Woody Guthrie and the Role of Aesthetics in a Radical Critique of Radicalism

WOO HOO! I could almost be a Ph.D. candidate with that title (or: “Queering the Folk”). I’m promoting a comment and response from my last post to a post of its own, because the comment helped me — as many comments do — develop my understanding of what I’m trying to say:

The comment, from Arevalo:
Good blogging, although I’m not sure vocal quality (or aesthetics) have a direct bearing on the “protest” value of a given song, by Woody Guthrie or anyone of his acolytes. I also think that there is a correlation between “lite-political”, that is, revolution and protest as quaint cultural artifacts from the 60s, and their eventual incorporation into the national mythology.

Ultimately, the failures of social movements are not because Woody or Pete sang them, with or without their “fellow travellers”, or with dry or melifluous voices, but because the struggle was defused by Capitalism (see the recent NYTimes article about Oakland’s “radicalism”).

My response:
Thanks. No, I was by no means saying a social movement failed because of how things were sung and who did the singing. I was saying that under certain, to me, bogus circumstances, the music can fail — for me — as anything: music, poetry, protest, whatever.

Although now the idea is starting to intrigue me, as I think about it here. Yes: I do think the “aesthetics,” in this case, reflect something deeper and more important politically than whether some music might be liked or disliked.

I should say I do understand that being bummed by the mere aesthetics of, say, the new basketball stadium in Brooklyn can be a distraction from the far more important issue of the financial corruption of government that brought that project into existence (which the Times, e.g. would barely report on). There’s a hipster-liberal, soft-left way in which bitching about the loss of some supposedly groovy aesthetic only looks away from key civic and economic issues that affect people’s lives on far more profound levels than that.

But when radical politics get into matters typically subject to “aesthetics” — i.e., music — and when Guthrie himself often set such amazing standards for what might be called “the good” in that area, then ignoring the political role of aesthetics looks to me like a cop-out, a way of being hard left without having to engage in a critique that might yield conclusions more complex than the idea that failures are ultimately always down to the struggle’s being defused by capitalism.

The folk left themselves didn’t think of the musical style as separable from the politics. They thought music was a machine that killed fascists. That’s worth criticizing politically.

So maybe what I find — and I know I’m not in a majority here! — kind of bogus about Joan Baez’s too-fervent singing *does* reflect what I’d consider some deeper structural failure in the movement’s ways of constructing and framing its political and economic critique, and its action. Because it’s just a flat-out fact — to me, I mean — that when Pete, Woody, et al were taking dictation from The Daily Worker in support of Stalin’s pact with Hitler, they were 100% full of shit. We can easily see how “bad” — i.e., both politically and aesthetically inauthentic — that music was: the same mode readily lent itself to pro-USA jingoism (stuff that makes wartime radio pop look deep) as soon as the Soviet and CP party line changed. (And Seeger lionizers have lied ever since about that, suggesting the Almanacs change their position when Pearl Harbor was hit, not when Hitler invaded Russia.) So it doesn’t matter to me how much they redirected that mood to other causes or how fully it got absorbed in certified bourgeois nonprofit culture: the mode I’m criticizing comes from an inauthenticity that is at once political *and* aesthetic.

The aesthetic mode that I deride in the typical “protest” song arises, that is, straight out of a delusion, which Woody, because he was an artist of a higher order (ouch! elitism!), was often *not* involved in as songwriter and singer — no matter what he sometimes may have said. Woody’s difference from all that is precisely what makes “Vigilante Man” and his own renditions of “This Land” and “Do Re Mi” and so many others so great both as protest and as song.

So no: my critique was not just an aesthetic one after all! And maybe social movements *have* failed because of internal weaknesses revealed in bad music.

[UPDATE: The two other comments on the original post also helped gather my thoughts, though more briefly.]

12 thoughts on “Woody Guthrie and the Role of Aesthetics in a Radical Critique of Radicalism

  1. It seems the distinction to be made here is between art and propaganda, which is a subset of all modern entertainment.

    The function of art (as a process not as a commodity) is to provoke in the observer a new way of observing -and then thinking- which has disrupted conventional patterns and habits. The function of propaganda is to enlist participation in some kind of conformity or common purpose.

    Clearly, Woody was sometimes artist, sometimes propagandist. Ok. Pete is without doubt a very fine propagandist. I say this with no derision.

    As a historian, you do not like propagandists. That makes sense. But propagandists have their role, whether we like them or not.

