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344 pp., 53/4 91/4, 22 illus., notes, bibl., discography, index

$55.00 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2550-6

$19.95 paper
ISBN 0-8078-4862-X

Published: Spring 2000

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Romancing the Folk
Public Memory and American Roots Music

by Benjamin Filene

Copyright (c) 2000 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


I began this book because I stumbled across a great story. In the summer of 1933 John Lomax, an Old South patrician in a bowler hat, welded a 350-pound "portable" recording machine into the back of his Ford and took his starry-eyed seventeen-year-old son Alan on a driving trip through the South, stopping at all-black maximum security prisons to ask hardened convicts if they knew any good songs. At each prison they set up their equipment and recorded the convicts' singing on twelve-inch aluminum discs, which they later deposited at the Library of Congress in Washington. This story struck me as so strange and improbable that I wanted to tell it.

So, sixty years after the Lomaxes' expedition, I strapped my laptop computer into my Nissan and drove to the Library of Congress. I began to go through all the information I could find about the Lomaxes' trip, studying the letters they wrote to raise funds, listening to the recordings they made, and reading the correspondence they sent home from the road. I began to learn about the Library of Congress's Archive of American Folk Song, where they worked, and about the network of scholars and folk music enthusiasts with whom they corresponded. I started to piece together the biographies of some of the singers the Lomaxes recorded on their expedition and to consider other singers from the period who likely served, explicitly or implicitly, as frames of reference to which the Lomaxes compared the musicians they encountered. The more I read, listened, and considered, the more I realized that the story of the Lomaxes' ride of '33 was remarkable not for its bizarre singularity but, rather, for its rich multiplicity. On the most literal level, for example, the Lomaxes' expedition to gather folk songs was not at all an isolated incident: it came out of the work of a generation of previous folklorists and, most dramatically, spawned dozens upon dozens of other field trips over succeeding decades, many of them led by the Lomaxes themselves. At a broader historical level, the Lomax trip pointed to an array of other stories that, combined, offered a way of piecing together a wide-ranging historical narrative of prime importance to twentieth-century American cultural history--the story of the emergence of the notion of American "roots" music and the concurrent formation (and continual reformation) of a canon of roots musicians. This narrative in turn enabled a multilayered exploration of some of the richest and most embedded questions facing contemporary cultural historians. How has race been constructed and how has it infused American popular culture? How have antimodernism and political radicalism operated in relation to the modern state? How have cultural workers defined America's cultural "margins" and "mainstream," how have they represented "the Other," and how, in the process, have they operated against or within the so-called culture industry? Finally, and in many ways overarching all of these questions, how has Americans' collective memory (or, really, memories) of their cultural heritage been shaped and transmitted?

The seemingly neatly packaged story of the Lomaxes in their Ford had opened up to reveal a myriad of historical and theoretical resonances. Indeed, it pointed to a larger story that proved to be multifarious in almost every respect except for one--having been told. This book sets out to do the telling.

As I have been suggesting, the Lomax story led me down a road that seemed to fork at every turn. Some of the directions I chose, it quickly became apparent, were desperately wrong turns, and I hastily beat my way back; others led me into rich territory that I did my best to investigate. Inevitably, of course, as I explored certain territories, I passed others by. As a result, those of you acquainted with the terrain I'm covering here will find that some high points familiar to you do not receive the lavish attention that another investigation might give them, while other features that you might not recognize are designated here with landmark status. Throughout, I have tried to chart my course with an eye toward plotting connections and suggesting new avenues for inquiry, rather than with a concern for coverage.

As a result, certain stars of the folk music firmament don't receive sustained attention here. I discuss Lead Belly extensively but mention Josh White and Aunt Molly Jackson only in passing. I consider Pete Seeger in some detail but treat Woody Guthrie mainly in relation to the influence he had on revivalists of the late fifties and sixties, long after he was an active performer. Bob Dylan plays a key role here, but Peter, Paul, and Mary, Phil Ochs, and Joan Baez only make cameos.(1) As these choices suggest, I have not set out to write a conventional history of twentieth-century folk music: I am looking to tell illustrative stories more than informational ones.

In addition to excluding some old favorites, therefore, I include certain other musicians who might raise the hackles of folk purists--figures like Muddy Waters and Chicago's urban bluesmen, or Dylan in the decades after he broke with the 1960s folk revival by going electric. These performers interest me precisely because they straddle the boundaries between "folk" and "commercial," "old-fashioned" and "modern." In doing so they highlight both the existence and the arbitrariness of such divisions and enable me to break out of--and, in fact, to call into question--rigid definitions of "pure" folk music. The notion held by early folklorists (such as Francis James Child and Cecil Sharp) of an unselfconscious, unmediated, and wholly uncommercial mode of musical expression strikes me as fundamentally flawed: almost all musicians, after all, are influenced by others and make use of their talent in social settings. Given the explosion of mass media, rigid definitions of folk music become especially illusory when applied to the twentieth century. Since the turn of the century, even seemingly isolated musicians have spent their afternoons listening to phonographs and dreaming of recording contracts. What makes the formation of America's folk canon so fascinating, though, is that just as isolated cultures became harder to define and locate in industrialized America, the notions of musical purity and primitivism took on enhanced value, even in avowedly commercial music. Twentieth-century Americans have been consistently searching for the latest incarnation of "old-time" and "authentic" music. Such terms may have lost their referents, but their cultural power has remained undiminished.

