The Garden In the Machine

folk music, technology & pastoralism in the usa, 1900-present, or, what the folk music revival can teach us about today’s digital age. book manuscript in progress.


Folk revivalists were fuddy-duddies. They were antiquarians. They were antimodernists. They rejected mass culture, electricity, or anything new, insisting instead upon nostalgia, sentimentalized heritage, the acoustic, the handmade, and the old. They were backward listening. Or were they? Closer study reveals that many key figures in the long folk music movement of the twentieth century were in fact keenly interested in using cutting-edge technologies to investigate, preserve, understand, and retain older musical and cultural traditions. A wide range of participants such as Woody Guthrie, Alan Lomax, Harry Smith, Zora Neale Hurston, Frances Densmore, Juan B. Rael, Charles Seeger, Emory Cook, Bertrand Bronson, Dorothy Scarborough, Helen Hartness Flanders, and Guthrie Meade sought to recover and even reimagine musical heritage and roots through technological means.

Putting technology at the center of the folk revival asks us to rethink portrayals of it as a straightforwardly retrospective or antimodernist endeavor. Instead, we might view it as an effort to reposition intangible cultural heritage within the changing dynamics of the modern world. Moreover, a technological focus cracks upon the very definition of who was a folk revivalist. Suddenly Afrofuturists such as Sun Ra might be understood as folk revivalists and supposedly eccentric “classical” composers such as Harry Partch or Pauline Oliveros have something to teach us about using technology to combine the old with the new.

These figures, both the expected names and the surprising ones, embraced technologies ranging from the printed book to audio recording equipment to film cameras to strange new machines such as the melograph, a Richter scale-like device for notating non-European music, to handmade microtonal instruments to digital computers. In doing so they flipped Leo Marx’s famous phrase about American pastoral ideals, the “machine in the garden,” instead striving to locate what we might call a garden in the machine. Their explorations of technology help us understand the history of the folk music revival more deeply as a movement concerned with systematizing stubbornly idiosyncratic and varied vernacular lifeways. They also remind us that behind the current ideology of “disruption” in today’s digital culture lies a deeper history of Americans using forms such as folk music not to erase earlier modes of living, but rather to try to balance progress with the past, technology with tradition. Finally, their stories keep in view the stakes of both technology and heritage for imagining and inhabiting a truly democratic culture.

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 reputedly borrowed it from industrial union workers who were putting it on lathes they used to make materiel bound for the Allied fight in World War II Europe. Guthrie appropriated it to articulate his own version of a folk music politics. The sly humor of his playful yet serious sloganeering raised the question of whether an acoustic guitar was a machine. How might this instrument—and the traditional music and culture of heritage and roots it represented—relate to the modern world of technology and ocean-spanning warfare against totalitarianism?

Guthrie’s slogan forms part of a larger but lost history of how participants in the folk revival harnessed technology to examine tradition in service of a hoped-for democratic politics. In the early decades of the twentieth century, intense debates about how to capture oral folk cultures in print broke out. Literary scholar Bertrand Bronson’s studies of Francis James Child’s English and Scottish ballad collecting, Olive Dame Campbell’s journey to Appalachia alongside Cecil Sharp, Dorothy Scarborough’s approaches to songcatching, music critic Henry Edward Krehbiel’s interest in African-American folksongs, W.E.B. Du Bois’s use of what he called “sorrow songs,” Frances Densmore’s Native American Music Bulletins, and Carl Sandburg’s Songbag help us notice how the challenge of transforming orality into printed compendiums marked a shift to treating cultural heritage as information and data to organize, codify, and correlate.

Recording and transcription techniques offered new ways of imagining culture as data, heritage as information systems. 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. Zora Neale Hurston made pioneering use of yet another fairly new technology—the film camera—for ethnography in the 1930s and 40s and the use of film remains an understudied aspect of her rich career as a modernist folklorist and artist. Charles Seeger, father of Pete and Mike Seeger and an important musicologist in his own right, spent decades tinkering with a “melograph” machine, a sort of seismograph that could electronically register and print to paper non-Western musical sounds without using Western classical notation.

Less well-known audio engineers, ethnographers, and folklorists also remind us of the varied and often vexing tensions between the technological “capturing” of folk music and its capacities as data and information. Emory Cook, an audio engineer, moved between ideas for sound recording and his work with calypso music in the Caribbean. Juan B. Rael recorded music in the Hispanic communities of the Southwest Borderlands that tried to register syncretism in sound. Helen Hartness Flanders recorded New England music over a long career that shifted from white supremacist assumptions to a more diverse imagining of American cultural heritage.

