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Posts Tagged ‘American roots music’

Here’s a (relatively) brief old essay from the online UCLA musicology magazine “Echo” explaining why I’m against what perfectly well-meaning people, I suppose, keep doing to what is now called American roots music:

Because it represents yet another expression of the folk revival’s successful progress from festivity to officialdom, [the PBS show] “American Roots Music” ends up squandering a wealth of amazingly fresh archival material on what turns out to be an eerily tuneless paean to its own makers, funders, and mentors. Nothing could be more boring, but there is an infuriating irony involved too, with ramifications for current and future manifestations of folk revival. In a breathless Procrustean lather, “American Roots Music” permits itself repeated bouts of disingenuousness, as it lops off vital elements and stretches others painfully thin. The curators on whom we rely to present this music in popular and accessible form seem so preoccupied with enshrining what they consider authentic, and eradicating what they don’t, that they have removed all conflict and personality—all life, really—from this vision of the music they are supposed to be committed to preserving. . . .

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And regarding American vernacular music, there’s a treasure trove of foregone conclusions, overdetermined consensus, thuddingly obvious truisms, and outright falsehoods at the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s The Music and History of Our Times, which the Institute promotes as an online resource for teaching history in a relevant manner — American history, that is, which all of GLI’s efforts ceaselessly imply is the apogee of all history.

What ever happened to teaching against the text? Or, in this case, against the album cover, against the presskit, the songbook, the fanzine, the Hall of Fame? Problems with the GLI approach to roots-and-pop Americana may may be glimpsed in this unfortunate passage from the lede to the overview:

Popular music is the soundtrack to much of our history. When Revolutionary War soldiers went off to war, they did so to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.” Abolitionist songs, sung by groups like the Hutchinson Family Singers, brought the anti-slavery message to hundreds if not thousands. As Americans faced each other in battle, the army in blue took heart from the strains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” while soldiers in grey rallied to “Dixie.” Nineteenth-century men courted their sweethearts to the tunes of Stephen A. Foster, while slaves in the cotton fields found solace in spirituals . . .

Mere banality leads — surely unintentionally but nearly inexorably — to a horrible rhetorical gaffe in the last sentence I quoted: “Nineteenth-century men courted their sweethearts to the tunes of Stephen A. Foster, while slaves in the cotton fields found solace in spirituals.” The author doesn’t mean to contrast “slaves” with “men,” but she does, and ironically it’s thanks to her effort to conjure, ever so gracefully, a kind of all-embracing consensus in musical Americana — to presume, say, that spirituals gave solace, and to quick-define slave music in the Negro Spiritual — that she goes so badly head over heels. The way of thinking, and thus of writing (and/or the way of writing and thus of thinking), leads to meaninglessness.

Leave our crazy, beautiful, scary, mean-ass, sad, hucksterish, stomping music alone, GLI (and all the tamed academics you support)!

Here’s my grimmer view of roots music, including Foster and those slaves.

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