Folk Music and Square Dancing: Expression of Rural Whiteness

In 1939, John Lomax and his wife Ruby Terrill Lomax set out on an adventure into the homes and communities of the American South to collect folk music. Their trip documented music that had developed in the American South and stood as a symbol of southern rural white culture. Their collection of recordings includes the American classic “Turkey in the Straw” performed by Elmo Newcomer and his son Theo Newcomer, available below. 1The song represents the simplicity of the “down home” feeling represented in folk music.

Like much folk and country music, “Turkey in the Straw” features both the banjo and the fiddle. Although folk and country music are often considered white genres , the presence of the banjo indicates the influence of the African American community, as the banjo has African origins.2 In addition to standing as a representative of traditional Southern music, the song features the duple meter and 16-bar units popular to bluegrass music These features indicate how this song and others like it influenced later Southern and Appalachian Mountain music.

“Members of the Bog Trotters Band, posed holding their instruments, Galax, Va. Back row: Uncle Alex Dunford, fiddle; Fields Ward, guitar; Wade Ward, banjo. Front row: Crockett Ward, fiddle; Doc Davis, autoharp” in Lomax Collection (Galax, Virginia: 1937 )http://www.loc. gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660127/ (accessed February 25, 2018).

“Bent Creek Ranch Square Dance Team dancing at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina” in Lomax Collection (Asheville, North Carolina: 1938-1950) http://www.loc.gov/pictures/ colle ction/lomax/item/2007660059/ (accessed February 26, 2018).

This recording, performed in the Newcomers’ home, demonstrates how folk music was part of the lives of the poor rural family and the community. The lyrics in the Newcomers’ performance, “Went out to milk/ And I didn’t know how/ I milked the goat/ Instead of the cow” reflect the everyday lives of rural white farm families.

In addition to being performed in their homes, the themes of this classic song related to the rural farm community at large. White rural Southerners shared this music at gatherings and this song like many other folk songs were popular square dancing tunes. Square dancing has been a tradition in the Appalachian Mountains since the 19th century.4 One place that folk music and square dancing came together is at the  Mountain Music Festival in North Carolina. This gathering and the general union of folk music such as “Turkey in the Straw” and square dancing celebrates folk music and the “down home”, simple lives of the rural white communities.

As we discussed in class, this song like many other folk and country songs gave rural Southern whites a voice, art, and setting to express their culture. This often came at the expense of the black community who were excluded from the memory of folk music by the music industry and scholars such as John Lomax.

Newcomer, Elmo and Bill Newcomer, “Turkey in the Straw” in John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip (Pike Creek, Texas: 1939) http://www.loc.gov/item/lomaxbib00159/ (accessed February 25, 2018).

2Allen, Ray. “Folk Musical Traditions” in Encyclopedia of American Studies, edited by Simon J. Bronner (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2017) http://eas-ref.press.jhu.edu/view?aid=650&from=search&query=square%20dance&link=search%3Freturn%3D1%26query%2520dance%26section%3Ddocument%26doctype%3Dall (accessed February 26, 2018).

3 Root, Deanne L., Linda Moot, and Pauline Norton. “Square-Dance”, in Oxford Music (2001), http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/vieew/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000026476?rskey=pkHftn&result=1 (accessed February 26, 2018).

4 Ibid.

(Not) Finding Female Musicians in Mountain Music

Growing up in the twenty first century, my first exposure to fiddle and bluegrass music was through the white female musicians I knew. My view of women’s involvement in country, bluegrass, and “hillbilly” music, however, is different from the commonly known history of this music, which is almost entirely white and male. This difference between how I was introduced to country music and bluegrass and the earlier Appalachian styles, and how the genres, are primarily documented prompted me to search for evidence of women’s participation in country and bluegrass around the turn of the twentieth century.

Fiddling Bill Hensley, playing the fiddle, and an unidentified woman, at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina. Taken sometime between 1938 and 1950.

