Message in the Music: More Narrowly Defined than We Think?

The music of New York-based hip hop group Public Enemy regularly created intense criticism from mainstream audiences. The uncensored, sometimes vile lyrics explicitly challenge social systems and raise awareness of race relations in the 1980s and 90s. One of the group’s most well known songs, “Fight the Power” is famous for addressing racism in a post-Civil Rights society. The video criticizes the peaceful protests of the MLK era and, instead, urges people of color to loudly defend their rights, sometimes at any cost. The video, and Public Enemy’s music and politics more broadly, were widely successful and, at the same time, widely controversial. Ethnomusicologist Robert Walser quotes the group’s frontman, Chuck D, saying that his “job is to write shocking lyrics that will wake people up.”[1] This idea is evident in any analysis of Chuck D’s interviews or lyrics, sometimes going so far as to pit black artists against each other. In my search for primary source material for this post, I came across one particular newspaper article that, a bit to my surprise, exemplified this perfectly.[2]

“Message in the Music” – Black Networking News, 1989

The article centers on an analysis of Tracy Chapman, an African American folk/acoustic singer, and whether her music carries the same social weight as that of Public Enemy. The author of the article highlights a 1989 quote from Chuck D, saying: “Black people cannot feel Tracy Chapman if they got beat over the head with it thirty thousand times.” The author goes on to discuss the implications of this statement and how he disagreed with the idea that there is a certain type of music that appeals to black people and can create social change. As a white student in the 21st century, I recognize that I’m in no position to comment on what constitutes an activist song for people of color in the late 20th century. But, like the author, I was struck by Chuck D’s assertion that there might be a right way to create social change through music. What is it about hip-hop that makes Chuck D think that’s the only music that can appeal to black people? Conversely, what is it about Chapman’s music that makes certain hip-hop artists skeptical of its merit?

Tracy Chapman

Reflecting on these questions reminds me of earlier topics we’ve discussed in this course, such as the origins and authenticity of different genres. Chuck D’s comments suggest to me that he might view hip-hop as an authentically “black” genre, and therefore one of the few that’s able to reach African American listeners and become a true symbol of struggle and resistance. Along these same lines, does this also suggest that he thinks folk/acoustic music is inherently not “black,” or, more provocatively, inherently white? I certainly don’t mean to suggest that Chuck D was guilty of racializing genres, but I do think his comments pose interesting questions about the message behind the music. He suggests a very narrow definition which, the author of this article would suggest, creates more problems than it does answers.

Public Enemy

[1] Walser, Robert. (1995). Rhythm, Rhyme, and Rhetoric in the Music of Public Enemy. Ethnomusicology: Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology, 39(2), 193-217.

[2] Brown, Keith. “Message in the Music” Black Networking News, November 1, 1989. Accessed April 30, 2018 from the African American Historical Newspaper Collection. SQN: 12BA6659726F6850.

Ending On a Question

Last Fourth of July weekend, I attended church with some family friends. After the service everyone gathered in back to sing some patriotic songs together. One of those songs, I remember, was “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. I didn’t find anything curious about it at the time–the lyrics were fitting for the occasion. But then I learned when the song was written and what the original lyrics were. (Spoiler alert: We were not singing all the original lyrics.)

Post-1944 lyrics taken from the official website of Woody Guthrie

During the Great Depression, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” became an optimistic anthem for the hard times. In 1940, Woody Guthrie wrote “God Blessed America for Me”, with the phrase repeated at the end of each verse, in response to Berlin’s hit song.1 The lyrics were meant to capture a more accurate image of the United States, still celebrating the land but “without glossing over its imperfections or pretending that all in America were blessed equally.”2 The last couple verses were especially overt in their political protest, and–what I find most fascinating–the song ended on a question: “I stood there wondering, if God blessed America for me.”3

