Today, in the twenty-first century, musicians and scholars struggle just as much with how to define the abstract umbrella term that is “folk music” as they did at the beginning of the twentieth century when the importance and recognition of such music started to become accepted in the US. Even more difficult is recognizing what folk music counts as “authentic” within its respective context, a difficulty extending well beyond folk music but into any category of music with enough history behind it, such as early Renaissance music, jazz, and these days even hip-hop.
Such a conversation was even had here at St. Olaf during the 1960’s, a time when folk music rose into the popular sphere and was embraced by a wide variety of musicians and listeners. An article published in the campus newspaper The Manitou Messenger on February 15, 1963, entitled “Whatever folks are singing…that’s what makes it folk music” after a Pete Seeger quote, discusses this popularization of folk music and the various ways of defining it, as well as the conversations had on campus about the authenticity of various folk musicians. It specifically mentions student Jan Clausen’s KSTO radio program in which she played what she defined as “authentic” folk music, a word which, according to the article, “represents an argument which has arisen with the commercial popularity of folk singers.” Some of the artists that Jan would play, artists whom she defined at authentic folk musicians, included people like Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, and Erik Darling.
The inclusion of these particular artists leaves interesting questions about what this woman in particular defined as “authentic” in respect to folk music. Lead Belly, the nickname of Huddie Ledbetter, was a black blues and folk guitarist and singer from the early twentieth singer from Louisiana who was recorded by the Lomaxes for their Library of Congress archive recordings, and influenced later popular folk artists like Bob Dylan. Lead Belly’s race and place of birth point toward what many would consider “authentic” folk as the image of folk is often associated with minorities from more rural areas who generally have little access to the more commercial or “art” music worlds at the time. Next, we look at Pete Seeger, a white folk musician of urban origin with almost no connection by birthright to any sort of folk tradition. However, he did in fact mentor under the prominent folk music revival figure Woody Guthrie. Oral tradition is a key aspect of folk music, and such a musical mentorship almost certainly entailed passing down music orally. Pete Seeger was also part of the movement of urban folk musicians that strongly opposed commercial music and sang of political themes focused on “the people.” So perhaps Jan’s definition of authentic folk music is more complex than solely based on race or origin or tradition, but instead takes these into account as well as intention, musical philosophy, and legacy.
Below are recordings off of Lead Belly’s Lead Belly’s Last Sessions and Pete Seeger’s self titled album, both of which are available on vinyl in the music library.
Hare, Steve and Jan Newbury. “Whatever folks are singing…that’s what makes it folk music.” The Manitou Messenger. 15 Feb 1963: 6. East View. Web. 30 October 2017.