My searches on the database “Prints and Photographs: Lomax Collection” unsurprisingly resulted in very few images of woman in a musical setting. Lomax was concerned with documenting “hillbilly” music as he saw it: white and male. The one image that appeared to be of a woman involved with some sort of mountain music is of a white woman standing near a man playing a fiddle.1 Her stance indicates that she might be dancing. Despite the active part that many women played in making the instrumental music, this woman goes as “unidentified,” next to the named male fiddler, an example of how white women were not always written into their own history.

Jumping forward to the 1990s, we can gain a better sense of how some women viewed their participation in the early stages of bluegrass and country music from oral histories. In one interview, Barbara Greenlief recounts her grandmother’s relationship with the music of the Appalachians.2 Although her grandmother played in a local band, she hated bring that music home. In fact, “the fiddle has a real bad reputation among women in the mountains, as going along with drinking and carousing and all that.” She loved to sing gospel music and “felt a real influence of black music,” but she received little support for her musical career from her husband. While this reluctance and inability to fully embrace the mountain music she was surrounded by may be a reason that I did not find many photographs of women in music, but I suspect that it has more to do with the men who documented the music, namely white men like who wanted to create of certain image of music from the mountains.

Images of black women playing music were even harder to find in these collections. While white women were marginally documented, black female country and bluegrass musicians seem to be all but absent from the early documented history. Searching the general Library of Congress database, I came across a comic from 1886 that, represents the caliber of representation in documented Appalachian music history that black women have received. The comic, part of “Darktown Comic” series depicts two black women playing the banjo alongside three black men.3 While the inclusion of these women alongside men might be encouraging in some situations, in the context of the cartoon, a crude caricature of black musicians, in this case their inclusion is only being used to further “demonstrate” black musicianship deemed unworthy of praise or attention. The cartoon depicts black characters who are not musicians because of their own instrumental abilities, but because of their “ability” to not think and let some sort of primal instinct for such music take over. It is not depiction of black female musicians, but rather a white cartoonists idea of southern mountain music.

Comic from the “Darktown Comic” series, printed in 1886 by Currier and Ives.

These images and documentation, or lack thereof, confirmed my suspicions that my personal experience of bluegrass, early documentary evidence of country, bluegrass, and “hillbilly” music, and the actual participation of black and white women in this music may not all be the same. While the lack of visual documentation of white, and especially black female musicians is not unexpected, it opens the door to new avenues of research. After all, there must be a better way to demonstrate black female musicianship than by using a cartoon.

1 “Fiddling Bill Hensley, playing fiddle and unidentified woman, at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina.” Lomax Collection. Library of Congress. Accessed February 25, 2018. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660156/.

2 Yarger, Lisa. “Coon Creek Girls and John Lair’s control over their image.” Oral History Interview with Barbara Greenlief, April 27, 1996. Interview R-0020. Documenting the American South. Accessed February 25, 2018. http://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/playback.html?base_file=R-0020&duration=02:03:20.

3 Currier & Ives. “The darktown banjo class-off the key: ‘If yous can’t play de music, jes leff de banjo go!.’ 1886. Library of Congress. Accessed February 25, 2018. https://www.loc.gov/item/91724113/.

Bukka White and the Record Companies

In 1939, John and Ruby Lomax spent several months traveling the south and made literally hundreds of recordings for the Library of Congress’s Music Division. After spending a while aimlessly pouring through vast quantities of these recordings, I decided to read the Library of Congress site’s general overview of the entire expedition. Under the section chronicling the couple’s time recording in Mississippi, I came across the line “country blues artist Booker T. Washington (“Bukka”) White, known at this time as Washington “Barrel House” White”.1 The bit “country blues” stuck out to me because record companies in the 1920’s and 30’s were largely labeling white artists as “country” and black artists as “blues”. But the other thing that attracted me was the way in which White was referenced- as though I should know who he was. I didn’t.

