on the music that is their free and common heritage.... People used to sing more than they do now. And what they sang and traded around and learned from each other, is folk music.” Indeed, some of the members present that evening took a very dim view of the whole singer-songwriter movement. To them it has negative connotations—of ego and (as one person put it) “navel-gazing”—that cut against the grain of folk music as community expression.
Is this fair? Every art form has its characteristic vice, and if one were pressed to describe the vice of the singer-songwriter, “navel-gazing” would not be far off. But the singer-songwriter tradition has many virtues, as well, not least of which is a voracious openness to musical sounds.
Consider the lineup of performers appearing at the 2004 Boston Folk Festival. Most are singer-songwriters, but that phrase does not begin to describe the music. Some of those who appeared are identified with a particular style: Sam Bush with bluegrass (and "newgrass”); Cephas & Wiggins with Piedmont blues; Mark Erelli with Western swing; Natalie MacMaster with traditional fiddle music. But none is a strict traditionalist. And most range widely, as reflected in these thumbnail sketches of other acts listed in the festival program: “pumping new life into traditional bluegrass, old-timey, and roots music”; “drawing on jazz, rock, and pop”; “span[ning] the genres of honky-tonk, acapella, and swing”; and “fusing the traditional music of Ireland with American ballads and the dance tunes of French Canada, Cape Breton, and Normandy.” If adherents of folk music have any doubts that the music continues to grow and evolve, these musicians should put them at ease. While respecting the tried and true, they also fly free, avoiding all pigeonholes.
Americana, roots, and acoustic are all terms folk performers and critics have devised for folk music in this country. And, of course, each term suggests a different understanding. Americana keeps it within the United States, while roots extends to music from around the globe. Acoustic excludes any music in the other two categories that uses electric instruments. No wonder, after 45 years of devotion to the subject, Sing Out! magazine editorialized in 1995: “Our community vehemently refuses to take responsibility for defining folk
Yet this has not caused Sing Out! to cease publication. The idea of folk music proves amazingly persistent. Why? For many folk music buffs, the answer is bound up with politics.
The appropriation of folk music for political purposes dates back to mid-19th-century Europe, where folk songs became a means to express nationalist sentiment. During the 20th century, European ideologues across the political spectrum laid claim to the music of the folk. In Germany the left created many highly political songs based on folk music, and so did the right. Indeed, when the Nazis came to power in 1933 they put the folk song, or Volkslied, at the center of their public spectacles celebrating the superiority of the “Aryan” race. They also, in process, poisoned the well for future generations of German folkies. (As one young Berliner said to me a few years ago, “Around the campfire we sing mostly American songs.”)
Communist regimes took similar advantage. From the 1930s forward, folk music was exploited as a way of defining – and controlling – the various “republics” comprising the Soviet Union. In the 1970s the
American ethnomusicologist Theodore Levin traveled in Central Asia to observe this ongoing process. While Levin found a subterranean musical life that was “complex, alive, and intimately linked to the innermost lives of people,” he also measured the gap between that and “the glitzy professional folk troupes that became the official
cultural ambassadors of the Central Asian republics.” One aspect of the gap was the elimination from official folk music of all religious references.
No one on the American left ever manipulated folk music on such a grand scale. But most labor and other activists believed that music was very important. As Mike Gold of the Daily Worker wrote in the early 1930s, “Songs are as necessary to the fighting movement as bread.” The only question was, which songs?
In the 1920s, any song would do, as long as the tune was familiar enough so that people could sing it with new lyrics. The master of this trade was Joe Hill of the communist-led Industrial Workers of the World, who added political lyrics to all sorts of American songs, from hymns to Broadway show tunes to popular ballads. (“Nearer My God To Thee” became “Nearer My Job To Thee,” “Everybody’s Doing It” became “Everybody’s Joining It,” and “Down By The Old Mill Stream” became “Down In The Old Dark Mills.”) This same art is still practiced today by the octegenarian Joe Glazer, “Labor’s Troubador.”