When Woody Guthrie changed the title to “This Land Is Your Land” in 1944, he altered the repeated lyric to “This land was made for you and me.”4 Thus, his message became a lot more inclusive. This turned the ending question into “I stood there asking, Is this land made for you and me?” However, in his 1947 recording, he left out the two protest verses but added another verse (“Nobody living can ever stop me…”). While previous versions have been very difficult to find, this is the version that has become most well-known.5

Despite the changes it has undergone, the lyrics of “This Land Is Your Land” still promote inclusivity–a land for you and me, where no one should be left out. The song was even adopted as a campaign song for the NAACP in the 1950s.6 Because Guthrie supported the Civil Rights Movement, I’m sure he would be proud to know his words were used in the fight for equal rights. On the other hand, his words have also been adopted by military bands, big corporations, and presidential campaigns for the purpose of eliciting patriotic sentiments.7 (I even sang it in a church around Independence Day.)

It’s incredible how one song, originally intended to question the ‘blessed’ nature of this country, has become known today as an optimistic, patriotic tune, alongside “God Bless America”. I’m not saying this is a good or bad thing, but I do believe it is important to keep in mind what this song originally stood for and what it asks: was this land blessed for you and me?

1 “This Land is Your Land.” Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200000022/.

2 Galyean, Crystal. “‘This Machine Kills Fascists’: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie.” U.S. History Scene. http://ushistoryscene.com/article/woody-guthrie/.

3 Songs 1, Box 3, Folder 27, Woody Guthrie Archives, 250 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

Vera Hall: The Exception to the Rule?

Alan Lomax was a groundbreaking music collector who recorded and preserved underrepresented music, highlighting the differences between white and black musical styles in the South.

Alan Lomax, Asheville NC, c. 1938-1950.

In this sense, Lomax is an improvement from scholars such as Neil Rosenberg, who wrote an extensive history of bluegrass music with little mention of race.[1] Though this type of erasure is not present in Lomax’s collection, some of his processes are nonetheless problematic. He seemed to genuinely believe that African American musical culture should be understood, yet he often requested specific songs because it fit the stereotypical idea of black folk music. He also wanted to find a sound not influenced by white folk music, and sought out black singers who didn’t spent time around white musicians.[2] This creates problems of authenticity because it neglects the fact that white and black musicians did listen to and play off one another.  

This begs the question: Was any of Alan Lomax’s revolutionary work truly authentic? I would argue that, though undoubtedly problematic, parts of it were. Vera Hall, an African American folk singer from Alabama, is a prime example of this. Many of her performances can be found in the full collection from Lomax’s 1939 recording trip. One example attached here is her recording of Awful Death, which reflects her powerful voice and the spiritual weight behind her songs.

Lomax thought highly of her talents and remarked that her voice was one of the best. Hall learned to sing traditional spirituals from her mother, but despite her talent, never became a professional singer.[3] Because of Lomax persistence, though, many of her songs are widely accessible, and she eventually gained national acclaim. “Another Man Done Gone,” one of Hall’s most famous songs, has been covered and modified by countless performers, including Johnny Cash and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.[4] In 2005, Hall was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame.[5] These accomplishments are no small feat for a low-income black woman in 19th century Alabama.

On the one hand, Hall’s success was significantly limited by her gender, class, and race. We would be settling for unfair societal systems by praising Lomax for introducing her voice despite the scarcity of African American musicians receiving recognition at that time. She was still branded as a black folk singer in a way that benefitted Lomax professionally, and she might not have garnered his attention had it not profited him. On the other hand, though, it might be fair to say that, by recording Hall in her environment and allowing her some agency in song selection, Lomax respectfully represented her. There are obviously countless problems with such an expansive project, and it’s likely not as authentic as Lomax would like to think. But, we can take comfort knowing that not all his work was flawed, and his introduction of Vera Hall to a larger national audience, at the very least, provided moving recordings of African American folk music.

 

[1] Rosenberg, Neil V. Bluegrass: A History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005.

[2] Paul, Richard. “In the Field of Folk Music, Alan Lomax is a Giant – If a Flawed and Controversial One.” Public Radio International. February 10, 2015. Retrieved from https://www.pri.org/stories/2015-02-10/field-folk-music-alan-lomax-giant-if-flawed-and-controversial-one.

