Digitizing Folk Music History: Class Notes 4/5 (Folk vs. Roots)

The continued unfolding of Digitizing Folk Music History. Today we explored the shift from discussing “folk” music to “roots” music as we read Ron Cohen’s book, Folk Music: The Basics, and watch the documentary series, American Roots Music. What an amazing group of students. Wow!

Ron Cohen Folk Music The Basics

Great discussion today about these different categories we are applying to music: folk and roots. Keep thinking, keep feeling, keep trying to recognize and articulate your responses!

I refer you to these earlier posts, which you might find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with now:

  • Bob Dylan on folk music, 1966
  • Louis Armstrong on folk music, date unknown

Here were my notes for today’s conversation, which touch on a number of the topics we discussed, though not all. Thanks for your (Cecil) sharp ideas today!


Folk vs. Roots Music: what’s the diff?

1)    Who are the folk? Do the folk think they are the folk?

a.     Same as “the people”?

b.    Everyone? Class, race, gender, region, other factors?

c.     Who gets to name the boundaries and the qualities of “folk”—or “roots” for that matter?

2)    What are the politics of this? Conservatism but also radical, how do we get from White Top Festival, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, conservative festivals of the early 20th century to later, more liberal or even radical politically-tinged festivals: Newport, Berkeley, etc.?!

a.     David Whisnant shows how the early folk festivals started out as reactionary events designed to identify and celebrate an Anglo-American “pure” folk culture…White Top Festival. See All That Is Native and Fine.

b.    Sarah Gertrude Knott’s National Folk Festival, St. Louis 1934, pluralist, liberal

c.     People’s Song Lomax-produced concerts at Carnegie Hall, the “Popular Front”

d.    How did we get to Berkeley Folk Festival, which we associate with 60s upswell of radicalism!?

e.     Reactionary/Conservative uses of tradition vs. “progressive” uses of tradition

3)    Where is the folk music?

a.     Migrations, Diasporas, Movement of populations in 20th century: contact zones of culture.

b.    Economic: industrialization, urbanization

c.     Great Migration of Southern African-Americans north and west

d.    Also a large migration of rural Southern European-Americans north and west

e.     The creation of “downhome,” role of nostalgia

f.      What’s the role of technology in all of this?

i.     Recordings and radio, soon after television, who is using these, for what purposes?

4)    Modernity, pro and anti through music and culture.

5)    Sacred vs. Secular (or even sinful?) Music

6)    High art vs. Low art?

7)    How do institutions intersect with vernacular culture? Recording companies, governmental agencies, academics, songcatchers, industrial organizations, religious institutions, community organizations?

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