Naturally, I set out to find out a little bit more about Mr. White and discovered that his story illustrates the role that recording played on the labeling of Southern “folk” music.

One of the first records White recorded with Victor in 1930. This is one of spirituals and released under the name Washington White.

Prior to meeting and recording for the Lomax’s, White had already recorded twice before. In 1930, several record companies were trying to tap into the “lucrative” market for “race records” and were trying to record whoever they could to create records.2 White ended up recording several sides for them, both blues and gospel songs, because the person who was supposed to record the gospel songs didn’t show up to the recording session.

In 1937, White was permitted to go to Chicago to record two sides before filling out his prison sentence in the Mississippi State Penitentiary.3 One side of this record was Shake ‘Em On Down, which became a rather popular song.

John and Ruby Lomax visited the penitentiary on their trip (this was the only place that they recorded in Mississippi) and it was there, in the hallway separating the white and black sections of the prison, that White recorded two songs for them.1 The interaction was described in the Lomax’s field notes as follows: “Po’ Boy and Sick ’em dogs on were sung and played by Washington (Barrel House White, with guitar. Barrel Houses were his hangout in the “free world”. Barrel House has made some commercial records.”4


Listening to White’s two recordings in the Lomax collection, it is intriguing to note that their “genre” is not clear. Instead of being either “country” or “blues”, White incorporates elements of both styles into his music, subtly giving testament to the false musical dichotomy of the time.5

Ultimately, it seems that White was a musician who mostly recorded because it is what would pay the bills. White’s career was mainly built on the blues, probably because that was what the recording companies wanted from him and would pay for. Additionally, White was apparently unhappy with the notion that he recorded for Lomax without receiving any pay; that was reportedly the only time he felt “exploited”.3

Booker T Washington “Bukka” White. In the 1960’s White experienced a second career as part of the folk movement.

Furthermore, it is interesting to note that in the fieldnotes, the Lomax’s note that it was initially difficult to convince prisoners to record for them because “one of the boys who had made some commercial records” had told others that the Lomax’s were only there to record to make money.4 Could this have been White, I wonder?

Overall, the story of Bukka White’s recording career demonstrates the fundamental way that the recordings shaped the ideas of music tied to race. White’s recordings for the Lomax’s reveal that music may not have been as black and white as the record companies wanted it to be.

 

1“The 1939 Recording Expedition”. The Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/collections/john-and-ruby-lomax/articles-and-essays/the-1939-recording-expedition/. Accessed: February 24, 2018.

2Manuel, Jeffery T. “The Sound of the Plain White Folk? Creating Country Music’s ‘Social Origins’.” Popular Music and Society 31, no. 4 (2008): 417-431.

3“Bukka White”. Mississippi Blues Commission. Mississippi Blues Trail: http://www.msbluestrail.org/blues-trail-markers/bukka-white. Accessed February 25, 2018.

Burton, Thomas G. Tom Ashley, Sam McGee, Bukka White: Tennessee Traditional Singers. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1981.

4Lomax, John A, and Ruby T Lomax. Southern Recording Trip Fieldnotes. 1939. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/lomaxbib000855/. Accessed February 24, 2018.

5Lomax, John A, Ruby T Lomax, and Bukka White. Po’ Boy. Parchman, Mississippi, 1939. Audio. Retrieved from The Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/lomaxbib000366/. Accessed February 24, 2018.

Lomax, John A, Ruby T Lomax, and Bukka White. Sick ’em Dogs On. Parchman, Mississippi, 1939. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/lomaxbib000365/. Accessed February 24, 2018.

