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”).
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.]