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. . . .
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. Continue reading
There’s an interesting but to me somewhat misconceived piece in yesterday’s Times about Woody Guthrie’s legacy. It’s true, as the writer begins by saying, and it’s worth pointing out any time, that when American intensity like Guthrie’s gets absorbed and glorified in certified culture — PBS pledge drives, postage stamps — all the “honoring” is really a cannibalizing destruction.
The only fix for that is to turn all that crap off and listen to the original work again. Which, with the “hundredth year” hoopla, I’ve been doing lately. And I always have thoughts on Woody, first and last, ever since I first took the scratched-up “Dust Bowl Ballads” LP out of the library in about 1972. I recently received the new, superb Smithsonian centenary collection as a birthday gift; I’ve been pondering its curators’ choices too.
And when I listen now, and when I have listened over these many years, I always find in the legacy of Guthrie’s protest — which the Times writer complains is too weak today — yet another pollution of Guthrie’s original art and of his original protest, if protest is what to call it.
Many of Guthrie’s anti-establishment songs really are great. Some really are not. But there’s no “legacy” in the kind of greatness that the great songs have. You can’t cop the content or the attitude and then make it your own, unless you’re another genius overly influenced by Guthrie; nobody but one person was ever that, and he outgrew the agit-prop mode, and outgrew imitation, a long time ago.
The beauty of Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” for example, has been sucked out of it by the protest people’s histrionic, crowd-pumping arranging. Here’s an admittedly extreme example, from Peter, Paul & Mary, of the revolting mode in which people have every reason to think the song naturally exists: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUnvjYH9wK4.
You could say that’s the PBS-fund-drive version. And it is. But I think the style — though grotesquely in overdrive here — comes straight out of the rallying singalongs in which the song got framed up, to make it another “If I Had a Hammer,” in the 1950’s and ’60’s (and fed that way to some of us in school).
That is: the PBS mode is the protest mode. If you like that kind of thing, OK. For me, what feels like an injection of a certain falsely thrilling, overdetermined emotion robs the song of every bit of meaning.
To see what I mean, just return to one of Woody’s own renditions of the song. Continue reading
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.