Kids These Days… and Their Music

Folk music underwent a major resurgence in the mid-1900s. In this time, folk music served as a major vehicle for spreading and reinforcing major social movements. Naturally however, wherever in history one finds an attempt to enact social change, one can just as easily find a backlash to said proposed social reform. As Sir Isaac Newton put it so eloquently: “To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.” (Admittedly, Newton was referring to thermodynamic systems, not societal ones, but the statement holds nonetheless) This brings me neatly to today’s artifact – an opinion piece by Harry Golden from 1967 titled: Only in America… Democracy Hangup1. There is a certain irony present throughout the article, but it peaks when Golden, after spending more than one paragraph complaining about liberal college students, says:

“It is for that reason we have checks and balances written in the Constitution. Left to their own devices, the collegians would elect Bob Dylan President and Joan Baez Secretary of State.”

If only Golden could see America now – how the turntables have turned!

Historical irony and The Office aside, it is fascinating to see how some things really do seem to never change. The generation of which Golden refers to as “militant college students” representing “democracy at its entropy” is the very same generation that has turned around and started saying “kids these days this…” and “millennials that…” Granted, the statements I am making are overly generalized, there are certainly many members of older generations who are more than understanding of social issues today, and many so-called millennials who are much less so, but the existence of such sayings at all is reflective of an unfortunate underlying truth – a fundamental fear of relinquishing control and passing the baton to the next generation, and the distrust that goes alongside said fear.

Nonetheless, I digress, for the fascinating topic that this Golden article alludes to is that of music as a fundamental part of social movements. As Ray Telford says in his piece in Volume 3 – Issue 13 of Rock2: “[Sedaka] “felt the time was right” for a composer with something to say.” Whatever Sedaka’s motivation at the time may have been, it is worth noting that music, whether it be folk then, or rap now, has been a key part of social movements for a long time. Perhaps Newton could have said: To every action there is always an equal… piece of music?

1 Golden, H. (1967, Dec 09). Democracy hangup. The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/493210749?accountid=351

Sarah Gertrude Knott, an Influential Figure in Folk Festivals

Folk festival organizer, Sarah Gertrude Knott

While American folk festivals are a thing primarily associated with the latter half of the twentieth century with festivals like the Newport Folk Festival starting in 1959 and the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife starting in 1967, festival organizers like Sarah Gertrude Knott were working to collect and illustrate various folk musicians much earlier in the century. Sarah Gertrude Knott was born in Kentucky and attended various drama schools throughout the country, later organizing community theater events in North Carolina and St. Louis until founding the National Folk Festival in 1934 in St. Louis. The National Folk Festival went on to be held in many more locations around the country and influenced regional folk festivals in these areas like the American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront and the Richmond Folk Festival.

The National Folk Festival was not, however, the only festival of its kind that Knott organized, as she travelled the country in search of various folk traditions to give a stage to. An article in the Chicago Defender from April 1936 entitled “FOLK MUSIC TO BE FEATURED IN TEXAS FESTIVAL: Race Members Are Urged To Co-Operate” announced Knott’s plans to represent every “American Race folk expression” in the third annual folk festival at the Texas Centennial Exposition. The article urges racial minorities to participate in the festival as Knott and the organizers wish to represent the plentiful “race music” in Texas, as Knott says she has “discovered a greater wealth of Race material in Texas than in any other part of the country.” I found this association of folk material with minority, particularly African-American, traditions to be interesting as folk festivals in the latter half of the twentieth century focused on primarily white traditions like bluegrass, though here there seems to be an emphasis on more authentic folk traditions being that of underrepresented peoples. This is likely due to the general lack of familiarity and exposure to this music from most white Americans during this time, so there still remains a certain “authenticity” to it.

Link to the newspaper article

Bibliography:

Dee Baily and Nathan Platte“Festivals.” Grove Music OnlineOxford Music OnlineOxford University PressWeb17 Oct. 2017.<http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/A2240951>.

“FOLK MUSIC TO BE FEATURED IN TEXAS FESTIVAL.” The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967), Apr 04, 1936, pp. 10, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender, https://search.proquest.com/docview/492448756?accountid=351.

“Knott, Sarah Gertrude.” The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide, edited by Helicon, 1st edition, 2016. Credo Reference, http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/heliconhe/knott_sarah_gertrude/0.