[3] Vera Hall -1964. Online Text. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200196840/. (Accessed February 26, 2018.)

[4] Wade, Stephen, and Stephen Wade. “Vera Hall: The Life That We Live.” In The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience, 153-78. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015.

[5] Stone, Peter. “Vera Ward Hall (1902-1964).” Association for Cultural Equity. Retrieved from http://www.culturalequity.org/alanlomax/ce_alanlomax_profile_hall.php

Do you know any black, contemporary folk artists?

Contemporary folk is a broad genre, stretching out into indie folk, indie rock, americana, you name it. However, when I think of this genre and the especially famous artists that dominate it, I can’t think of any black artists or bands. There might be a couple Asian American artists, but the genre comes across as very white. Take the Avett Brothers, for instance: one member was born in South Korea, and the rest are white. And their audience is even whiter.

Described as a folk rock band, the Avett Brothers are seen here, playing guitars and singing in front of a picture of a tractor, which are common aspects of country music. Country and folk have similar sounds, so it would make sense for the folk of today to have adapted from the country of days gone by. If one listens to “Monterey” by the Milk Carton Kids, an indie folk duo, it’s possible to hear the calming guitar and harmony influences of songs like “Driftwood” by the talented Merle Haggard, who claims influence from the man deemed as the first famous singer in the genre, Jimmie Rodgers.1 People could assume folk and country are white today because it’s always been that way. However, that is not the truth.

Even Jimmie Rodgers mixed his voice and instrument with the beyond legendary Louis Armstrong and his wife Lil Hardin Armstrong, singing “Blue Yodel #9”, but it wasn’t as popular.2 When John and Ruby Lomax traveled around the South in 1939, they stopped in a jail and recorded Roger “Burn Down” Garnett singing “Eaton Clan”.3 He played guitar and sang, echoing previous country and folk artists, but he did not receive much recognition beyond the recordings conducted by the Lomaxes, as he was in prison. Yet, other folk artists, sometime between 1938 and 1950, were performing at the Mountain Music Festival, and they were white.

Five musicians and a singer performing at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina. Between 1938 and 1950. Lomax Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

So if country and folk artists have always been black and white, how come white artists are the ones to be recognized? Jeffrey T. Manuel explains the phenomenon as having been created by the music industry making a conscious effort to attribute the sound of folk and country to the social group of the white, Southern middle class. Rhiannon Giddens backs this up with the fact:

Occasionally black string bands were put on the Hillbilly label but with their name obscured, such as when Vocalion Records released a set of tunes under “The Tennessee Chocolate Drops” for their race records and the exact same set of tunes under “The Tennessee Trio” for the Hillbilly division. It rarely happened the other way around… (10)

The music industry made sure to keep race records separate. If music crossed color lines, segregation would be disregarded. Therefore, white artists rose to the top, and black artists faded into the background.

Although erasure of black artists has been a real issue for the longest time, music can’t help but be heard by anyone and everyone. The influences of country and folk music, black and white artists, continue to spread. Now, I can’t think of any famous, black, contemporary folk artists at the top of my head, but perhaps we should be able to think of some. Because black americana is real too.

Manuel, Jeffrey T. “The Sound of the Plain White Folk? Creating Country Music’s “Social Origins”.” In Popular Music and Society, 417-431. City: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008.

Folk Music Music Meets Grunge

As a “wannabe” angsty, young 8th grade student, “MTV Unplugged in New York” by Nirvana was naturally one of my all time favorite albums. Whether it was the infectious bassline of “Come As You Are,” the absurdity of “Dumb,” or the haunting string arrangements found throughout “Man Who Sold the World,” each track managed to capture the various heartthrobs of a fourteen year old; but none hit me quite as hard as the show’s closing piece, “Where Did You Sleep At Night.” The song encapsulates a vague description of deceit, murder, and sorrow which is inspired and rooted in the 1944 recording by the equally soulful and troubled Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, a virtuosic 12-string blues and folk guitar player.

