History On the Line

Folk Music Timelinesthe digital timeline as tool for thinking about “master narratives” of the past.

The start of Digitizing Folk Music History focuses on going microscopic and macroscopic all at once. Students dive in to annotate documents directly, using digital technologies quite literally (actually, virtually) to “get into” history. This is the past up close. But we also read, watch, and listen to synthetic material about the US folk music revival as a whole. Students need to grapple with the past at a distance, too. For better or worse, they need to organize in their minds a sense of the existing “master narrative.” Only then can they start to critique it, challenge it, or confirm certain aspects of it based on engagements with particular bits of evidence.

The digital timeline becomes a tool for thinking about “master narratives.” And it works because, paradoxically, it fails. There really is no way to create a perfect timeline of the folk revival that adequately represents the full dimensions of its story. Sure, we can plot out key events and name oft-mentioned figures (though which ones given finite space? And why those ones and not others?). But how do we design a linear timeline of a cultural movement whose story is as much about the more ambiguous undercurrents of aesthetic, economic, and political exchange that do not always manifest themselves into ordered markers in the march of time?

For students, the construction of a digital timeline thus becomes an opportunity to start to organize the overarching story of the folk revival into a coherent narrative. They can consider how others have organized the story, why certain orderings predominate, and how they themselves and their fellow students might grapple with the creation of a linear narrative of the folk movement. Simultaneously, the timeline is a device for gaining greater awareness of the ultimate artifice of constructing historical narratives—of how the ways in which the story gets told are often contested operations of power that matter as much as registering what “actually” happened or occurred. The making of a timeline forces students to see, in multiple senses, history on the line, how the past is not made up from scratch, but is nonetheless full of fraught choices about significance and importance that evoke as many silences and gaps as they do clarifications and convincing trackings of causality and development.

The US folk revival’s story is over a century long now and one of its key apexes in the late 1950s and early 1960s now occurred roughly 50 years ago. Today’s students typically have a vague sense of the revival. But it is only vague. Fascinatingly, many associate the folk movement with everything from a vague sense of bluegrass as traditional music to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez as important figures to, more strangely for those who lived through the “great folk scare” itself, the imagery of Janis Joplin and the Woodstock Festival. Those last associations are not entirely wrong, of course, but they remain a bit off since students are conflating the height of the rock era with the folk revival that partly fed into it and was, just as crucially, dramatically abandoned by the turn to electric guitars and the full-blown countercultural sensibilities in the 1960s.

Why students have these associations would make for important further inquiry, but the point for now is that unless they have already gotten the bug for traditional music, and a few students usually have, the folk revival remains as distant and strange to them as the history of the Civil War. They kind of know it happened and that it was, perhaps, important. But that is about it. Therefore, in a history course, we will need to take time first to grasp and then to grapple with the existing “master narrative” of the folk movement since students do not necessarily have that in place when they begin the seminar. Which is to say, before they can start to make their own historical meaning, offer their own interpretations, and mount their own arguments that are grounded in evidence from something such as the Berkeley Folk Music Festival archive, students will have to develop a “feel” for the way people before them and around them (baby boomers, their children, various groups in and around the United States and the world) have already told the story of the revival. The timeline becomes a mechanism for doing so, and the digital timeline particularly so.

As students read, listen, and watch tellings of the story of the revival, we work together to start to place them in chronological order. After two weeks of reading Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940-1970, watching the director Jim Brown’s American Roots Music documentary film, and listening to a lot of folk music mixes, we begin to place people, places, genres, events, concepts, and ideas on the board during our seminar:

Folk Revival Timeline 2014 1Folk Revival Timeline 2014 2

With our chalkboard sketch of a folk revival timeline assembled collectively, students then set off to create their own digital timelines. We use Timeline.js (in the past I have also used TimeRime). The digital timeline builds on what one could do with pen and paper, to be sure; what it brings to that “analog” mode is a greater ductility of arrangement: students can arrange and re-arrange, test out orderings of the past and then reorganize them. After completing their individual timelines through Timeline.js, students write a short reflective essay about the process of developing their timeline in which they address the question “if my digital timeline were a term paper, its argument would be….”

The combination of reading, watching, digital building/making, and reflection accomplishes multiple tasks: an opportunity to organize a “master narrative” while at the same time challenging the hegemony of any one dominant telling of the past; a chance to think about the relationship among elements that compete to make history what it is, such as people, events, structures, and other less definite forces and energies, while also examining how they might align; and a moment for students to control their sense of the past we are studying while also enhancing their individual—and our collective—humility in pursuing this impossible yet essential project.

A few student timelines:

Wooden – BFMF Timeline

This post builds upon earlier reflections in the post, “There Is a Timeline, Turn, Turn, Turn,” 10 November 2012.

Next up: Audio remixes.

More from Digitizing Folk Music History 2014 Edition.

More on the Digital Berkeley Folk Music Festival Project.

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