 

Bluegrass and “Folk”

The folk revival in the United States showed a growing interest in American folk music styles and was accompanied by various folk festivals. The first newspaper article advertises a folk festival that happened in 1970. Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys are listed first, and there are other performers listed, such as blues guitarist Bukka White, a Mexican-American band, and two American Indians. With bluegrass music grouped alongside, and even above these other prominent folk music styles, it is interesting to look at bluegrass music and how and when it became recognized and categorized.

 

From my experiences of growing up with “folk” music, I would have assumed that bluegrass music would be at the heart of any discussion of American folk music. Most of the folk music I knew about was bluegrass, and the bluegrass music seemed to embody the meaning of folk. One article I found claims that bluegrass music is “the purest type of music in the world today.” For what reasons would this author claim that bluegrass music is the purest music? Perhaps they are the same reasons that led me to believe that bluegrass music was the most “folk” out of any other music I knew.

This bold claim may just be a strategic advertisement that simply reflects a desire to attract audiences, but there is no doubt that it connects to the role of bluegrass music in the folk revival. “Pure” in this context most likely means historically authentic. We have to question how “authentic” bluegrass music is. There are a few things that contradict the idea that it is purely folk music by definition. Richard Crawford notes that bluegrass music is based in the popular sphere, but looks towards the traditional sphere. Bluegrass music is defined by its old-fashioned instrumentation and older influences, such as Anglo-American folk singing and field hollers. While the connections to the past are strong, it is still a and it is known as a modern representation of Appalachian folk music with ties to popular music. Another contradiction has to do with the conception that folk music doesn’t have a clear original source. While bluegrass has many earlier influences that contributed to its existence, there is a more clear beginning with Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs at the Grand Ole Opry. These facts don’t mean that bluegrass music isn’t folk music or that its history is too different from other folk music styles. However, I wonder what gave the writer of the second article and myself the impression that it was the purest form of music, or that it was the epitome of folk music.

Sources

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.

Evans, David. “Folk Revival Music.” The Journal of American Folklore 92, no. 363 (1979): 108-15.

Haring, Lee. “The Folk Music Revival.” The Journal of American Folklore 86, no. 339 (1973): 60.

Tribe, Ivan M. Mountaineer Jamboree. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.

 

Crazy Markets for Crazy Blues

Mamie Smith

Mamie Smith wasn’t a blues singer. Today, however, we know her as one of the most influential figures in the creation of the blues music industry. So what exactly happened?

Smith began as a cabaret singer, but one fateful day in 1920, Sophie Tucker, another singer, coudln’t make it into Okeh Record’s recording studio. Smith was givena chance to ake her first recording, That Thing Called Love, and after that was recruited to make an another recording of a song called Crazy Blues. Though Smith was not by trade a blues singer, she made the record anyway. After it was released, the record sold over 75 000 copies in just a few months. This success is especially notable, as this record was the first recording of a blues song by a black singer.

In addition to being widely commercially successful, Crazy Blues has greater economic and social implications. This recording  heralds the beginning of an entirely new music market. The popularity ofthe song caused the Okeh Records and several other labels to sign more black female blues singers to produce “race records”. Intially, these “race records” were sung by black musicians and were intended for black listeners, but soon the form of classic blues represented by these records became popular across racial lines. Mamie Smith’s record paved the way for countless black musicians to break into the blues market.  Take five minutes and listen to noted activist Angela Davis talk about Mamie Smith’s significant contribution to the music industry in this interview with NPR’s “All Things Considered”.