This casual approach changed in the early 1930s, when the official party line, straight from Moscow, said that artists must create a whole new “proletarian culture.” It was never clear what this meant, but as the musicologist Judith Tick explains, one thing it did not mean was “Broadway, or commercial music tied to the Capitalist economic machine,” as the Daily Worker put it. In New York, reports Tick, a group called the Composers’ Collective worked on what they called “mass song,” a new type of art song combining modernist
technique with “militant protest lyrics.” Several of these efforts were published in the collective’s Workers Song Books, with titles such as”Lenin! Who’s That Guy,” “Mount the Barricades,” and “Song of the Builders,” by a Harvard-trained composer named Charles Seeger.
In 1935 the party line changed again, and the idea of a modernist "proletarian culture” was discarded in favor of the Joe Hill philosophy – it’s OK to use anything, as long as it helps the cause. The cause, of course, being the fight against fascism in Europe. This phase of leftist strategy was called the Popular Front, and its impact on American music was profound – and, thanks to the efforts of two families, one named Seeger and the other named Lomax, profoundly positive.
In 1935 Charles Seeger went to work for the federal government. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was underway, and one of its many projects was to have experts go into the field and record all sorts and conditions of first-growth American folk music. Prominent among these were Charles Seeger and his wife, the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger; their children Peggy, Michael, and Pete; and the father-and-son team of John and Alan Lomax. Neither family was from the folk – indeed, they came from fairly privileged backgrounds. But like their nineteenth-century European counterparts, they respected the folk and tried to preserve their precious musical heritage when it was in danger of being lost.
What is most impressive about the Seegers and the Lomaxes is their refusal, in countless ways over many years, to subordinate music to politics. They were all consistently leftist in their views, and whenever they got the chance they would repeat the sentiment expressed by Alan Lomax in the preface to the 1941 edition of Our Singing Country: Folk Songs and Ballads: “Most of these singers are poor people, farmers, laborers, convicts, old-age pensioners, relief workers, housewives, wandering guitar pickers.” But Lomax, who started collecting folk songs with his father at age eighteen, loved and respected his singers too much to even think of forcing their music into an ideological mold. Indeed, if Lomax had a fault, it was that he was too purist about the way people performed these odd, quirky, rough-hewn songs.
And therein lies a tale. Without the efforts of Alan Lomax, the so-called Folk Revival of the 1940s and 50s would never have occurred. But Lomax’s reaction to what he saw as the commercialization of the
music was quite negative. Today, of course, a lot of the music recorded by him and others is preserved in the Smithsonian Institution and available on CD from Rounder Records. Here are just a few of the titles you can order: “Negro Blues and Hollers”; “Railroad Songs and Ballads”; “Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs, and Ballads”; “Anglo-American Ballads (2 volumes); "Cowboy Songs, Ballads, and Cattle Calls from Texas”;
“American Fiddle Tunes.”
But back in the 1940s and 50s, when most Americans were just beginning to discover folk music, it was harder to get them to appreciate the original, raw version. The tendency, deplored by Lomax at every turn, was to sweeten the sound, so that it sounded like commercial “pop,” meaning recordings by such polished veterans of the big band era as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Ella Fitzgerald. Today these singers are considered the gold standard of American song. But back then, many people on the left dismissed pop as “commercial music tied to the Capitalist economic machine.” For Alan Lomax, the issue was less political than musical: “When a so-called folksinger, with no respect for or knowledge of the style or the original emotional content of the song, acquires the shell of the song merely and leaves its subtle vocal interior behind, there is a
definite expressive loss.”
The trouble with this view is that it does not allow for change – including change brought about by the folk themselves. For example, the 1940s was when a lot of Americans discovered the blues, a type of music that previously had been considered low entertainment. The left embraced the blues largely because of Lomax’s tireless showcasing of such masters as Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter. But here the rejection of “commercial music” played a role, as many people on the left, taking their cues from Lomax, found only one type of blues
acceptable: the “country blues,” played by solo acoustic guitarist-singers and focusing on hard times – or better still, on protest.
The darling of the protest blues was Josh White, a native of Greenville, South Carolina, whose first political album, Southern Exposure (1941), contained such political titles as “Jim Crow Train,” “Bad Housing Blues,” “Defense Factory Blues,” and “Uncle Sam Says” (about segregation in the armed forces). Curiously, White’s protest blues did not attract a large black audience. This was because, as Elijah Wald of the magazine Living Blues writes, “By the 1940s. . . blues had become a band form, the Chicago sound of Walter Davis, Big Maceo, and Sonny Boy Williamson, the Kansas City shouts of Jimmy Rushing and Joe Turner, or the smooth combo style of Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker.” In other words, the popular black audience was embracing the urban blues, played by electrified bands focusing on good times – while the predominantly white folk audience rejected this type of blues, on the grounds that it was (guess what?) “commercial music.”
