Student Showcase: The 1968 Berkeley Folk Music Festival

jacob frazer goes audio-visual.

In last year’s Digitizing Folk Music History seminar, students completed multimedia projects based on original research. Among the talented group, Jacob Frazer took on the project of trying to create an audio-visual narrative of the 1968 Berkeley Folk Music Festival using the archival mix of audio and video in the archive at Northwestern University’s Special Collections Library.

He decided to challenge himself to do this without using a narrator. The result is, to my viewing and listening, a kind of immersive dive into the weekend-long event from July 1968. Jacob’s project attempts to recreate the feeling of the festival’s density of performance and experience out of still photographs, audio recordings from KPFA radio with Sam Hinton as the master of ceremonies, the program for that year, a little glimpse of television footage, and other ephemera.

Does the film Jacob created offer a historical argument? One of its implied points to me is that a folk festival such as Berkeley became not a root system so much as a constellation of sounds and glimpses, shards and fragments of feeling forming a kind of map of the heavens or heavenly map of traditional American music circa 1968. One might be quite aware, perceiving it, that you were not seeing the whole universe. Nonetheless, you could organize what you did encounter into a pattern by which to navigate the sounds and feelings of the folk revival in that tumultuous year of American and global history.

Here were some of Jacob’s reflections in the essay he wrote to accompany the film he created:

If we take the lens of the 1968 Berkeley Folk Festival as a point of inquiry into the folk revival, we develop a portrait marked by identity, tradition, and authenticity. We can decipher a narrative of the folk revival as a glance into the past, rediscovering the modern American story through the recovery of old traditions. The revival is positioned against a post-WWII American culture dominated by material excesses and conformity, an ideal of a cookie-cutter society that a new generation sought to break free from. In the vein of popular music, the Tin Pan Alley era of mass commercialization of recorded music standardized the industry to rigid and uninventive norms, where chord structures and lyrics varied little across songs. Folk music offered new emotive qualities through lyrics, timbre, and new performance styles, reflecting an reawakening of popular American consciousness.

…In taking the ’68 festival as a collection of performers and styles, we see the folk revival as an effort to reconstruct American values by picking up pieces up the past to modern culture. I chose the documentary medium to explore the folk revival because the process of creating the project felt like stepping back into a time warp and reentering the folk revival. I could jump into the revival by digging through archives of old photos, pamphlets, and audio recordings, embarking on the process of recreating the past, not to change modern perceptions, but to enhance my own understanding of it. In the construction of digital history, we have the opportunity to fuse styles of the past with modern technology, make these technologies feel more human. Through the documentary format, I could see how someone like Baez could relate to Howlin’ Wolf, Allan MacLeod, and a Berkeley student picking up a guitar and trying to reenact and outdo the folk repertoire of his peers. There is an effort to create an American identity around stories that revive American traditions, bringing more humanizing cultural motifs to a surface shrouded in plastic. It was a space and time to humanize life when the news was dominated by war news.

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