While there have been an endless supply of covers and renditions of this folk tune by artists of notable merit (including Dolly Parton, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Chet Atkins), few have managed to achieve the emotional integrity and commercial success of Leadbelly and Nirvana’s recording, and I believe that, through the core elements of “folk” music, and the personal backgrounds of the artists, a connection can be made between the two interpretations.

NIRVANA:                       https://youtu.be/iUSW7dYZM9w 

LEADBELLY:                   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsfcUZBMSSg

From the work of the Lomax family to the later tunes of Bob Dylan, folk songs have transformed from a collection of songs that define a culture or generation to the production of individual songs that center around the sentiments and reactions of the performer. Both Nirvana’s 1994 and Leadbelly’s 1944 recording of “Where Did You Sleep At Night” embody the latter of the stages. Using a lyrically simplified version of the original tune, “In the Pines,” which dates back to the 1870’s Southern Appalachian region, Cobain and Ledbetter achieve impassive recording style that is rooted not in the story, but in the personal and stony mood behind the piece. While Leadbelly employs a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment, deadpan call-and-response, and free, vibrato filled vocals, Cobain implements a sparse, electric guitar-string arrangement, dry, hoarse vocals, and stark cadences that reach a similar aura of sheer misery and suffering. By delivering personal and unique renditions of the same folk tune, Leadbelly and Cobain successfully open themselves up to any and all listeners, accessing the bare human connection that lies at the heart of the American folk movement.

Additionally, in a musical genre that often undergoes revivalist movements, artists must consistently be able to deliver unique and intimate takes on “traditional folk tunes.” When analyzing the personal backgrounds of Leadbelly and Cobain, parallels can be drawn that inevitably contribute to their passionate and distinctive performances. Cobain, who lived a tragic life of depression and severe drug abuse, had consistent run-ins with the law, while Leadbelly was incarcerated multiple times, pleading guilty for charges of murder and attempted murder. After considering the half-century time gap and cultural differences between the two artists, it would be ridiculous to compare any background information, however, a common coping mechanism exists in both individual accounts: music. After receiving a guitar from his uncle at the age of twelve, Cobain used music throughout his life to combat and express himself through any personal, family, and drug related obstacles. Similarly, Leadbelly used music as a means to escape and assert his redefined self after years spent in various prisons. In a 1954 article for the Chicago Defender, Langston Hughes summarizes Leadbelly’s musical journey.

“Well, I guess you know there was once a singer named Leadbelly, and he was a penitentiary boy, and he sang his way free. I guess you know he got locked up again, but he got out singing. And he sang songs from here to yonder. He sang himself great. He sang himself famous.”

https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.stolaf.edu/hnpchicagodefender/docview/492889401/fulltextPDF/586FDC9CDF9142A0PQ/1?accountid=351

Through these mental and life altering difficulties, Leadbelly and Cobain both created profound and unique music that inspired and touched the hearts of their respective audiences. One only needs to go as far as a Southern Appalachian tune such as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” to see the emotional core that connects an entire community in a folk-based tradition.

 

SOURCES

Bibek Acharya. “Where did you sleep last night-Nirvana-MTV unplugged.” Youtube. Dec. 11, 2016. Accessed October 16, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUSW7dYZM9w

“Kurt Cobain.” Biography.com. April 28, 2017. Accessed October 16, 2017. https://www.biography.com/people/kurt-cobain-9542179.

Hughes, L. (1954, Sep 04). Slavery and leadbelly are gone, but the old songs go singing on. The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967) Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.stolaf.edu/docview/492889401?accountid=351

Sessionsinthedesert. “Leadbelly – house of the rising sun.” YouTube. March 08, 2008. Accessed October 16, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5tOpyipNJs.

Weisbard;, Eric. “A Simple Song That Lives Beyond Time.” The New York Times. November 12, 1994. Accessed October 16, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1994/11/13/arts/pop-music-a-simple-song-that-lives-beyond-time.html?pagewanted=all.