This leftist purism was skillfully manipulated by Big Bill Broonzy, a Mississippi native who grew up playing acoustic blues but then recorded small combo jazz for the Bluebird label in Chicago. According to music historian Robert Palmer, Broonzy sized up the growing audience for the Folk Revival and changed his act, with
the result that “a left-wing and generally naive young audience accepted him, along with Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee as true folk artists. Broonzy’s dozens of Bluebird records with bass, drums, and jazz-band backing were conveniently forgotten, and he played the role of the folk bluesman fresh from the cotton fields to the hilt.”
When asked about his authenticity, Broonzy's standard reply was: "I guess all songs is folk songs. I never heard no horse sing 'em."
A similar story could be told about other folk styles. For example, it has long been an article of faith among song collectors that one of the oldest folk traditions in America was found in the southern Appalachian Mountains during the first decade of the 20th century, when a number of song collectors, many of them women, uncovered a rich deposit of Scots-English ballads preserved there in communities that had existed in relative isolation since the 18th century. The discovery attracted none other than Britain’s Cecil Sharp, who visited the area in 1916 and, with Maud Karpeles and Olive Dame Campbell, produced the magnum opus English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians.
The story of the Appalachian musicologists is nicely dramatized in the movie Songcatcher (2000). But, as the movie suggests, not even this music was totally “pure.” For one thing, it was ethnically mixed. The African-American musician Taj Mahal makes a cameo appearance in Songcatcher as a banjo master – a reminder that this much-favored instrument originated in Africa, not Britain. Also in the movie, the song-collecting heroine decides at the end to start her own record label – a reminder that this music was swiftly commercialized. As Tick observes, “The record labels were in the mountains at the same time as the collectors.”
Here we encounter a major complication on the American scene, one that has been there from the beginning: America has never had folk music in the classic European sense. How could it, when its people are descended from Indians, settlers, slaves, and numerous different immigrant groups, rather than from peasants who have tilled the same soil, spoken the same language, and sung the same songs for generations? Some folklorists, notably the late Gene Bluestein, accept this fact about America and argue for a different term,
poplore, to describe America’s dynamic blend of ethnic traditions and its wide-open market for entertainment.
The concept of poplore becomes more compelling when we look at what happened in the 1960s. Here we see the other folk dynasty, the Seegers, helping not only to preserve a legacy but also to make it
popular – and profitable. Indeed, Charles Seeger was the father (and Ruth the stepmother) of a new paradigm: the outsider as commercially successful folk singer.
In 1936, when 17-year-old Pete Seeger was about to enter Harvard, he traveled with Charles and Ruth to Bascom Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina. In her biography of
Ruth Crawford Seeger, Judith Tick writes that for Pete this was “like visiting a foreign country.” And when he and Ruth first heard the five-string banjo, they vowed to start “learning this idiom.” Needless to say, no born-and-bred folk musician would have put it quite that way.
Pete Seeger also learned the idioms of bluesman Leadbelly and Oklahoma-born Woody Guthrie, both authentic folk in the sense of coming from hardscrabble backgrounds and singing traditional material. But significantly, both Leadbelly and Guthrie also added political lyrics to old songs and wrote their own songs. It was not long before all three were commercially successful recording artists. And the same was true of the Carter Family, Jean Ritchie, and many other leading lights of the Folk Revival. As celebrities who freely adapted traditional material, wrote their own material, and achieved solid recording careers, these people are the
embodiment of American poplore.
With this background in mind, it is fascinating to recall how hostile the Folk Revival of the 1940s and 1950s was toward rock’n’roll. Having rejected pop as “commercialized music,” many folkies took the same dim view of the raucous blend of country, rhythm & blues, and gospel that came roaring out of the South in the mid-1950s. Some record company executives felt the same way, and as soon as the original rock’n’rollers quit recording (Elvis because he went into the Army; Jerry lee Lewis and Chuck Berry because of sex scandals) the labels began to push what they saw as more dignified alternatives. The first was calypso, a brief fad starring Harry Belafonte that quickly fizzled. The second, wildly successful, was folk music.
