Digitizing Folk Music History: Class Notes 3/31 (Why, Why, Why?)

Finishing up an overview:

-Why the folk revival?

  • Because it marks a crucial moment in the American past when vernacular culture and mass culture, or what we might call the culture industry, collided.
  • Because it gives us a window into the ways that everyday lives, art, and power (political or otherwise) collided in the decades after World War II.
  • Because it helps us understand certain ghosts that remain with us: youth culture of the postwar decades, the intersection of culture and politics around popular forms of music (or what rock critic Robert Christgau calls “semi-popular” music), the nature of community and individualism in postwar America, and the long-running social, even religious, legacies (it is a revival after all) of accepted, and challenged, norms in the US.

-Why the Berkeley Folk Festival?

  • It’s at Northwestern, but much more than that.
  • Probably the first major festival of the postwar years.
  • The importance of California as the new epicenter of American life after World War II: defense industry (By 1945, 1/2 of personal income in CA came from Fed Govt), Hollywood, population movement, popular imagination of the Golden state, paradise, the new (and a forgetting of the old? Or not?).
  • The importance of Berkeley, Cal the crown jewel of perhaps the best public higher education system ever, a center of bohemianism as well as of Cold War research culture and power.
  • San Francisco Bay Area a strong labor culture, even Communist Party, a strong liberal politics, undercut by conservative traditions. And a strong bohemian culture.
  • Different ethnic makeup of Bay Area: much higher Latino population, Asian population, connections to Pacific Rim and Mexico and trans-Pacific ocean culture.
  • The philosophical thrust of the festival, concerned with building community and powerful shared experience through music.

BFMF Poster 1968

-Why digital history?

  • Raises many issues about how we “do” history that lurked in the folk revival itself:
  • the collision of technology and tradition
  • the relationship of audience and performer
  • the question of change and continuity in a new medium that draws upon age-old methodologies of historical inquiry
  • the issue of copyright, intellectual property, as compared to public ownership of culture
  • learning and community
  • the official meets the vernacular or casual: constraints and freedoms
  • Digital history as a new way to create interpretation out of evidence using new kinds of tools, interactivity, design, etc.


-Vernacular vs. Commercial: Rock n roll vs. folk?

-Is a musical genre looking toward the past or the future, roots or branches?

-Appropriation, intellectual property, where economics (capitalism especially) meets culture

-The politics of culture

-Romantic nationalism

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