assembling and assessing historical narratives on the digital timeline.
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
— Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin'”
This post builds on two previous posts—“There is a Timeline, Turn, Turn, Turn” and “History on the Line”—about how students might use digital timeline construction to develop their own understanding of a particular historical story (in this case the overarching tale of the US folk music revival) while at the same time deepening (even rendering problematic, complicated, and more nuanced) their conceptual understandings of how historical synthesis, macro-narrative, and “master narratives” get made. In putting their timelines together within the more ductile setting of a digital tool such as Timerime or Timeline.js, students begin to take apart historical assumptions. Construction and deconstruction, assembling and analyzing, making and critiquing, go hand in hand—or better said digit to digit.
What was the US folk music revival?
When I first broached this question with students in the 2016 edition of Digitizing Folk Music History, a history research seminar at Northwestern University in which students investigate the story of the US folk music revival digitally as well as in more conventional modes, many in the class responded, “Woodstock.”
Which is a funny answer—not entirely wrong, but funny. Because if you were a folk revivalist, Woodstock was the moment when the height of the folk revival as a kind of popular fad really and truly ended, when all the starry-eyed acoustic idealism of old and young, rural and urban, traditional and modern, joining hands together finally was overwhelmed by the hedonism of youth obsessed sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.
The summer of ’69 was not folk music’s pinnacle for most of these participants in the 60s folk revival, but rather the final electric-guitar cord poke in the eye before said cord got plugged into the Marshall stack and a multimillion dollar rock industry of passively consumed spectacle arose in the resulting squall.
And yet of course, there were traces of the folk revival all over Woodstock. It has a continuity to the folk revival that preceded it—and if one steps back from the brown-acid granularity of the 1960s, Woodstock joins a larger legacy of festivals, cultural-political events centered around music, and other aspects of something we can think of as the folk revival’s “master narrative” or “macro-narrative.”
So my students, who were born almost at the turn of the twenty-first century, who know only a little about Woodstock ’99, never mind Woodstock ’69, are not wrong to think of Woodstock when I ask them about the US folk music revival. Nonetheless, their answer indicates that we have a lot of work to do together in organizing a sense of both the larger story (more accurately stories) of the folk revival and the specific debates within its sequence of events, people, institutions, products, activities, ideas, attitudes, perspectives, and moods.
For the first weeks of the course, then, we read and watch and listen to materials that give us a sense of this overarching history. We turn to books such as Benjamin Filene’s Romancing the Folk, Robert Cantwell’s When We Were Good, Archie Green’s article “Vernacular Music: A Naming Compass,” Ron Cohen’s Rainbow Quest, the essays in Neil Rosenberg’s edited collection Transforming Tradition, and Jim Brown’s 2001 documentary film American Roots Music, as well as a series of primary source articles and essays and musical selections. We begin to assemble some kind of coherent, overarching narrative of the US folk music revival (next year, we’ll be adding Rachel Clare Donaldson’s “I Hear America Singing”: Folk Music and National Identity and a few articles that push us toward a more transnational framework as well).
We go as far back as Herder and German Romanticism as well as Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry and straight through Child ballads, Cecil Sharp and Olive Dame Campbell, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter and the Lomaxes, the Seeger clan, the Popular Front, race and hillbilly records, the journeys of certain songs such as “Big Rock Candy Mountain” or “Tom Dooley,” Muddy Waters and the Chess Brothers, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and up to the present.
It’s a lot for students to take in and organize and make sense of—and so we turn to the digital timeline assignment as a moment to take stock of the big story (Big History? The longue durée? Not quite. But at least a big, untidy, multifaceted story).
First we use good, old-fashioned class discussion to generate a sense of chronology:
Digitizing Folk Music History timeline development in class, January 2016 (click on images for larger versions).
Then, the assignment asks students to use Timeline.js to assemble what they take to be the ten most significant events of the US folk music revival. But that is just the start of the assignment. The key part follows: each student writes an essay about the logic they used to make their selections. As I have written before, the result for most students is frustration. The project is a failure. Because you cannot quite relay the history of the US folk revival on a timeline. Partly because it is not that kind of history. It is not date driven, or “data driven,” but rather this is a history shaped by amorphous cultural forces; by a toggling between musicians and their particular musical, commercial, aesthetic choices and larger historical contexts, events, constraints, opportunities, tragedies; by different scales of action; by overlapping phenomena; by resurgences of ideas or older modes of culture and music suddenly, surprisingly leaping to the fore, out of order. This history is not a neat progression of cleanly orchestrated historical chord changes even if the songs themselves sometimes sound (often deceptively) simple as the traditional music of “the folks.”
The timelines ultimately become less interesting in of themselves than as generators of reflection and observation about the folk revival and its history. How students write about their timeline experiments, how they make sense of them, is where the action is.
Here are a few extracted comments from students essays:
The most difficult part of creating the timeline was deciding when to begin it. I decided to really take into account the word “revival,” the return of a genre that may have been considered lost.