One might therefore imagine terms like "folk" and "pure" as ciphers waiting to be filled: people imbue them with meanings that have cultural relevance and power to them. My study is based on the idea that examining people's efforts to create meaning of this sort can offer insight into their values and their worldview. Instead of engaging in the debate over "pure" versus "impure" and "authentic" versus "inauthentic," therefore, this book explores how these dichotomies have been constructed and how they have shaped the way American music has been understood.

For me, then, "folk music" ceases to have much use as a descriptive term, since what I am trying to understand is the contradictory meanings Americans have given it over the years. In its place, I have substituted two other terms. The first is "vernacular music." Following music historians H. Wiley Hitchcock and John Rockwell, I find this designation useful as a way to avoid setting up rigid criteria to distinguish "folk music" from "non-folk music."(2) "Vernacular music," I hope, serves as an overarching designation that can sit above the squabbling over what constitutes "true" folk music and can encompass most of the options. Appropriate to its usage in linguistics, I use "vernacular" to suggest songs employing a musical language that is current, familiar, and manipulable by ordinary people. In contrast to fine art or classical music, vernacular music demands only minimal formal training and material resources to produce it (although extensive formal training and mind-numbing resources certainly can be applied to it).

Under this definition, "vernacular" includes not only Appalachian mountain music or blues but also "pop" music, another tricky term that means different things to different people even within this study. Most directly, I use "pop" (and "popular") to refer to the Tin Pan Alley song tradition that is generally thought to have held sway from roughly the 1890s into the 1950s--music produced by song publishers and large recording companies that was written for and distributed to nationwide audiences.(3) More broadly, I use "pop" as well to identify the successors to the Tin Pan Alley tradition--commercial music written, produced, and promoted in efforts to reach large contemporary markets.

Under these definitions, such recent popular genres such as hip-hop, grunge, and techno are vernacular. I hope, though, that introducing a term that appears in my subtitle will make clear why I have excluded these styles from my discussion: within the domain of vernacular I am mainly interested in "roots" music. I use "roots" (a designation that comes out of rock criticism) to identify musical genres that, whether themselves commercial or not, have been glorified as the "pure" sources out of which this century's commercial popular music was created. Blues, for example, has drawn legions of fans who see it as rock's more emotional and rough-edged ancestor. In recent years, even some contemporary pop stars (Little Richard or Aretha Franklin, for instance) have come to be treated as roots musicians because of their pioneering influence on subsequent generations. "Roots," therefore, is a retrospective term. It shifts the focus of my study away from stylistic debates (which performers belonged to which musical traditions?) to questions of perceptions (who was thought of as exemplifying which traditions?).

My focus on perceptions accounts for the function that the term "folk music" does serve in the chapters that follow. Although I reject its descriptive validity, the phrase stands as shorthand for people's conceptions of "pure" vernacular music. "Folk music" may not refer to anything concrete, but many certainly have thought it did, so I use the term to imply the collection of assumptions and criteria people have ascribed to it.

The question of perceptions also connects to the key term in my subtitle, "public memory." Above all, this book seeks to understand how Americans have remembered their country's musical past, how these memories have been transmitted, and how these conceptions have both reflected and shaped Americans' cultural outlook. By "public memory," then, I mean the vague and often conflicting assumptions about the past that Americans carry with them and draw on, usually unconsciously, in their daily actions and reactions. In using the phrase, I do not at all intend to suggest that one can imagine a single, unified American "public" and certainly not that all the members of a given public could share identical sets of memories. On the contrary, as a cultural historian I am especially interested in how different public memories have competed and exerted cross-influences on American life.

My efforts to understand how Americans' musical memories have been formed have led me to put at the center of my story characters whose powerful role in American culture has long been overlooked by historians--cultural "middlemen" who move between folk and popular culture. These folklorists, record company executives, producers, radio programmers, and publicists "discovered" folk musicians, recorded them, arranged concert dates for them, and, usually, promoted them as the exemplars of America's musical roots. In doing so, they did more than deliver "pure" music: they 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. As my title indicates, they "romanced" the folk, in the sense both of wooing them as intimates and of sentimentalizing them as Other.

