Technology, Tradition, and Democratic Culture in the US Folk Music Revival
By Michael J. Kramer
Most histories frame the American folk revival as a nostalgic, antimodernist movement culminating in objections to Bob Dylan “going electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. This book corrects that distorted portrayal. Using new archival sources, I look to how the long folk revival of the twentieth century was filled with an embrace of machines: audio recording devices, printed books imagined as information systems, film cameras, melographs, even computers. A wide range of participants—Woody Guthrie, Alan Lomax, Harry Smith, Zora Neale Hurston, Frances Densmore, Charles Seeger, Emory Cook, Guthrie Meade, even figures not typically included in the folk revival for superficial reasons of genre such as classical composer Harry Partch and jazz afrofuturist Sun Ra—sought to use technology to recover and, indeed, reimagine musical and cultural heritage. They did so in fraught and imperfect ways that ultimately focused on how technology might harness tradition to enhance democratic politics. In their work with machines, change could paradoxically come from technological approaches to continuity.
To grasp their stories is to add new dimensions to the scholarship on modernism as less of a dramatic break or rupture with the past than a reworking of the very notion of heritage itself. So too, their stories offer new angles on Leo Marx’s classic take on American pastoralism as the vision of a “machine in the garden” (in this case, one that might also kill fascists, as Woody Guthrie scrawled on his acoustic guitar). Finally, folk revival engagements with technology shed new light on the crucial connections computer historian Fred Turner has identified between artistic, bohemian quarters and engineering labs in twentieth-century America. Behind the current ideologies of digital “disruption” in today’s Silicon Valley lies a deeper history of Americans using forms such as folk music to try to balance progress with the past, technology with tradition.
Who is in the book?
At some point in 1941, as World War II intensified, Woody Guthrie scrawled “This machine kills fascists” on his acoustic guitar. The folk singer and leftwing political activist’s humorous—yet also quite serious—slogan has become iconic. Guthrie, however, did not invent the phrase himself. Instead, he borrowed it from industrial union workers who were putting it on lathes and other materiel bound for the war zone. Guthrie appropriated it to articulate his own version of a folk music politics. The joke, of course, was to raise the question of whether an acoustic guitar—and the traditional music and culture it represented—was a machine. How might this instrument—and its music of heritage and roots—relate to the modern world of technology and ocean-spanning warfare against totalitarianism in terms of both culture and politics?
A few years later, Guthrie’s friend, the folklorist Alan Lomax, moved from his post at the Library Of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song, to begin a long process of developing a computer-based system for analyzing song styles. Eventually, it became his “cantometrics” project. By the early 1960s, Lomax was using punchcards and mainframe computers for cross-cultural, international musical and social comparisons. This work culminated in his Association for Cultural Equity and his multimedia Global Jukebox soundmap of statistically correlated musical cultures from around the world. As Lomax pursued his version of anthropological social science during the 1950s, the more eccentric artist Harry Smith turned his own idiosyncratic ideas about computation into the Anthology of American Folk Music, a key source for the 1960s folk revival that sought to compile an information system of folk music from old “hillbilly” and “race” records in order to transform understandings of race in the United States. Years later, their work of “programming the mind” through music, as Smith called it, led to other computational folk projects such as Guthrie Meade’s fiddle-tune databases.
Folkloric work with computers did not emerge out of a vacuum. Lomax himself had long been interested in other media technologies. He had been especially influenced by fieldwork conducted alongside Zora Neale Hurston, who herself made pioneering use of yet another fairly new technology—the film camera—for ethnography in the 1930s and 40s. The use of film remains an understudied aspect of her rich career as a modernist folklorist and artist. Even earlier than Hurston, another female ethnographer, Frances Densmore, recorded Native Americans using wax cylinders; completed at the turn of the twentieth century, her work serves as a kind of ground zero for all the problems and possibilities of subsequent field recording in the United States as a collision of well-intentioned democratic activism and sonic settler colonialism.
Despite the turn to audio recording equipment, Densmore’s generation of folksong collectors continued to focus on the printed book as a crucial technology. Intense debates about how to create what amounted to printed information systems of oral ballad culture surfaced among collectors and scholars, including the poet Carl Sandburg, who imagined his own printed compendium of folk music as a “songbag” with a book binding. Ongoing issues of aural transcription and written notation within the folk music movement can be understood more clearly when examined through other figures as well. The recording engineer Emory Cook is most famous for his calypso recordings, but his work as an audio engineer and inventor connect to his interest in vernacular musical forms. Another important folk participant who probed the possibilities of technology was Charles Seeger, father of Pete and Mike Seeger and an important musicologist in his own right. He spent decades tinkering with a “melograph” machine, a sort of seismograph that could electronically register and print to paper musical sounds without using Western classical notation.