Creating a timeline is problematic, but also turned out to be a useful tool to piece together and follow a history through a linear platform. There are continuous cycles and events that contribute to the history of the folk revival but the timeline helped me create a type of narrative that I can always refer back to. I began with as many dates I could remember or find in the books we have read. I realized that my timeline was bottom heavy since I could not figure out events or people to include post 1940s. It became difficult to piece together the later history which reveals that I need to revisit the later parts of the texts we have read. There is also a gap during the nineteenth century where I left out important information about minstrelsy and other early music traditions in America. The timeline thus helped me realize what I need to work on.
As I chose and rejected events, I debated if I should follow the threads in folk of black performers, or the intellectual folklorists threads, or the vernacular thread as a whole, etc. I ultimately decided to follow (mostly) the (what I termed) “commercialization/mass culture” thread (with a bit of the “political” thread thrown in beginning in the 1930s), which encompassed intellectual interest in the folk that then turned into commercial interest, then into national culture, and then into an alternative national culture away from the commercial experience….
I found the experience of making a timeline and thinking of the folk revival in linear terms very useful for thinking about microcosms of the folk revival and scope.
I was forced to stack events against each other to decide which would make it onto the timeline. …I noticed that I crossed off almost all events that centered around individual performers, instead favoring events that had to do with folk music being brought to the masses, generally through institutions or collections.
I also found myself thinking not just of events of the revival itself, but also the historical context in which it occurred and how separate historical events influenced the revival. This led me to include events like the second great migration…, the end of World War II, and the McCarthy hearings.
I think the fact that I chose several events that were not exclusively important to the revival indicates that folk culture itself is not an isolated event that had importance just to folklorists like Alan Lomax or counterculture baby boomers like Bob Dylan, but rather an important cultural phenomena that intersected with the most important political and social issues of the time.
I also thought more about the later end of the folk revival, in part I think because the timeline in my head sort of functions as a way to map out causes and effects….
By focusing on the institutional aspects of folk music, and specifically governmental support, I was able to narrow down my timeline, and that allowed me to look more closely at one part of this entire story. Looking closely turned out to be really important….
I also struggled with whether I needed to use my timeline to tell a complete story with an arc of some sort, as opposed to just separately describing each event that I chose, and not worrying about using the captions to connect and justify them.
As I worked, I jotted down frustrations, which I think all related to the nature of the folk movement as a cultural movement. As cultural history, it was difficult to date things or set things in order because sometimes it felt like many currents were happening at once or many things did not have a set point in history, but rather encompassed more of a practice over time or period.
The digital timeline becomes not the end product but rather an occasion for thinking. It turns into a research tool, a heuristic device, a methodological spark thrower rather than a publication, a machine for positivistic revelation, or a revealer of the facts. One might even go so far as to say that within the forever revisable and mutable form of the digital platform, the very difference between a dive into the process and a landing on final conclusions might become productively murky. Making timelines, we enter into history’s revival, always already in the stream and sequence, the matrix and remix, the many songs and the one song of which they are all ultimately a part. This timeline stretches far past its beginning and ending.
This is because folk revival history is messy. Cultural history is messy. Indeed, most history is messy if we’re honest about it. A timeline not only allows students to begin to structure their own “master narrative” of the topic of the revival, it also encourages them—forces them—to draw a line to a deeper truth about how we constitute historical consciousness itself. The timeline as a digital undertaking, one in which it is particularly easy to shift, replace, select, revise, resurrect, return, delete, and reset the data repeatedly, most of all brings to the forefront a consciousness of history as a project of noticing and portraying relationalities, intersectionalities, conjunctures, or what Stuart Hall famously called “articulations” (in the sense of joining—or, sorry again, lining up—one thing to another, articulating them to each other). The pliability of the digital enhances our awareness of the contingency of history, of the many ways of seeing it depending on what you choose to perceive, and how you choose to perceive it.
Historical narrative, especially at larger scales, is always about choices and selections. It demands we leave some things out and include other things. It isn’t just the act of relaying “what happened.” It is, necessarily, incomplete. The spotlight must shine on some things and cast others into the shadows. History requires a line of logic among items placed in chronological time. But it also, at some level, demands that we pull materials out from the chaos of time to stand in, fictively as much as realistically, for meaningful coherency. If we no longer do so for the fantastical, whiggish dream of steady, linear progress, we still hunger for some kind of flow of energy clarifying into a sequencing, a story, a narrative, an arrow to follow.
Making a digital timeline of the US folk music revival helps us grasp this arrow, notched with dates. One can get organized about a macro-narrative of this particular topic and, simultaneously, grasp its underlying disorganizations: the cracks between the data, the empty stretches on the line that one scrolls across or launches into the ether. Being forced to select not-enough essential events, students also get an opportunity to listen more closely for what is absent: for the missing voices, music, and history being made in those seemingly blank sections in between the dots that connect.
One Timeline.js digital timeline of all the student timelines from winter 2016 Digitizing Folk Music History seminar: