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Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music (Cultural Studies of the United States) by Benjamin Filene (2000-06-26)

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  • By Christopher W. Chase on October 14, 2004

    Benjamin Filene's account of the origins of the category of "American roots music" is inexorably aimed at peeling away discursive layers within that very term itself to reveal the historical continuities and disjunctures at the heart of it. As Filene puts it: "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." And Filene shows deftly how these categories are heavily inflected with racial and class issues.But Filene's work begins much earlier, with the early 19th century effort in the US and later in the UK to collect and collate British folk song texts and sometimes the tunes that went this them. He demonstrates that this effort was thoroughly infused with romanticism--an attempt to record and preserve a "better" culture before capitalism, greed, irreligion and science came along. This grew from the German philosophical fascination with the 'Kultur des Volkes,' and into an impulse to forge a British national culture based on the English peasantry---even sometimes as found in the American Appalachian population (!)---and of course, an undertone, made explicit here and there--of racial purity.This is especially significant in that popular interest in anything like folk song appears to have begun for African-American forms before Anglo ones--but was apparently stopped by the mythic valorization of whites as true folk. It seems that Anglo songs edged out other types as the basis of this new mythic canon that was forming, even as the Fisk singers and blackface minstrelsy became more popular in the 1870's. In fact, Filene argues convincingly that the way in which Black folk songs (spirituals) were collated preserved an idea of Black passivity and the exotic gaze in whites. Of course blackface minstrel performances reinforced this. The only other challenge was Lomax's collection of cowboy ballads, which he unsuccessfully tried to peg to the spirit of English rural culture. In the 1920's attempts at using a more racially and geographically inclusive cultural building with rural songs, white, black, and latino, were undertaken by poet Carl Sandburg.Most of the book deals with the legacy of the cult of authenticity created and shaped by the Lomaxes from their field recordings and artist promotion. Their zeal for collecting and promoting their ideas of "true folk singers" cannot be underestimated, and in doing so, they shifted the canon away from whiteness, or so it seemed. Filene's account of The Lomaxes and Lead Belly perhaps best demonstrates the role of exoticism in producing authentic "American"ness at that particular time. The tours undertaken by the Lomaxes emphasize Lead Belly's virtuosity and expansive knowledge, but simultaneously construct him as a primitive, exotic "Heart of Darkness" figure that lay at the core of authentic American folk-song, and by extension lay at the periphery of contemporary, decadent, urban white Modernist America. When they started to get not only recording techonology, but official government and Library of Congress support, that added an entire new dimension of national culture building, as well as "documentary"-style authoritativeness to their work--as they literally began constructing a usable musical past for the United States.In fact, Filene's analysis fits perfectly with Jacques Attali's theories on music, insofar as Lead Belly's music could be said to be a constructed and promoted by Lomax as a sublimated form of `animal nature' (ancestor) and racialized `primitive violence' (demon), exhibited in spectacle for the consumption of middle-brow and high-brow white audiences. Filene connects this racialized legacy of "authenticity" with the commonly found ideology that "roots" musicians even today are expected to be overly emotive, premodern, and non-commercial. In other words, they must perform "Otherness" for their predominantly white, bourgeois audiences in order to be authentic. To be fair, this impulse waxed strong in 1930's American. James Agee and Walker Evans. Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," a number of popular magazines--, all played into this impulse. To be popular though, you couldn't be too successful, or you might compromise your authenticity. Sound familiar? The paradox of Roots music and Leftist politics, in the 1930's, both together in the Popular Front.Moreover, it is perhaps speculative, but nonetheless provocative, to note that Lead Belly's popularity took place in the wane of the Harlem Renaissance (and into the 1940's), and quite possibly signaled for white consumption a sign of (or the `return' of) a more racialized `authentic n*ggerness' inscribed in black bodies, in contrast to the earlier "New Negro" and the later post-WWII racial agitators. For future artists, like Muddy Waters, the legacy of transformation took more commercial, but similar sets of turns. As Waters grew in popularity, his music shifted from Mississippi delta through country inflection--from acoustic to electric, in an attempt to adopt to urban styles...and then pressure to go back again to his more "primitive" beginnings for sales purposes. From the influence of Lomax to the commercial propagation of Leonard Chess and Willie Dixon, Filene follows Waters through his career to see the larger effect of "roots" discourse upon him and perceptions of him. We get an especially big eyeful when Filene takes extra time out to analyze Willie Dixon's "Hoochie Coochie Man", just one of many popular songs invoking pagan, magical, feral and occult tropes to signify both danger and desire for the listening subject. Waters influence on the Rolling Stones and The Beatles is noted, and we begin to see how folk constructions of authenticity gain a larger influence in Rock and Roll, even as black artists in that genre fail to catch fire with white youth as strongly as later white rock musicians did--or as even strongly as white folk artists like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger.Later parts of the work demonstrate the emergence of folk institutionalism in Washington, from the Federal Writers Project, the Resettlement Administration, and the Library of Congress all contributing to this effort within the framework of New Deal politics, and the growing idea that folklore always has a functional element to play in a given society. Rather then "vestigial," folklore becomes "germinal." The search for musical folklore takes these institutions to the city for perhaps the first time in "roots" discourse. And also to war, as government agencies came under increasing pressure to turn all aspects of policy towards the effort in WWII. At the same time, a push to professionalize folklore in academia gained ground as well--graduate programs in folklore were established, thus created a contentious political history for every field of culture impacted by contemporary folklore studies, no less than in American Studies. Richard M. Dorson, an early Americanist, was also an early "Folklore" specialist, and worked tirelessly to construct methodologies for subsequent use. Lomax, too, became an academic--an early methodologist in 1960's ethnomusicology. And with the establishment of Folklore in the Academy of Letters, the annual Folk Festival is born, largely again, through the aegis of the Smithsonian---yet another example of government sponsorship and cultivation of Kulturvolk as national basis, continuing to the present day. The modern day so-called "folk revival" is born as well through the efforts of Pete Seeger, who carried on the functionalist tradition of the Lomaxes in his efforts. Folk cultures have literally become American cultures--in the sense that they may even suck all the air out of that category, leaving little for other than these constructed myths.I appreciate the way that Filene goes about his project, using a combination of comparative visual analysis of photographs, and album covers, as well as musical and lyrical analysis. His willingness to take into account close readings of song collections (like 'American Ballads', 'Our Singing Country', and 'American Songbag'), and productions of early government/corporate partnerships in radio programming (such as "We Hold These Truths") speak to the power of his interdisciplinary method. And in uncovering more than just two periods of attention to folk music (the 1930s and the 1960s) he demonstrates a longer, more resilient undercurrent of American modernity and its self-renewal.

