how could the kingston trio steal ‘tom dooley’ from the smothers brothers? student melissa codd explains.
This is the second student showcase of digital history audio podcast projects completed by students in the 2016 edition of my Digitizing Folk Music History seminar at Northwestern University. These projects are explorations in how scholarly history might take on new, multimedia forms. In this case, students probed the possibilities and challenges of the audio documentary format for historical interpretation. Collectively, we learned a lot from working on these projects (sometimes as much through how they do not quite work as how they did!).
Today we tune in to what I call student Melissa Codd’s “Ballad of Roland Barthes’s ‘Operation Margarine’.” What I find great about this interpretive digital history podcast is how Melissa mingles folk revival humor with serious, sophisticated analysis. She both carefully retraces the strange journey of “Tom Dooley” as a song and, using the song as evidence, theorizes how “folk commodification” functions.
She builds on an essay we read in class by Warren Bareiss, “Middlebrow Knowingness in 1950s San Francisco: The Kingston Trio, Beat Counterculture, and the Production of ‘Authenticity’,” then delves deeply into the strange journey of the song “Tom Dooley” from an actual murder trial of Tom Dula in North Carolina after the Civil War to old-timey recordings in the 1920s to its resurfacing as part of folk song collecting by Frank Warner and Alan Lomax in the 1930s and 1940s to its success as a popular hit by The Kingston Trio in the late 1950s to later versions by Appalachian musicians such as Doc Watson (whose family had direct connections to the original trial!).
She turns to Robert Cantwell’s work on the song in his book When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, the scholarship of Michael Scully, Neil Rosenberg, and other scholars, elegantly incorporating the historiography of the folk revival into a study of the relationship between the music industry, folk aficionados, and the larger processes of consumer capitalism. Weaving together television, film, and music recording clips, she traces how “ultimately folk music would evaporate in its own commercial medium” and, yet, how this might in fact be related to the very constitution of folk music itself, with all its contradictions helping to power the music.
Here is Melissa’s script.