What Is Folk Music, Anyway?

One of the themes that has led me to work on a history of the US folk music revival within a digital humanities framework is that it allows for a heightened sense of what it means to criss-cross the line between the handmade and the machine-made. Considering folk music history using digital tools and settings puts us in what Joel Dinerstein describes as a “technodialogical” mode. So, in the first meeting of Digitizing Folk Music History, an upper-level research seminar I teach in the History Department at Northwestern, I ask students to draw on paper a sketch in response to the question, “What Is Folk Music, Anyway?” Then we digitally scan these sketches and upload them to our collective WordPress blog.

This movement from the handmade (though written with mass-produced writing instruments on commercially-made printer paper!) quickly becomes a chance to think about mediation, about different kinds of technologies, about historical analysis as it relates to contemporary perceptions, and about the relationships among forms of thinking that stretch from the vernacular and immediate to the dematerialized and recontextualized (in the process, of course, troubling the waters of how we organize our understandings of these terms). What does it mean to move between the handmade to the mass-mediated, particularly when it comes to music, and what can a closer look and listen to the US folk music revival teach us about long-running issues of culture, labor, structure, agency, and technology in America and the world?

Below are the sketches students made. They will revisit these during the last week of class after immersing themselves both in the history of the US folk music revival and new methods of digital historical inquiry to see what has remained the same for them and what has changed. Following the sketches, a photograph of the board from the first day of class, on which we collectively wrote down keywords and themes that arose in making the sketches and discussing them in class. Face-to-face interaction complements technological interaction here (no distant-learning MOOC this). You can see the students already complicating their initial impressions of folk music as they begin to contemplate their sketches (we put each one up on the classroom screen using a document projector). From pictures of flowers, mountains, acoustic guitars, banjos, fiddles, and the like (all perfectly valid!), we start to delve into more robust concepts: genre, commerce, urban and rural settings, authenticity, technology, identity (race, class, gender, ethnicity, regionality), space and temporality, politics, and more.

At the end of this post, a few final reflections by me on generational experiences and changing perceptions of the folk music revival.

Student sketches:

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The board, “What Is Folk Music, Anyway?,” 9 January 2014:

BFMF Class 1 Board 1

What I was struck by in our discussion was just how much the folk revival of the early 1960s has melded into rock music, Woodstock, hippies, singer-songwriter associations of the late 1960s and 1970s. Does this have something to do with the age of my students’ parents, few of whom are of the late 50s/early 60s generation and far more of whom came into adolescence and adulthood in the 1970s? I wonder. A few students have gotten a taste of the current roots music revival, whether through more commercially-successful bands such as the Avett Brothers or Mumford and Sons or through deeper engagement with local revival scenes and communities. And a number have gotten more curious about the folk revival due to the recent Coen Brothers’ film, Inside Llewyn Davis. All of which is quite different from my own inter-generational experience of the folk revival: my parents were born in the 1940s while I would guess most of my students’ parents were born in the 1960s.

This makes for quite a different context for considering the folk revival, particularly its apex in the early 1960s. So one task in this seminar is for my students and I to grapple with the shifting sands of generational relationships to American popular and vernacular music, to go further back into the folk revival past to the 1930s (and earlier), and to track it out into recent decades more accurately. We must shake up dominant assumptions, periodizations, and understandings of US folk music born from earlier generational and inter-generational confrontations with the legacy of “the sixties.” Rather than position folk music out of time as “traditional” music, we must join the effort to contextualize the very construction of traditions. Given the forward-march of time from which we must now look at and listen to folk music’s past, receding and fading into history yet also, through sound, leaping into our contemporary experiences with startling immediacy and currency, we need to keep trying on fresh perspectives and conceptual positions. Which is to say that we must enter into the process (folk process? historical process?) of continually re-historicizing the revival even as we re-revive it for scrutiny and study.

For more on the Winter 2014 installment of Digitizing Folk Music History, click here.

For past posts on Digitizing Folk Music History seminar, click here.

For more on the Digital Berkeley Folk Music Festival project, click here.

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