    Your objections seem to be focused on white, privileged purveyors of the ‘folk revival. (A revival, BTW, always refers to ‘an other’. It does not claim to be an original). I’d like to see your criticism of Robeson or even Odetta. Never mind Paul Revere and the Raiders. :-)

    • When it comes to those non-white yet not in every way unprivileged purveyors of folk revival, I like Odetta; never been a big fan of that “trained” sound in Robeson’s approach. (And I think somebody should write a thesis on the anti-British-invasion signifying in Paul Revere and the Raiders!) More on all this, including both Lead Belly and the Jackson 5, here: http://hogelandpublishing.wordpress.com/2012/07/07/coons-freaks-hillwilliams-200-years-of-roots-rock-revival-a-memoir/

      • I thought your ‘coons & freaks’ piece was excellent. I made a lot of referrals to it.

        But oh oh on Robeson; “I’m not a fan of that ‘trained’ sound.'” Lots of warning flags there, my friend. You should investigate where that comes from. Like with the Jacksons (perhaps) you’re rejecting a particular style as ‘inappropriate’. As Jayne Cortez said of Robeson “it is not the style of my choice, but what has style got to do with commitment?”

        Robeson was a giant of a man, and #1 cultural enemy of the American state for a good while. You should examine how he fits in your left cultural narrative. I do not see how he can be ignored.

        And what about Mimi Farinia? Another poser?

      • 1. I never called or will call anyone a poser in this context. 2. I said I’m not a fan of that Robeson sound — not that it’s “inappropriate.” 3. For the purposes of this discussion, I don’t care what status as a radical and enemy of the state or what level of commitment — or what degree of gianthood — a Robeson or anyone else is said to enjoy. 4. Why drag Mimi Farina into this?! 5. I’m happy to say I don’t have a “left cultural narrative.”

      • It is so easy to come to misunderstandings in this medium. Let me say again how much I enjoy seeing new posts from you in my reader. So to make an observation, however accurate or inaccurate it may be on my part, about your critique is not meant as an attack or dismissal.

        Your title is one of a “radical critique of radicalism.” If it is intended to be merely an exposition on your personal taste in music, or your opinions about a select group of individual artists, then nothing more need be said about it. A personal preference is a personal preference. But it seems to be more than that. It seems to be an essay on the role of aesthetics in a radical critique of radicalism.

        As such, it appears to me to have a rather clear narrative: that Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Joan Baez and others prominent in the folk revival movement, particularly the Greenwich Village scene, were appropriators of music by ‘authentic’ artists for purposes of political propaganda. I do not disagree with that, but I also cannot wholly condemn them, considering the political environment of the time. ‘Poser’ was my word, not yours, but it rather sums up what seems to be your longer description of them.

        If one is making a critique of radicalism of the era, the person of Paul Robeson cannot be ignored, especially on the grounds of style. That Robeson created such a vicious reaction in racist society and the highest level of state power should evidence enough of his importance in the discussion. An examination of his work might add something to your argument. Or not. But he cannot be ignored when discussing the political music of the era.

        Why bring in Mimi Farinia? Because as the sister of Joan Baez, the brief wife of the very talented propagandist Richard Farinia, and a person who has spent the majority of her life under the radar promoting non-commercial ‘natural’ music making, she may be an example of someone using – employing – a kind of music for social purposes other than commerce.

        So as with every artist and every piece of work, one must ask ‘what is the intent’? Each artifact must be judged, and the artist as a whole, must be judged by their success or failure to achieve their intent. We might have this discussion about the work of Allen Ginsburg too, and it might develop along similar lines.

        My intent is not to argue or to rack up blog space. If I did not appreciate your work, I wouldn’t bother.

      • OK: I appreciate both your points and your interest in my stuff. I just think there are about a billion assumptions underlying so many of your characterizations (my “left cultural narrative,” my supposed view of Robeson as “inappropriate,” etc.), that I had to dissent as firmly as possible.

        Since I feel perpetually misunderstood on these matters.

        Here’s the misunderstanding. You see me as engaging in “…a rather clear narrative: that Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Joan Baez and others prominent in the folk revival movement, particularly the Greenwich Village scene, were appropriators of music by ‘authentic’ artists for purposes of political propaganda.”

        No — it’s my sense that the Seegers Weavers, Baezes, etc., all *themselves* imagined and constructed an idea of folk authenticity, which did not exist in the actual (I don’t say “authentic”) folk, and that they connected it to a political dissent from capitalist aesthetics (i.e., a purist disdain for pop). And that the whole ethos seems “inauthentic” (to me!) in whole other senses than the purist, anti-commercial “folk” one: politically inauthentic, artistically inauthentic. I.e., both the thinking and the art are fatally weak.

