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Defining/Inventing/Exploiting the Folk

Public Memory and American Roots Music
By Benjamin Filene
University of North Carolina Press

Benjamin Filene's premise--that the realities of artistic practice "call into question . . . rigid definitions of `pure' folk music"--is by now so widely accepted that even purists have to live with it. His conclusion, "that the backward glance can be more than nostalgic--that memory can create American culture anew," never discusses the American present in the detail it deserves. But in between these two rhetorical disappointments, Romancing the Folk proves a fascinating history of an idea and a shape-shifting body of song.

Filene, a public historian at the Minnesota Historial Society, declares himself unconcerned with who the proper creators of "folk music" might be, and he never gets very specific about what forces in modern life rendered their presumably unspoiled isolation so enticing to those bent on redefining America's past. What interests him is how the concept of "folk" was adjusted according to the tastes, needs and ambitions of those who dedicated their lives to it, and the varieties of music such reconceptualizations brought to the surface. Filene traces the way changing notions of the "pure" and the slighly less exclusionary "authentic"--always counterposed to a vaguely defined "commercial"--inflected what "folk music" genres were disseminated and how they were performed, and the profound effect these ideas exerted on all of American pop music and its overlapping audiences. The folklorists, academics, bureaucrats and entrepreneurs who dominate his story are colorful characters, and they are joined by artists who inspire Filene to critical heights few historians approach.

Filene begins at the unavoidable beginning: with Francis James Child, the Harvard Shakespeare scholar whose name lives on in the "Child ballads" he canonized in The English and Scottish Popular Ballad in 1882, and then with the English folklorist Cecil Sharp, who after years of scouring his homeland crossed the ocean in 1916 to certify a great motherlode of "authentic" Child ballads transcribed in an Appalachia he idealized as a simulacrum of England past. In keeping with the reflexively racist nativism of the time, this pseudoscientific research marginalized black American song, which had been attracting white chroniclers since the Civil War. It also denied that Sharp's Appalachian subjects exercised any legitimate aesthetic prerogatives in choosing or (heaven forfend) changing the songs he elected to preserve--not to mention the commercially distributed and black music they also performed, which he dismissed as irrelevant.

It was commercial exploiters like the traveling talent scout and soon-to-be publishing mogul Ralph Peer who first secured phonograph records of the breakdowns, ballads and blues that dominate what we now think of as folk music. But another wayward Harvard professor with a passion for authenticity forever changed how such recordings were understood. Where Child and Sharp condescended to "folk music"'s creators as passive conduits of a static, immemorial tradition, John Lomax and his doubly influential son, Alan, honored them as active producers of an evolving one. The Lomaxes sought out both new variants on old material and contemporary topical songs, as long as they were convinced their subjects had generated the music without input from the increasingly inescapable mass media. Lugging a 350-pound recording machine through the South on a 1933 song-hunting expedition that eventually gained them entree to the Library of Congress, the Lomaxes came upon Huddie Ledbetter, who as Lead Belly became the first folk "primitive" sold as such. Imposing their own standards of authenticity, the Lomaxes urged their discovery ("a nigger to the core of his being," John Lomax once remarked) to remain "raw"--as Filene puts it, "premodern, unrestrainedly emotive, and noncommercial"; they even put him onstage in convict's stripes. Yet at the same time they encouraged him to insert spoken explanations and political messages into songs that had never required them before. Moreover, as Filene's diligent analysis of successive recordings of "Mr. Tom Hughes' Town" makes clear, Lead Belly himself deliberately sentimentalized, desexualized, sweetened and slowed his music to cater to listeners who preferred their authenticity tamed further.

For Filene, no career better epitomizes the professional quandary of the putative folk musician than that of another Lomax discovery, Muddy Waters. Spurred first by Mississippi-born Chicagoans nostalgic for home and later by folkies and rock and rollers with related but distinct notions of what authenticity might entail, this paragon of the true Delta never stopped adjusting to fashion. Quickly abandoning a sophistication tailored to the pop blues of the day, first freeing and then simplifying his beat, deploying a broad spectrum of electric and acoustic timbres, putting his all into Willie Dixon lyrics that stylized and commodified the macho voodoo of the "hoochie coochie man," Waters made some awkward records. But at his frequent best he bent his overwhelming physical presence to recombinant interpretive genius, adapting usages he had absorbed in one place and time to the social and aural realities of another.

Alan Lomax and New Deal allies like the Federal Writers Project popularizer B.A. Botkin were more open-minded about who qualified as folk than John Lomax, much less Child and Sharp--Anglo-Saxon heritage, white skin and even rural isolation were no longer a priori requirements. But even though this folk establishment had built its own economic infrastucture--dominated by genteel, progressively inclined outsiders, with considerable support in government and academia--not until the 1960's, if then, was it equipped to appreciate the hit-making likes of Waters, whose crucial patron was the highly unidealistic record executive Leonard Chess. That establishment's direct legacy was the line running from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, himself the son of a left-wing classical composer turned folklore honcho. Filene is plainly inspired by Seeger, whose music and persona he describes with a nuanced complexity that could almost beguile one into pulling out records whose bug-eyed earnestness has not worn well with casual fans. And he is obviously right to identify the apostate Bob Dylan, who so enraged Seeger by playing electric instruments at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, as the last half-century's most original explorer of the folk idea.

But Dylan is so protean and prolix that you can use him to explore any number of things, and parsing his songs is a favorite ploy of intellectuals set on demonstrating their intimacy with popular culture. So given Filene's interest in the remade past, he should have gone easier on Dylan's 60's output, concentrating instead on the records of the 90's, which he stuffs in at the very end. Over the past decade, a new vision of America's musical and spiritual past has been half-articulated by two Dylan albums reprising often-obscure canonical material combined with his folk-sounding, Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind (1997) and the rerelease of Harry Smith's 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music. Rooted in the recordings of Peer and his contemporaries, and in the Lomaxes' collecting as well, this work spins a vision of pre-World War I America as Bizarroworld Lost--a site of magic, myth, and mystery, a place where honest men told their desperate truths and vanished into the dust. This vision has risen up alongside the wide-ranging and inchoate folkie culture that is busy being born right now--a culture that stretches from black blues neotraditionalists to the punky faux honky tonkers of the alt-country movement.

There is no reason to believe that the new vision is any more factual than those that preceded it. It is merely the richest and most recent story certain seekers after the real and the beautiful have devised for themselves. In an era when increasingly interconnected and information-laden media have rendered both reality and beauty harder to grasp, and to live for, such stories play the vital function of sparking new kinds of musical creation--the products of which, at their best, transcend their theoretical underpinnings as the best art always does. Benjamin Filene has set himself the task of telling the stories' story. If he has failed to bring them into the present, no doubt that is because he too finds more comfort and inspiration in the past.

New York Times Book Review, Dec. 10, 2000