All Folked Up on Two U of NC Press Books
by Mark Jackson
Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music
by Benjamin Filene
A Race of Singers: Whitman's Working-Class Hero from Guthrie to Springsteen
by Bryan Garman
Beginning in the mid 90's, American roots music (some might simply call it "folk music") shifted from marginal dark to commercial light in a flash that comes about every thirty years. However, this return does not mean mere repetition; for American roots artists such as Steve Earle and Keb Mo', Lucinda Williams and Taj Mahal are unique talents who have been playing for decades before finding larger audiences in more recent years. But even as their critical and commercial glory mounts, like all great artists, they've broken open the graves of their forefathers (people like Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Robert Johnson) and stolen their bones.
To fully understand roots music, we've also got to spade up the past and marvel at the bones we find. But sometimes guides can assist in this work. Just this past year, the University of North Carolina Press brought out two thorough books laying out some of America's musical past.
First, we have Benjamin Filene's Romancing the Folk, which immediately leads us back to America at the birth of the 20th century. There we find Harvard professor Francis Child plowing through old libraries, Englishman Cecil Sharp plodding through the Appalachians, folklorist Howard Odum listening to black gospel, and Texan John Lomax searching for cowboy ballads -- all of them trying to collect, catalog, and share the beauties of pure American music. Unfortunately, they all failed in part. Why? Because they deliberately picked and pilfered, letting their own prejudices and pet theories control the music they found rather than letting the music create its own structure, its own face. Then the next generation of folklorists, those such as Alan Lomax and B.A. Botkin, also fell prey to their own drives and desires, leaving their legacy just as subjective as those who came before them. As Filene notes, "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 (5).
But as Filene argues, we can't just blame the folklorists or record producers at Victor, Chess, or other labels for romanticizing their discoveries. For even as others have worked to direct them, early folk artists shaped and molded their own images. True, John Lomax got Lead Belly to perform in prison stripes, but the singer later dressed himself to the max in suit and tie, even when he and his wife were living in dire poverty. Even before Chess got him to do the psychedelic-tinted album Electric Mud, Muddy Waters reshaped his sound for white audiences in the early 60's, shifting for a time from the explosive electric blues he had been playing for well over a decade back to the downhome style of his youth. Later artists, as Filene points out, also struggled not only with the manipulations of the music industry but with their own machinations. Neither Pete Seeger nor Bob Dylan came from working-class backgrounds, yet both created images of themselves as road-weary vagabonds who had traveled a hard and dusty road, just as their mentor Woody Guthrie had truly done.
Second, we find Bryan Garman's A Race of Singers, which focuses on one artist's direct influence on others. Here, we travel back to the 1850's, around the time Whitman first published Leaves of Grass, with its joy of man and his body, especially while at work. Garman believes Whitman realized "the industrial revolution had degraded the common worker, and... was determined to restore his independence and prestige, to celebrate the world not as it was but as he thought it should be." Throughout his life-long revision of the book, Whitman expanded and elaborated on his admiration for America's working man. But as Garman notes, Whitman emphasized white, male workers over their black or female counterparts. Garman traces these contradictory tendencies in a number of artists and writers, but especially Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen. By using Whitman as a lens, Garman allows us to see both grace and guile in these visionary singers and their visions.
In essence, these two books provide a new perspective on iconic musicians who have shaped themselves even as they've had themselves shaped. Garman's work is a bit more interesting in its explorations, but both books are solid and well-researched. One caveat though -- Filene and Garman are scholarly writers. No, you won't find yourself bogged down with heavy academic jargon. But you may find the writing a bit dry, more than a little reserved -- especially when contrasted to the emotionally powerful words of Whitman, Lead Belly, Guthrie or Springsteen. Yet even this complaint fades as Filene and Garman reveal the bones they've dug from the grave of folkmusic history.
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