Against PBS-ifying Our 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. . . .

Read more.

To Sum Up That Stuff I Said about Woody Guthrie …

[i.e., stuff I said here and here]… I turn to Bob Dylan, pithily saying much that needs to be said in the recent “Rolling Stone” interview:

My songs are personal music; they’re not communal. I wouldn’t want people singing along with me. It would sound funny. I’m not playing campfire meetings. I don’t remember anyone singing along with Elvis Presley, or Carl Perkins, or Little Richard. . . .

That is all.

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. Continue reading

Gilder-Lehrman Turns Historians into Liberaloid Fanboys

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.

This Machine Kills Fascists: Woody Guthrie, meet Radovan Karadzic


Woody Guthrie famously had a sign on his guitar reading “This Machine Kills Fascists.” The slogan neatly sums up the philosophy of the ’30’s and ’40’s American left when it comes to the relationship between folk art and progressive politics. Leaving aside, just for the moment, the support that Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and others in the folk left gave, at the behest of the American Communist Party, to the mass-murdering Stalin (and thus by extension, during the Hitler-Stalin pact, to Hitler too), their idea was that the anonymously composed, anti-commercial music of the people had the power to shake the foundations of capitalist and totalitarian hegemony.

With the labor protests in Wisconsin, I’m getting whiffs of nostalgia out there online for the agit-prop, pro-union, topical singing and songwriting of people like Guthrie, Seeger, the Almanac Singers, etc. There are some big issues here. To me, Guthrie was a kind of highly problematic genius; I love many things about his music — I got into some of the key questions in the Times a few years back. To read more about my dim view of Seeger’s music, and about how liberaloid culture has falsified history to construct Seeger as an icon, you can check out my essay on the legacies of Seeger and William F. Buckley, Jr., at Boston Review.

But anyway, regardless of how anyone feels about any of the old-left folkies’ music, Woody was just plain wrong about guitars and fascists.

Who has ever loved folk music more than fascists? Henry Ford was one such — and the same PBS-certified idea of culture that makes Seeger a saint always leaves out complications like Ford’s key contributions to folk revival in America. Radovan Karadzic has been my favorite example for years: that horrifying monster not only likes folk music, he plays it, on the traditional stringed instrument known as the gusle.

That’s not like Hitler enjoying puppy dogs, say. Kardazic’s immersion in traditional music isn’t a creepy irony. It’s part and parcel of his fascistic vision.

Which is what romantics don’t get about folk music and the oral tradition: they want it to be all about communality, sharing, and love. A real folk tradition can keep alive, generation after generation, often in secrecy, the deepest kind of violent hatreds. A roomful of people unified in song: sometimes it’s Seeger leading a bunch of nice people in L.L. Bean sweaters in “Guantanamera”; sometimes it’s a beer-hall putsch. The music doesn’t care. Anyone who wishes America’s folk had stayed more pure might want to consider that during shelling of Sarajevo, every Serb battalion had its own bard.

Rock on, Woody. But America’s best music, folk or commercial or both, has never been about union.

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“The Cuckoo”

oh the cuckoo
she’s a good bird
and she warbles
and she flies

and she never
hollers cuckoo
till the fourth day
of July

I’ve been making the somewhat unconventional move of introducing my talks on Declaration with a few verses of an old song, “The Cuckoo,” accompanying my singing (or maybe let’s call it “vocalizing”) with five-string banjo, or maybe even more accurately, accompanying my banjo-playing with some vocalizing.

Warming up the crowd? Maybe. Maybe not. The song has close British-isles antecedents (many older American songs that sound as if they have such antecedents actually don’t), and the Anglo versions I know are all fairly straightforward: “The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she sings as she flies, she brings us glad tidings, she tells us no lies,” etc. All of the American versions I know are stark and strange. With its gapped modal scale (no chords), which vibrates somewhere between archaic England and African America, the droning and scraping of the archetpyal American instrument, and the incommensurable reference to the cuckoo’s silence before starting to holler on July Fourth, the song, which I’ve been trying to sing and play almost all my life, has seemed to resonate lately with the surprising story of America’s coming into being, which I tell in the book. It’s meant to be sung by the untrained.

A note on the arrangement: Based on my ceaseless 1972-73 listening to the Holy Modal Rounders’ mid-1960’s version, on their first album (which everybody who likes this kind of thing should hear), with Peter Stampfel alone on banjo and vocal, an arrangement I think I may later have discovered was influenced by a recording in the Harry Smith anthology. I’ve added and subtracted a few banjo elements, out of my ensuing decades of clawhammer-style banjo playing in somewhat different veins, but still, the basic, repetitive motif is indebted to the 1960’s Stampfel, whose playing on that recording I’ll never come up to, in any vein; the vocal, which just because its so stark and simple seems to further challenge my already very limited approach to singing, is also inspired by his eerier approach.

I may give it another go at the NYC Upper West Side Barnes & Noble on Monday 6/14.

Der Bingle and the Lucy Poems

According to the Romantic Circles blog (not what it sounds like, but a site dedicated to scholarship on the English Romantic period), Bing Crosby’s final album is to be re-released soon, with formerly unreleased bonus material, including settings of works by well-known poets, including Wordsworth’s “Lucy Gray.” Weird, yet for some of us (or one of us?) a must-hear. Here’s the poem itself, with its direct sampling of British-isles folk ballad (and along with other Romantic and Victorian poems in this style, it had its own influence, in turn, on American country music): Continue reading

The HoundBlog and John Lee Hooker

The Hound hears more in John Lee Hooker’s best work than I do, and this has got to be right:

…he was not only one of the most famous blues singers of all time, he really was probably the most primitive artists to sell a lot of records.

Well observed, that, based on a deep history of vernacular recording. The Hound’s whole post makes me want to re-explore the (non-crap) JLH. I’m also intrigued by the Hound’s remarking casually

… the group of record collectors and fans that grew up in the eighties and nineties know all about obscure acts like Esquerita and Kid Thomas but don’t own one John Lee Hooker (or Lightnin’ Hopkins or Jimmy Reed) record.

Happy to learn that the kids (i.e., record freaks in their thirties and forties) know all about Esquerita. Startled by the current obscurity especially of Hopkins.

Boogie, chillen.

Rock and roll can never die

I’m happy to see not-especially-penetrating historical descriptions of rock and roll now casually defining it as arising in the 1940’s. (Here, for example, and here, and here.) Because that’s right.

History helps clarify. Everybody admits that Alan Freed started talking about rock and roll in ’51 — but doesn’t that sort of have to mean that, as a surging creative force, the thing was already over by then?

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, of course, says otherwise, telling the pre-chewed story we think we already know. Getting it wrong is what halls of fame are for.