Digitizing Folk Music History Seminar: Striking Some First Chords

making sense of the folk music revival.

This fall quarter, I am teaching my Digitizing Folk Music History seminar again with yet another exceptional group of students. We began the year diving right into the heart of the 1960s folk music revival using a set of primary sources, including an article written (without byline) for Time by the soon-to-be famous nonfiction New Yorker writer John McPhee. We also watched Murray Lerner‘s still remarkable documentary film FestivalThis week we begin to dive deeper into the pre-1960s folk revival with Benjamin Filene’s book Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music and the documentary film American Roots Music, directed by Jim Brown.

As I write in the overview for the course, Digitizing Folk Music History:

brings new digital and multimedia tactics of analysis and narrative to bear on the practice of cultural history. Focusing on the twentieth-century US folk music revival, the course asks students to explore different types of materials—readings, sound recordings, documentary films, and more—as we probe what was at stake with the following: how music-making, memory, and power intersect in twentieth-century US history; issues of race, class, gender, age, and region; the interactions of tradition and cultural heritage with new technologies of mediation and communication; and, most of all, the folk revival in relation to American culture and politics writ large. The course culminates for each student in the completion of an interpretive digital history audio podcast project based on original research.

“Sibyl with a Guitar”: Joan Baez portrait on the cover of Time Magazine, 23 November 1962.

Here were the assignments for the first two sessions of our seminar:

We 09/20 – What the Folk? Striking Some First Chords

READING:

·      Susan Montgomery, “The Folk Furor,” Madamoiselle, December 1960, 98-100, 117-119

·      N.A. (John McPhee), “Folk Singing: Sibyl With Guitar,” Time, 23 November 1963

·      David A. DeTurk and A. Poulin, Jr., “Preface” and “Introduction: Speculations on the Dimensions of a Renaissance,” in The American Folk Scene: Dimensions of the Folksong Revival, eds. David A. DeTurk and A. Poulin, Jr. (New York: Dell, 1967), 13-34

VIEWING

·      Festival, dir. Murray Lerner (1967)

LISTENING

·      Folk Introduction Mix

Mo 09/25 – Creating…and Recreating Cultural Heritage – The Cultural Mediator in the Folk Revival

READING

·      Filene, Romancing the Folk, Introduction-Chapter 3, pp. 1-132

·      David Evans, “Folk Music Revival,” Journal of American Folklore 92, 363 (January 1979), pp. 108-top of 109

VIEWING

·      American Roots Music, dir. Jim Brown (2001), Part 1-2

LISTENING

·      Filene Mix

Below is a glimpse into our classroom: our (very undigital) whiteboard. We tried to organize initial thoughts about the folk revival in our discussion: how does David Evans help us to start to organize its bigger history across time? How did people living through the 1960s revival try to categorize different participants in that moment? What debates did those characterizations spark? Sometimes there were strong boundaries of insiders and outsiders, as in the condescending tones of the mainstream Time and Madamoiselle articles. At other times, the question of who was in and who was out got fascinatingly fraught, vexing, and confusing for participants in the revival.

Then, how do we, as cultural historians, register and start to organize the many dimensions of the revival: from its political impulses, often taking place in seemingly apolitical spaces of leisure and fun, to its quasi-religious qualities, often taking place in secular spaces, to its yearnings for achieving some other kind of “beloved community” and, simultaneously, a sense of the liberated self? And how did that all happen in the intersections between informal, face-to-face vernacular, local cultures and the deeply technological and mediated aspects of Cold War, mass consumer America as a whole?

Lots to ponder. Oh, and we also listened to some powerful music.

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