Article from Front Page of Washington Bee, December 18th, 1920

Further evidence of the new blues craze can be found in this article from the December 18th, 1920 issue of he Washington Bee, an African American historical newspaper based in Washington D.C.. Situated neatly on the front page, this small notice of an upcoming performance at the Howard Theater exemplifies the excitement stirring around the new musical possibilities illuminated by Smith and her record. The author of the article heralds Smith as “one of the most-talked-of women who ever parter her lips to pour forth melodies…”. Not only does this article encapsulate Smith’s increasing fanbase, but also the uniqueness of her position in society. Smith, as a woman of color, was the highest paid among Okeh Records singers. This newfound ability to turn blues into money and record sales was profitable not only for musicians, but also for record companies and theaters. Companies began to find out that if they could contract a blues singer they could make a quick buck . This recording, and the subsequent boom in “race records” ushered in a entirely new and relatively untapped musical market. Before this record, music wasn’t being marketed toward black audiences. Rather, black folk music was idealized to fit white musical standards. While this recording and these newspaper articles may still reflect the capitalist pandering that musicians are so often wont to do, they also reflect a change in the way the msuci industry looked at its consumers. Mamie Smith and her record Crazy Blues opened up an entirely new market to the music industry while simultaneously creating a pop-culture phenomenon. And I think that’s worth noting.

Works Cited

“At the Howard Theater.” Washington Bee (Washington D.C.), December 18, 1920. Accessed October 10, 2017. African American Historical Newspapers,.

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.

Oliver, Paul. “Smith, Mamie.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 10, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/41390.

“Mamie Smith and the Birth of the Blues Market.” NPR. November 11, 2006. Accessed October 10, 2017. http://www.npr.org/2006/11/11/6473116/mamie-smith-and-the-birth-of-the-blues-market.

Sultry Divas. Recorded September 30, 2008. Columbia River Entertainment, 2008, Streaming Audio. Accessed October 10, 2017. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/be%7Crecorded_cd%7Cli_upc_723723519221.

 

Bluer Than Blue: Michael Johnson and Folk Music at St. Olaf

If you search through St. Olaf’s Manitou Messenger, in the 1970s and 1980s, you will notice a trend: St. Olaf College loved folk music, especially the music of Michael Johnson.

He performed on campus in the spring of 1973, on May 11, 1974, on October 24, 1975, and November 20, 1981:

Michael Johnson in 1975.

Playing for large audiences in Skoglund Gymnasium and in the Women’s Gym (now Kelsey Theater), Johnson performed hits from his albums There Is a Breeze and For All You Mad Musicians (the 1975 concert) like the songs “Bluer Than Blue” and “On the Road” (1981 and 1974 concerts, respectively). The popularity of Johnson was perhaps his ability to not only perform ballads/love songs and classic folk tunes, but also jazz and classical arrangements (and rearrangements) of his own and other peoples’ music.

That’s not to say everyone desired to hear a variety of music when Johnson came to town. In 1981, Johnson shared a concert with Simon and Bard, a fusion jazz group (many people left at 10pm when the band began their set). As the Manitou Messenger article from that event relates, that whole night was a fiasco: the doors opened 30 minutes late, Eastern Airlines sent Johnson’s guitar to Atlanta, and, the greatest crime of all, Simon and Bard was supposed to play first, but instead, Johnson opened. Many diehard Michael Johnson fans arrived late only to hear the end of Johnson’s set and the entire Simon and Bard set. Oops.

Michael Johnson in 1981.

St. Olaf’s affinity for Michael Johnson and his folk music showed the college’s continued participation in the folk revival, which began in the 1940s, peaked in the 1960s, and after that began to lose steam in the face of the British Invasion and the rise of rock. It also demonstrates the tastes of Oles, perhaps the unchanging tastes of Oles: to this day, one of the most-discussed concerts is Ingrid Michaelson’s visit to St. Olaf in 2012 (Michaelson is a singer-songwriter especially associated with the indie pop/folk movement).

Folk music in general has a strong following at St. Olaf. It could be the hipster-ish aspect of campus and folk music (“Have you heard of this person? They’re SO refreshing”) or maybe it’s the more rural origins of most of our students. Whatever the reason, in both the 1970s and the 2010s, folk music is alive and well at St. Olaf College.


“Calendar: Coming.” Manitou Messenger (St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN), April 26, 1974.