In exploring these issues, my focus is on illuminating the cultural matrix within which these figures operated, not on exposing their wrongdoings. I do not delve extensively into the financial exploitation, racial prejudice, and political corruption that surfaced in the brokers' relationships with folk performers. The music business as a whole is so rife with such misdeeds that, in and of themselves, they are not especially revealing to historians. I cite such stories, therefore, only when they help explain the motivations and worldview of the small group of cultural brokers who shaped our nation's sense of its musical heritage. I am more interested in understanding their intentions and in tracing their influence than in judging their ethics.

As for my periodic use of the term "middlemen," its gender specificity is partly a linguistic convenience--an attempt to avoid the ungainly "middleperson"--and to some extent an accurate statement about the brokers who shaped the folk music canon. Certainly some women were involved in folk entrepreneurship--I touch on the work of Josephine McGill, Lorrain Wyman, Olive Dame Campbell, Margaret Mead, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and Bess Lomax Hawes--and of course there have been countless female folk singers. Nonetheless, historically the vast majority of folk canonizers have been male. Above all, though, I chose the main protagonists in my chapters (all men) to serve as case studies representing different approaches to roots music. Their stories are intended to illuminate the work of other brokers, both male and female, who are not directly represented.(4)

Most important, I want to call attention to these brokers as active agents. They have remained largely unrecognized, partly because of historians' inattention and partly because they themselves strove to cloak their power. Eager to promote the authenticity of the performers they worked with, the middlemen depicted themselves simply as cultural funnels channeling the musicians' raw, elemental power to popular audiences. Historians today, though, are well aware of the extent to which all cultural communication is mediated. I am attempting here to explore the work of a heretofore unrecognized group of cultural mediators and to place the assumptions that guided their work into a cultural-historical context.

I trace the efforts to preserve and popularize roots music over five chapters. Chapter 1 focuses on the years between roughly 1900 and 1930 and charts the emergence of the notion of a distinctly American, as opposed to European, folk tradition. It focuses on the motley assortment of hobbyists, professors, reformers, and commercial talent scouts who first worked to preserve American vernacular music. Subsequent chapters are organized thematically rather than chronologically, each centering on a particular type of folk music broker and on a corresponding strategy that characterized that intermediary's efforts to define America's musical heritage. I look at three such strategies and trace how each of them played out from roughly 1930 to the present. I have chosen to travel this broad expanse of time repeatedly, rather than taking a decade-by-decade approach, because it seems to me more analogous to how memory making really happens: memory is not built incrementally but is continually crafted and recrafted as material from the past is reencountered and reinterpreted. With a thematic organization, I can plot lines of influence across decades and show how the present assembles a patchwork culture out of the past.

Chapters 2 and 3, then, look at figures whom I call "folk promoters," middlemen such as the Lomaxes and Willie Dixon who communicated their musical visions by promoting certain musicians as archetypes of an "authentic" folk tradition. Chapter 2 looks in some detail at how such efforts shaped the career of one artist, Lead Belly, and Chapter 3 focuses on their impact on Muddy Waters. Chapter 4 considers advocates such as Alan Lomax and Richard Dorson who tried to use the federal government and the American university system as institutional outposts from which to enhance the status of folk culture. Finally, Chapter 5 introduces a substantially different set of brokers--people like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan who came to the music as outsiders but themselves became performers and expositors of traditional music.

As Alan Lomax's appearance in several chapters illustrates, these categories frequently overlap. A middleman can appear in many different guises in his or her career and can employ several of these strategies at once: a "folk promoter," for instance, might use the government to popularize "authentic" music. These chapter divisions are somewhat artificial, then, but they are useful fictions in that they enable me to isolate important elements in the development of America's folk memory and to track their resonances more freely than a simple chronological approach would allow.

Although the chapters do not trace a linear narrative, they do speak to one another. Together, they chart the often tortuous paths by which performers have entered the "roots" canon. Certainly the variety of routes taken warns against a single paradigm for the process of canonization. Roots musicians might begin as downhome songsters, itinerant showmen, or urban pop singers; and they might be recorded first by antiquarians, folklorists, or commercial record producers. Most, but again not all, of the performers have a stage in their careers when they enlist producers and promoters to help them reach wider audiences; and some, such as Muddy Waters in the early 1950s, even achieve measurable commercial success. Generally, though, these artists achieve only limited and fleeting fame in the commercial realm. By itself, it seems, commercial success does not cement an artist's position in the nation's musical pantheon.

Rather, entry into the public memory depends on the efforts of the cultural workers who occupy the center of this study--the middlemen between folk and popular culture who rediscover performers, reinterpret their early recordings in relation to subsequent musical trends, and redefine the artists as folk forefathers and foremothers. Appropriately, then, public memory is formed by a recursive process, one that involves revisiting and reevaluating the culture of the past in the light of the present. Understanding the assumptions behind these valuations and the ways in which they are transmitted illuminates how American culture gets created and, just as important, how we come to recognize it as our own.

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