  • By A customer on August 22, 2000

    Most books about popular music fall into one of two categories. You have your pretentious rock n' roll critic who writes in impenetrable and cryptic prose (Hello Anthony DeCurtis and Robert Christgau) or you have purely academic writings that miss the heart of what is often music felt at a gut level. Then along comes Benjamin Filene. Filene offers up a brilliant discussion of the ways in which folk music became a part of our American consciousness. Profiling the careers of such artists as Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, "Romancing the Folk" presents an extremely lively, readable and well thought out discussion of the way folk music was presented to the American public and ultimately accepted as a valid art form in its own right. In doing so, Filene breaks from the stale world of traditional popular music writing and gives you a fine read while you listen to "Blood on the Tracks," "Goodnight Irene," "Hoochie Coochie Man" or "Talking Union."

  • By betsy siggins schmidt on May 14, 2017

    Nice easy introduction to the importance of folk music and it's influences in our culture. Often overlooked.

  • By QRoe on December 11, 2014

    Fascinating!

  • By J. Christmas on March 17, 2002

    This is a historically thorough yet immensely enjoyable work. Filene's take on "roots music" is refreshing--honest and free of gushing hyperbole; just cynical enough without ever becoming acerbic.The stories Filene chooses to tell are illuminating and often funny--Leonard Chess faking his way through Blues hitmaking; Leadbelly being marketed as a country bumpkin in overalls when he preferred to wear suits.There are so many more stories to be told, though--musicians to discuss, angles of the folk boom to expand, that I wish Filene would write more--perhaps another volume.


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