Lemke, Brenda. “Johnson steps up slow start.” Manitou Messenger (St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN), December 3, 1981.

Schrader, Beth. “Johnson and Johnson, pigskins and alumni.” Manitou Messenger (St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN), October 24, 1975.

Joan Baez and the Rise of the Folk Protest

Joan Baez with her guitar

Joan Baez with her guitar

The 1960s were a decade of political development and social unrest. American folk music became a method of conveying political ideas and protest, and the singer-songwriter fell into the important role as the purveyor and curator of civil disobedience. This style of folk music was adopted by college students who saw it as a meaningful vehicle for bringing about positive, humane change to the world. “Like Zen Buddhism and organic foods, folk music swept the colleges as a hip fad. Indeed, since the 1930s folk music had a close connection to the radical left in America (especially communists and socialists), and had increasingly been taken seriously by folklore scholars as a guide to past social mores.”

The prevalence of protest folk did not exist without criticism. Folk purists believed that protest songs were “pretentious, portentous and ponderous” and that folk-protest writers were “political hacks who wouldn’t recognize either folk music or folk style if it were walking along beside them in a peace march.”

Joan Baez was a folk singer-songwriter who made a name for herself in the 1960s (and then on) performing folk ballads. As the social and political climate heated up in the United States and around the world, Baez became a civil rights and universal nonviolence activist. “As the child of a decade of agitation, her attitudes and life-style evolved so smoothly that she seemed not to have changed at all. Joan blended into the protest tradition, into pacifism, into activism, into a publicized marriage and motherhood, into a vicarious martyrdom, . . . and finally into a national symbol for nonviolence.”1 She had a very appealing voice, which served her well in attracting audiences to her music.

Joan Baez wrote many songs of political and social protest, utilizing her distinct voice that became associated with the folk singer-songwriter genre. Saigon Bride is one of the songs she wrote, which appears on her 1967 album Joan. The following are the lyrics to Saigon Bride:

Farewell my wistful Saigon bride
I’m going out to stem the tide
A tide that never saw the seas
It flows through jungles, round the trees
Some say it’s yellow, some say red
It will not matter when we’re dead

How many dead men will it take
To build a dike that will not break?
How many children must we kill
Before we make the waves stand still?

Though miracles come high today
We have the wherewithal to pay
It takes them off the streets you know
To places they would never go alone
It gives them useful trades
The lucky boys are even paid

Men die to build their Pharoah’s tombs
And still and still the teeming wombs
How many men to conquer Mars
How many dead to reach the stars?

Farewell my wistful Saigon bride
I’m going out to stem the tide
A tide that never saw the seas
It flows through jungles, round the trees
Some say it’s yellow, some say red
It will not matter when we’re dead

Starting out on a local scale in California, Baez ended up playing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960 and then signing onto Vanguard Records for the next 12 years. Baez played many shows internationally and during the Vietnam War, she began playing internationally, including a show in Tokyo, Japan in January 1967. At this show, the translator later admitted that he left out all of Baez’s political comments after being instructed to do so by a man who identified himself as a CIA agent.

Instead of interpreting her subtle antiwar sentiments in Saigon Bride, the interpreter told the audience that it was a song about the Vietnam War. It is interesting to see how time and again, governments have feared the strength of a song or piece of art. Instead of listening to something and learning about its meaning and background, we are told to move past that and consume something topically or refrain from interpreting and consuming it altogether.

Joan Baez is one of the first recognized folk protest singer-songwriters and someone who has really affected the style of political song today. With singer-songwriters pioneering the political song, it has moved through rock, country, to rap and hip hop. Political protest today takes its form in many ways and the efficacy of that art is dependent on the audience it reaches out to.

1. Rodnitzky, Jerome L. Minstrels of the dawn : the folk-protest singer as a cultural hero. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1976. x-87. Print.

2. Baez, Joan. Saigon Bride. Joan, CD, 1967.