By the decades after World War II, folklorists turned to the new technologies of computation to study folk music as well as to a computational imagining of cultural heritage. 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, this became his “cantometrics” project. By the early 1960s, Lomax was using punchcards and mainframe computers for cross-cultural, international musical and social comparisons. This culminated in his Association for Cultural Equity and multimedia Global Jukebox soundmap of statistically correlated musical cultures from around the world. The more eccentric artist Harry Smith turned his own idiosyncratic ideas about computation into the Folkways 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. Meanwhile, British ballad expert Bronson, who had rented an apartment to none other than Harry Smith while the latter was putting together his Anthology, himself shifted from writing books to his own computational study of balladry. Years later, computational folk music projects continued in efforts such as Guthrie Meade’s fiddle-tune databases.

These figures were squarely within the folk music revival conventionally understood. Others who are not typically associated with folk music add new dimensions to the story. 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. Eccentric composer Harry Partch built his own homemade microtonal instruments and imagined an idiosyncratic musical system, challenging musical and cultural boundaries between high and low art. Composer Pauline Oliveros combined electronic tape delay with computers and her life-long interest in the accordion to develop ideals of environmentally aware and potentially revolutionary modes of “deep listening.” What if we consider Sun Ra, Harry Partch, and Pauline Oliveros as folk revivalists too when it comes to the intersection of technology and tradition? Focusing on technology allows us to move beyond superficial genre distinctions and hear deeper engagements with how to think about culture as data and link heritage to progress.

The histories of these varied figures, with all their flaws and breakthrough ideas, lead up to our own times. On YouTube and other forms of social media, instrument lessons and song exchanges have never been more vibrant as they use technology to criss-cross between the personal and the public, the intimate and the algorithmic, the handmade and the mass consumerist. Beyond the feeds and posts of the online world, 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. These younger folk revivalists now embrace once cutting edge, now-antiquated technology itself as a form of cultural heritage. What once was technologically “disruptive” has now become the traditional itself.

Why does it matter?

In place of contemporary Silicon Valley rhetoric emphasizing “digital disruption” and the supposed 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 slow down and preserve things. They wanted to find a balance between progress and the past. In particular, a recurring theme in the folk revival’s turn to technology is the effort to integrate them with older traditions in order to constitute an antifascist political imagination through sonic means. In America, there were folk music movement participants who wanted to use machines to fight fascism, broadly conceived. They began, somewhat paradoxically, to consider aurality as data and information to do so and they wielded technological instruments of print, transcription, and computation in hopes of transmuting intangible forms of heritage into forces for democratic culture.

Table of contents

  • Introduction: “This Machine Kills Fascists”
    • The Origins and Implications of the Technological Slogan on Woody Guthrie’s Acoustic Guitar
  • Chapter 1: Folksong Information Systems—Oral Culture and Print Technology
    • Bertrand Bronson’s Child Ballad Studies
    • Olive Dame Campbell’s Appalachian Journey
    • Dorothy Scarborough’s Songcatching
    • Henry Edward Krehbiel’s Afro-American Folksongs
    • W.E.B. Du Bois’s Sorrow Songs
    • Frances Densmore’s Native American Music Bulletins
    • Carl Sandburg’s Songbag
  • Chapter 2: Capturing the Folk—Recording and Transcription Techniques
    • Frances Densmore’s Wax Cylinders
    • Zora Neale Hurston’s Moving Picture Camera
    • Charles Seeger’s Melograph Notation Machine
    • Juan B. Rael’s Borderlands Sounds
    • Helen Hartness Flanders’ New England Ghosts
    • Emory Cook’s Audio Engineering
  • Chapter 3: Programming the Mind—Folk Music and Computers
    • Bertrand Bronson’s Child Ballad Computations
    • Harry Smith’s Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music
    • Alan Lomax’s Cantometrics
    • Guthrie Meade’s Fiddle-Tune Databases
  • Chapter 4: Expanding the Field—Folk Music Tradition and Technology Beyond Genre
    • Sun Ra’s Myth Science Afrofuturism
    • Harry Partch’s Homemade Microtonal Instrument System
    • Pauline Oliveros’ Accordion and Deep Listening
  • Conclusion: When Technologies Becomes Traditions
    • The Hipster Revival of the 78 RPM in the Age of Social Media