But this was a different kind of folk music – not pop, exactly, but equally inauthentic. Alan Lomax (who actually liked rock’n’roll) described it as this way: “Under the smooth bland surface of popularized folk song lies a bubbling stew of work songs, country blues, field hollers, hobo songs, prairie songs, spirituals, hoedowns, prison songs, and a few unknown ingredients.” To him, the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, and Joan Baez were nice college kids with pretty voices who just didn’t get it.
This attitude had a lot to do with the sudden rise of Bob Dylan. All of these early 1960s folkies were more political than any rock’n’rollers. But to the older generation of leftist folk adherents the fact that a bland folkish song like “Tom Dooley” could become a number one hit (for the Kingston Trio, in 1958) was an
embarrassment. The older folkies kept the pressure on, and in 1962 a new magazine, Broadside, began to publish pacifist, union, and civil rights songs under the editorship of the once black-listed musician Sis Cunningham and her husband the leftist journalist Gordon Friesen. Along with the older Seegers, Cunningham, and other Folk Revival veterans such as Malvina Reynolds, Broadside also gave a platform to younger protest voices: Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Janis Ian, and Dylan.
All of these young performers had solid followings, but Dylan was the only one to become a superstar. His singular accomplishments, unrecognized at the time and still not well understood, were that he
understood and deeply appreciated the fact that American music is poplore, not folklore; and that, like the Lomaxes and Seegers, he followed the music instead of the party line.
Dylan’s first album of acoustic, original material, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) contributed four classics to the folk canon: "Masters of War," "Ballad of a Thin Man," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," and "Blowin' in the Wind.” His next, The Times They Are A-Changin' (1963), carried him to triumph at the Newport Folk Festival as the unchallenged bearer of the Guthrie-Seeger mantle.
But then a strange thing happened: the mantle-bearer became a turncoat. First, he stopped singing protest songs. His next album, Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) contained songs about personal relationships, which irked the editors of Sing Out!, who accused him of "selling out.” Second, Dylan gave up his original acoustic sound and took up with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, a young white group who played the fully electrified Chicago blues style identified with figures like Muddy Waters.
Most music fans know, or think they know, that by appearing with Butterfield band at the 1965 Newport Blues Festival, Dylan scandalized his elders and forged a brave new link between folk music and rock. The story is a bit more complicated, actually. The electric blues was pretty well accepted by then – in fact, earlier in the program Alan Lomax had appeared onstage discussing the fine points of that and other blues styles. Some in the crowd booed the electrified Dylan; Pete Seeger declared himself "brokenhearted and angry"; Sing Out! issued another denunciation. But this time, the purists were outnumbered. Most listeners welcomed the new sound, and Dylan’s career took off.
Yet it’s worth noting that throughout that career, Dylan’s greatest contribution has been swim against the the rock current. Most people think of him as the artist who merged folk with rock, and this is true if rock means the blues-based music he played in the 1960s. But Dylan did not sire hard rock, psychedelic rock, art rock, shock rock, heavy metal, glam metal, thrash metal, speed metal, death metal, punk metal, or any other of rock’s squealing progeny. Indeed, the true measure of his standing as an American folk artist is how consistently he has returned popular music to its roots.
In 1968 hard rock was reaching its apogee, psychedelic rock ruled the drug scene, heavy metal was starting up, and the last thing the hippies and radicals cared about was country music. So what did Dylan do? He made two country-influenced albums, John Wesley Harding (1968) and Nashville Skyline (1969). A new genre was born, country-rock, which despite its later blandness did re-connect popular music with some of its roots.
In the late 1970s, it became fashionable to pickle Dylan as a countercultural relic, holy and dead as Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. But once again he defied the spirit of the age by announcing that he had become the most uncool thing imaginable: a born-again Christian. He began to make gospel albums, the best of
which, Slow Train Coming (1979), impresses even secular critics with its musical quality. In 1999 he told Newsweek: “I find the religiosity and the philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else.” As a credo for America’s best known folk singer, this keeps the focus where it belongs: on the music.
So what is folk music today? As always, the definition is somewhat arbitary. Hip hop, for example, is not considered folk, even though it grew out of of a certifiable folk tradition (“dub” music and verbal “toasting” in the West Indies). Perhaps because it is both high tech and highly commercial, hip hop has little or no appeal to the keepers of the folk flame.
Indeed, if there are any authentic folk left, playing orally transmitted music in isolation from the world, it is only a matter of time before they are sniffed out by the ethnomusicologists, followed closely by entrepreneurs waving record contracts. For better or worse, folk music today is part of the commercial mainstream.
But the old criteria – some of them, anyway – still have meaning. Let’s look at how well they describe contemporary folk music:
1) Rural and slow to change, not urban and dynamic. As mentioned earlier, the rural aspect went by the boards a long time ago. Many cities, like Boston, have become centers of folk music, while whole stretches of rural America seem, sadly, to have lost all connection to it. And the dynamism of modern commerce drives flk almost as much as other forms of popular music.
2) Continually varied, with no definitive version. This still applies, to the degree that folk musicians place more emphasis on songwriting than on record production. Unlike hip hop, electronica, or a dozen other production-heavy genres, most of folk is still based on songs rather than on particular recordings.
3) Simple, straightforward, and plain. The idea of folk music as simple was discredited 80 years ago, when musicologists began to observe the subtlety and complexity of the music most highly prized by the folk themselves. But this criterion continues to mean something. Much of what now might be called contemporary folk sounds like country, soft rock, even New Age. But every now and then, somebody gets the urge to strip away all the frippery and restore the original grain. The MTV unplugged phenomenon in the 1990s, dstinguished by acoustic performances from rockers like Nirvana and the Pretenders, reflected this urge. And so does the popularity of the soundtrack to the film O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), the first track of which, “Po Lazarus” by James Carter and the Prisoners, was recorded in 1959 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at
Lambert by none other than Alan Lomax. (It would doubtless delight Lomax to learn that, according to Nielsen/Soundscan, that CD has sold 7 million copies to date.)
Holding up quite well is 4) Transmitted orally, not through formal training or writing. Most folk musicians, even those who are fully music-literate, learn more by listening than they do by reading. Recordings make listening easier, but they continue to be distrusted by folk musicians, who see them as a discouragement to natural variation and as the means to slavish imitation.
5) Focused more on group sharing than on individual expression. This is tricky, because it seems to set up a dichotomy between music that evolves through some sort of anonymous communal process and music
that is created by a single person. Probably this dichotomy fuels the low opinion of singer-songwriters among traditionalists.
But this dichotomy should be set aside. It is the product of late 19th-century thought, in which the new idea of Darwinian evolution was pitted against the older romantic cult of individual genius. The trouble is that very little folk music – or art of any kind – has ever been made in either of these extreme ways. Most art is
created by individuals enjoying the benefits of association with other individuals. Tocqueville wasn’t thinking about folk music when he wrote, “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations.” But his words certainly apply.
Each year, the National Endowment for the Arts gives an award, the National Heritage Fellowship, to a dozen or so folk artists. (Just to keep it all in the family, the initiator of that award was the founder and long-time director of the NEA’s Folk & Traditional Arts Program was Alan Lomax’s sister, Bess Lomax Hawes.)
The vitality of the American folk music tradition – and the room for growth within it – can be summed up by a partial list of recipients over the last 20 years: Cajun musician Dewey Balfa, bluegrass master
Bill Monroe, Detroit bluesman John Lee Hooker, zydeco king Clifton Chenier, Irish-American fiddler Martin Mulvihill, Appalachian singer “Doc” Watson, mariachi impresario Natividad Cano, Memphis bluesman “B.B.” King, gospel singers Clarence Fountain & The Blind Boys of Alabama, Cuban mambo bandleader “Cachao” Lopez, Puerto Rican bomba star Juan Gutierrez, the klezmer group the Epstein Brothers, new gospel’s “Pops” Staples, Tennessee fiddler Ralph Blizard, and Jean Ritchie, who almost singlehandedly brought the dulcimer to
popularity in the 1940s and 50s.
All of these people made their careers in the modern world, not in some remote unspoiled rural setting. They’ve all listened to the radio and gone to the movies. They’ve all watched television. Some have had a more than passing acquaintance with high culture. Their accomplishments attest to the fact that folk is no longer a term for “pure” music discovered by outsiders. Rather it is a self-conscious designation, a tree that can hear itself falling. But maybe that’s good. Because when it comes to bringing forth new growth, self-consciousness can be a blessing in disguise.