Sunday, February 03, 2008

Romancing the Folk by Benjamin Filene: Review

In Romancing the Folk, Benjamin Filene traces the development of the folk music movement since 1900. His primary focus is the cultural “middlemen”, who discovered folk musicians and promoted them as exemplars of America’s musical roots. These individuals made judgments about what constituted America’s true musical traditions, helped shape what “mainstream” audiences recognized as authentic, and inevitably, transformed the music that the folk performers offered. (Filene, 5)

What is fascinating about these cultural brokers is how their endeavors reflect one of the ongoing themes in American history, the dichotomy between the vision of man in society versus the vision of the noble savage, the individual in a simpler more natural time. The earliest folklorists were bent on cataloging and preserving original songs. These early catalogers saw the propagation of folk culture as a means of knitting society back together and restoring it to a simpler era. John and Alan Lomax went farther, recording the sounds of authentic performers and introducing authentic performers to the public.

Industrial development in America increasingly diminished the autonomy of the individual in favor of the demands of industrial discipline. Technology forced the worker into what the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) called, “a common servitude of all workers to the machines which they tend”. Disillusioned with bourgeois culture’s corrupt materialism and constraining standards of propriety folklorists depicted roots musicians as the embodiments of an anti-modern ethos. The appeal of folk performers to the public was their non-middleclass “otherness”. In his public persona Huddie Ledbetter (aka “Lead Belly”), an ex-convict singer John and Alan Lomax brought to public attention, was cast as an archetypal ancestor, pre-modern, emotive, non-commercial. The “outsider” was the persona expected of the folk performer, even though many of the performers themselves, including “Lead Belly” and “Muddy Waters” ( McKinley Morganfield) were both willing and anxious to adapt their music to be more commercially viable.

During the great national crises of the Depression and the Second World War, the folk music movement was officially embraced by the government as a method of enhancing national pride and cohesion. Folk songs were identified with Americanism. The ruling elite used a cultural tool to energize crowds to identify with the prevailing ideology of the elite. After the war, the official embrace of folk music faded and folk music resumed its role as an activity of “otherness”.

One of the primary forces in the folk movement in the post-war years was Pete Seeger. Pete Seeger and his followers, constituted an early wave of the 1960s counterculture, pushing against the empty homogeneity of bourgeois life. Interestingly the two most influential figures in the folk movement, Seeger and Bob Dylan were not, in fact, of the working class. Seeger was the son of privilege, the product of elite eastern prep schools, and Harvard. Dylan (Robert Zimmerman)was the product of a conventional middle class family from Minnesota. Both donned working class clothes and developed an ersatz working class lifestyle, despite background and income, rejecting even bathing and hygiene in a quest for “authenticity”.

In many ways both Seeger, Dylan, and the folk movement can be seen as part of the tradition of the nineteenth century utopianism, hankering after a simpler and nobler American community.

My titles on Amazon

My titles at Barnes & Noble

The best reading experience on your Android phone or tablet, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Windows 8 PC or tablet, BlackBerry, or Windows Phone.

No comments: