Folklore, Fakelore, and More Lore

is “folk” expression part of popular culture, or pop culture a kind of “folk” expression, or both? why should we care?

Alan Lomax and Jerome Weisner transcribing folk songs and documenting records in the Library of Congress, ca. late 1930s-early 1940s.

Yesterday in Digitizing Folk Music History, my students and I explored analytic categories for talking about different kinds of cultural expression. Lots of keywords emerged in our “folksonomy”: folk, roots, vernacular, tradition, heritage, popular, agitprop, oral, written, modern, premodern, mass, hegemonic, counter-hegemonic (thank you Gramsci), state-sponsored, academic, the cultural apparatus (thanks C. Wright Mills), culture industry (thanks Adorno, you folknik you), and that super-academic theoretical concept: “fluff.”

We continued to learn from Benjamin Filene’s Romancing the Folk by reading his chapter on the institutionalization of folklore, and the contestations over that institutionalization between figures such as Alan Lomax, BA Botkin, and Richard Dorson (who coined the term “fakelore”). We also turned to Lawrence Levine’s AHR Forum essay that considers the popular culture of the 1930s as the folklore of industrial society, with a response from Robin Kelley (other responses by Jackson Lears and Natalie Zemon Davis, as well as Levine’s feisty response, and are worth reading too, but I am already giving those smart kids too much to read, listen to, and watch).

As students watch one particular overview of the folk revival—the American Roots Music documentary—we spent a bit of time continuing to think about how to construct some kind of “master narrative,” even a flawed one, for the folk music revival in America. We asked: how far back does the folk revival go? How far forward? Can we track the idea of folk culture and a folk “revival” in the United States through Filene’s focus on key culture brokers—”middlemen”—who mediated the “folk” through a “recursive process”: Herder’s volk, Percy’s Reliques, Child ballads, Cecil Sharp and Olive Dame Campbell in Appalachia, Frances Densmore with Native Americans, John and Alan Lomaxes and their Model-A Ford trunk loaded up with Library of Congress recording equipment, Ralp Peer’s recording sessions, the “rediscovery” of musicians such as Mississippi John Hurt, the reinventions of Muddy Waters during his career, Dylan going electric at Newport, or the latest reuses, renegotiations, renegade appropriations, rejections of tradition, and reaffirmations of heritage? Next week, the students will tackle these difficult problems and vexing questions by constructing digital timelines. In the meantime, we start to build a set of tools for analyzing the folk revival as cultural history.

The seminar whiteboard.

(Some of) the many reinventions of McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters.

McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters, with “Son” Sims, recorded by Alan Lomax at Stovall Plantation, Mississippi, 1941-2. John C. Work Collection.


Muddy Waters, ca. 1948.


Muddy Waters, Folksinger (Chess Records), 1964.


Muddy Waters, Electric Mud (Chess Records), 1968.


Muddy Waters, Hard Again (Blue Sky), 1977.


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