These figures were squarely within what the folk music revival conventionally understood, and their underexamined uses of technology to shape the very meaning of folk music is crucial to the histories of modernism, vernacular culture, and popular culture in the United States. Others who are not typically associated with folk music are important too. Looking past artificial genre categories provides additional perspectives on the intersections of technology and tradition in twentieth-century America and the world. Eccentric composer Harry Partch, for instance, built his own homemade microtonal instruments and imagined an idiosyncratic musical system, challenging musical and cultural boundaries between high and low art. During the same decades, bandleader Sun Ra arose within the jazz milieu to forge an Afrofuturist vision of music and culture, blending Egyptian and mystical folk resources from the past with futuristic space travel ideas, iconographies, and sounds. What if we consider Sun Ra as a folk revivalist too when it comes to the intersection of technology and tradition?
These histories lead up to our own times, in which a robust transmission of folk music culture occurs over platforms such as YouTube. Online social media sustains instrument lessons and song exchanges in ways that criss-cross the personal and the public, the intimate and the algorithmic, the handmade and the mass consumerist, through technological means. Beyond the feeds of social media, the ironies of technology and tradition thicken in other ways too. Jack White’s Voice-o-Graph Recording Booth and the 78 Project find younger folk enthusiasts recording musicians using the outmoded 78 rpm disc with renewed enthusiasm, now embracing antiquated technology itself as a form of cultural heritage. What once was technologically “disruptive” has now become the traditional itself!
Overall, in place of contemporary Silicon Valley rhetoric emphasizing “digital disruption” and the need to, as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg put it, “move fast and break things,” the history this book unearths suggests alternative configurations, both promising and problematic, of Americans seeking to bring together cutting-edge technologies with intangible cultural heritage in efforts to balance progress with the past. A recurring theme is the effort to integrate new technologies with past traditions in order to constitute an antifascist political imagination through sonic means. Folk music movement participants wanted to use machines to fight fascism. They hoped to wield technological instruments of aurality to foster a more democratic culture.
Table of contents
- Introduction: “This Machine Kills Fascists”
- The Origins of the Technological Slogan on Woody Guthrie’s Acoustic Guitar
- Chapter 1: Folksong Information Systems—Oral Culture and Print Technology
- Betrand Bronson’s Child Ballad Studies
- Olive Dame Campbell’s Appalachian Journey
- Dorothy Scarborough’s Songcatching
- Henry Edward Krehbiel’s Afro-American Folksongs
- Frances Densmore’s Native American Music Bulletins
- Carl Sandburg’s Songbag
- Chapter 2: Capturing the Folk—Recording and Transcription Techniques
- Frances Densmore’s Cylinders
- Zora Neale Hurston’s Moving Picture Camera
- Charles Seeger’s Melograph Notation Machine
- Emory Cook’s Audio Engineering, in the Lab and in the Field
- Chapter 3: Programming the Mind—Folk Music and Computers
- Alan Lomax’s Cantometrics
- Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music
- Guthrie Meade’s Fiddle-Tune Databases
- Chapter 4: Expanding the Field—Folk Music Tradition and Technology Beyond Genre
- Harry Partch’s Homemade Microtonal Instrument System
- Sun Ra’s Myth Science Afrofuturism
- Conclusion: When Technologies Becomes Traditions
- The Hipster Revival of the 78 RPM in the Age of Social Media
Related digital public history project
As a digital public history dimension of “This Machine Kills Fascists,” I am working with the Northwestern University Library to create a multimodal project around the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, which took place annually on the flagship campus of the University of California from 1958 to 1970. Overshadowed by the Newport Folk Festival, Berkeley in fact partly inspired that event with the model of combining concerts with workshops. The 30,000-plus artifacts in the Berkeley Folk Music Festival Collection will redefine the history of the US folk revival by shifting attention from the East to the West Coast during the post-World War II decades, just as California was emerging as a center of American and global history as a whole.
The Berkeley project consists of a robustly searchable digital database, a curated website narrative history of the festival, an audio podcast series inspired by artifacts in the collection, a traveling exhibition featuring the remarkable photographs of the festival (many never before seen), and a richly illustrated book that tells the history of the festival and its significance.
Related technical digital humanities research
In addition to a book manuscript and digital public history project, this folk music research includes a set of technical, specialized digital humanities experiments. These include an exploration of machine-learning sound analysis software, an investigation of image glitching for historical inquiry and image sonification for historical interpretation, and an interactive, data-rich experiment in speculative mapping with a digitized version of Humbead’s Revised Map of the World.