        Whereas in commercial pop — which most of what we call “folk” music really was anyway — some of the thought and art are weak and some are not; that kind of weakness isn’t necessary to the form the way it seems to me to be in protest folk.

        But I feel no need to make a full-scale critique of the radicalism of the era, like a survey, in which I have to talk about Paul Robeson! If you like PR, great. If I looked into him, from this pov, I’d probably find things to criticize there too … or why bother … but whatever … like everyone else, I’d rather listen to what I like to listen to. I only get into all this because of what feel to me like the folk-left’s all-too-successful efforts to ruin music by turning it into propaganda, and, for example, constructing Guthrie’s music in a context that disastrously reduces what it *does* have to offer, both artistically and politically. I see the fatal influence of that folk-left effort everywhere I look.

        And OK, since Mimi keeps coming up! and for what it’s worth, I have an abiding fondness for those Richard and Mimi Farina albums, and I think they hold up nicely, both as period pieces and as good stuff to listen to any time. … But I fear that’s got nothing to do with what you’re talking about!

        Thanks again.

  2. Firstly, I should say up front that I think it impossible to separate the aesthetic from the “substance” of a statement and that trying to do so is a common error. I think Americans tend to do this, but I suspect that other cultures don’t — they get that the framework is part of the message. We often dismiss the connection there and I think that’s wrong. Woody specifically chose his M.O. — he countrified his act on purpose. Will Rogers did the same thing. Their success at that was tied to the success of their message and the quality of their art. They were getting at a truth there — and one that fit them. I love Tom Morello when he plays with Rage Against the Machine but not as the Nightwatchman. He is not a singer and the latter role relies on that. It isn’t good art and so it fails as protest too, because I simply can’t sit through it (nor can many others). I think Morello tries to falsely channel his love of Woody there but it’s inauthentic in that they are different persons and the styles not compatible even though their messages are. So, being “good art” is part of being a successful protest. Hence, conservatives are always trying to rework Springsteen’s Born in the USA. It’s good art and hard to resist, so they try to make it their own (which fails because it is also good protesting!). Anyway, what I’m rambling at here is that good art is part of good protest and aesthetics is not some window-dressing to be separated out.

    I think you’ve also stumbled onto a class issue. Woody came from poor people and that gave authenticity to his chosen delivery — and made it effective to a broad audience. Part of the difficulty stems from middle-class fans embracing his music. They try to identify themselves in it but there is a class divide there, even if they are blind to it. These protesters are trying to be, as John Lennon put it, “clever and classless and free” but they kid themselves with their enlightened hipsterism. This is not to say that they can’t truly understand Woody’s work — only that there is a divide between appreciation and making it your own. This is often a problem in covering songs generally….I think I descend into curmudgeonly ranting now. lol

  3. I think Woody Guthrie was more in the folk song as protest/lyrical content more important/anti-commidification camp than than the folk song as art/aesthetic/folk song commercialization camp. As he wrote in a 1946 letter:
    In a July 15, 1946 letter, Woody Guthrie wrote the following:

    “I think that I have proved that a folk singer, to sing best what the people have thought and are thinking, is forced to turn his back on the bids of Broadway and Hollywood to buy him and his talents out. I feel like my work in this field will someday be seen as the most radical, the most militant, and the most topical of them all…

    “Every folk song that I know tells how to fix some things in this world to make it better, tells what is wrong with it, and what we’ve got to do to fix it better. If the song does not do this, then, it is no more of a folk song than I am a movie scout…

    “When you ask yourself which of the so-called folk singers live up to the real name, you can cross lots of their names entirely off of your list…Ask yourself, does the singer, (artist or poet), take part in the fight to win a better world for the worker? There is only one big fight with a million and one legs to it, the fight of the worker to win his fair share from his owner (boss, etc.). The more the owners allow a singer to be heard around, the less he can sing the tale of the worker’s fight. Before your voice can be heard or your face fotographed, you must actually turn into a weapon of the owner against the workers. I know from a hundred cases of my own experience that any work of protest, fight, militance or plan for the worker, was blue penciled, and censored a dozen times. Any word that was too true, too strong, or too loud in criticizing the world owned by the big boss was scratched out by several hands under a thousand reasons.”

    • Whatever Guthrie wanted to say, whenever he wanted to say it, is A-OK with me. What *I’m* saying is that the legacy of the thinking expressed in that quote has led to a lot of of ineffectual protest and bad music.

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