getting timelines wrong, getting history right.

The early weeks of my course, Digitizing Folk Music History (syllabus and various related posts here), are devoted to developing an overarching sense of the folk revival. Reading a mix of primary and secondary sources, listening to compilations of music, and viewing the American Roots Music film documentary, students work at the macroscopic level to ask: What is this thing called the folk music revival? How has its story been told—and why has it been narrated in certain ways? Later in the course, they will zoom in on research projects focused on archival materials in the Berkeley Folk Music Festival collection. But first they need to map out the context in which they will develop new historical arguments using new evidence.

The challenge for students at the start is that many only have a vague sense of the history we are studying. Before they begin to join this particular historical conversation, they need to know what it is. We need to fill in some of the blanks, sketch out the background, start to grasp at the constellation of facts and stories used to illuminate this past, and begin to ask what lies out there in the dark, either forgotten or ignored. In other words, students need to spend some time developing reference points, linear narratives, and a general feel for the arc of the existing narrative of folk music history in the United States.

Reference points, arc, linear narrative: sounds like the perfect job for a digital timeline. This seems right to me and so my students work with TimeRime to develop overarching timelines of the folk revival’s history in the United States. They then complete tables that further explain their choices, use these tables as the basis for a short commentary on their timelines, and comment and respond on each other’s end results.

But here’s where the story gets interesting. Students really struggle to translate the story of the folk revival onto a timeline. This is because it’s not a history just told through particular dates, moments, events, or people. As cultural history, the folk revival is more amorphous, the relationship between the singular and the collective is not typically causal but rather correlated. And when, curiously, the story hones in on reference points–Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Alan Lomax, the Peer recording sessions with Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, Dylan going electric at Newport–the students rightfully sense that the light shining from these stars is dimming out other stories of significance.

How would one, for instance, properly place on a timeline the northward and westward migration patterns of Southerners both black and white during the twentieth century? How would one effectively pinpoint on a timeline the possible connections between these demographic changes and the emergence of certain vernacular musical styles? I can picture varous ways of doing this, as could my students. But all our ideas had to make choices, had to fudge things a bit. They were never wrong, but neither were they entirely right.

Then an even greater challenge: how might one create a timeline that tracks the tale of the obsession with authenticity that is so central to the folk revival? This is a story that is a kind of double history: us looking back at other people looking back. That is not quite a linear tale but demands other forma of historical understanding, different morphologies through which we picture humans and their culture moving through time. Similarly, how does one chart on a timeline the powerful leaps through time accomplished by certain folk performers and their audiences: Pete Seeger’s resituating of a modern pop audience into a close-knit community around a campfire; Bob Dylan’s songs that mingle 500 year old melodies with contemporary political concerns or avant-garde explorations of consciousness; the reappearance of a figure such as country blues guitarist Mississippi John Hurt after years living in obscurity. These are circles of time as much as lines, widening gyres and ripples of social belonging and solidarity as well as events and people threaded through space on the straight. History bends back on itself, jumps around, gets tied up in knots. Maybe timelines aren’t the right kind of visualization structure for historical narratives of this nature!

Example of a student timeline for Digitizing Folk Music History.

It is precisely in their attempt to create these almost impossible forms of timelines and their reflections on the difficulty to do so that valuable historical learning takes place. Failure is enormously productive here. Insert obligatory Dylan quote: “There’s no success like failure and…failure’s no success at all.”

Dylan’s oft-quoted line rings true in this case because the timelines students construct heighten their awareness of how history is an interpretive construction. It does not get constructed willy-nilly, of course. It must draw upon facts. But how those facts are put together, and why—indeed what gets to count as a singular fact at all, becomes available for students to ponder because of the ill fit of the timeline to the history at hand. Trying to stretch cultural stories that have differing temporalities across the one-size-fits-all Procrustean bed of the timeline enables historical learning.

Students come away from their failed (the more accurate word is imperfect) timelines with a much more refined and sharpened sense of how weird history is, how the past does not in of itself contain a teleology, how we make assumptions about significance, causality, correlation, and about the very nature of what counts as an event, a person, a phase, a period. And how, as historians, we cannot help to do so—indeed we must do so—in order to create history.

Like its close cousin memory, history only exists in retrospect, with all the mediations—really re-mediations—that looking back produces. Using the digital to create failed timelines, tinker with them, and reflect as much on their imperfections as their successes is more productive, more meaningful, more powerful than the typical emphasis placed on accomplishment in student assignments.

The accomplishment becomes, in some sense, not to be able to satisfactorily accomplish the assignment—and, most crucially, to understand how and why various shortcomings resulted. In doing this, students move forward through timelines. They progress by not making progress at all.