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.

 

Where is THAT in the blues?

W.C. Handy is the “Father of the Blues”

Headline: Seen and Heard While Passing; Article Type: News/Opinion
Freeman (Indianapolis, Indiana) • 09-26-1914 • Page 6

W. C. Handy became the “Father of the Blues” when he titled his autobiography that same name in 1957. However, this legacy started decades sooner, when Handy published the first “blues” with “Memphis Blues” in 1912. This blues became an immediate commercial success.

I was interested by the fact that “Memphis Blues” was the first blues ever written down, so I tried to find an early review of the work. In 1914, an Indianapolis newspaper, Freeman, ran a review of Handy praising the “Memphis Blues.” What surprised me most was a comment near the end of the article,

[Memphis Blues’] rapid increase in popularity everywhere makes it a psychological study and it is bound to become a classic of its kind just as the real Negro compositions of Will Marion Cooke, Scott Joplin and other Negro composers are now considered to be the only real expression of the Negro in music and the only genuine American music.

 

The “only genuine American Music?” Have you heard “Memphis Blues?” In case you have not, here is an early recording of it from 1944 by Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band

Does that sound a little like ragtime to you? To me, “Memphis Blues” simply does not sound like what I know as The Blues. Of course, is this a problem? Furthermore, who am I to decide what the blues should sound like? Well, thankfully, we have musicologists for that.

In Elijah Wald’s book, Escaping the Delta, notes:

“[experts argue] that Dock Boggs was a blues singer but that W. C. Handy’s songs were ragtime… Musicologically, that makes sense.” 

So I’m not crazy! There is something going on in “Memphis Blues” that makes it feel like ragtime instead of a blues! A further look at the sheet music published by W.C. Hardy indicates something unique… “Memphis Blues” is not in a standard 12-bar form! Its a 16-bar form. A 12-bar like figure appears in the chorus, but it is not clearly laid out.

Perhaps this was just an initial form that became updated over time. Perhaps my notion of “the blues” is simply chronologically later. I looked into another take on “Memphis Blues” by Louis Armstrong, and as you can hear it is just the same confusing 16-bar form.

But this track also brought me to the bonus track on this album. The bonus material includes an interview of the producer of the track with W.C. Handy himself regarding Louis Armstrong. I was surprised to hear how much Handy emphasis “naturalness.” Handy thought that audiences most liked Louis because he brought a “pride of race” to his playing.

I struggled to understand why Handy valued “naturalness” so highly. Especially when he took samples of black musical culture, polished it, and commercialized it. I think perhaps Handy gave a title to the movement of the Blues, but he soon watched it expand to engulf several different genres and become mainstream popular music. As the consumers enjoyed the folk aspect of the music, Handy tried to make this more of a selling point to his music. He soon began to place a lot of value on Authentic Black American Music, after the fact of Memphis Blues’ initial publication.

So why don’t I think of the Memphis Blues sound as “The Blues?” Well, likely it is due to the influence of Robert Johnson as recorded by the Lomaxes and other influences. This may have led to the B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton sounds that I associate with the blues today. To know for sure  I would have to start looking into Robert Johnson’s history.

Nevertheless, Handy should be praised for being the Father of the Blues, even if some of his music feels unauthentic to me. As Wald comments in Escapign Delta,

“to say that the artists who gave the music its name and established it as a familiar genre are not “real” blues artists because they do not fit later folkloric or musicological standards is flying in the face of history and common sense” (7).

Wald highlights an important point. Handy certainly put a lot of work into the genre, and he should be remembered for that.

Works Cited

Handy, W., & Bontemps, A. (1957). Father of the blues : An autobiography. London: Sidgwick and Jackson.

Handy, W., & Handy’s Memphis Blues Band. (1994). W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues Band.

Willie Bunk Johnson/ Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band: Bunk & Lu [Streaming Audio]. (1990). Good Time Jazz. (1990). Retrieved October 10, 2017, from Music Online: Jazz Music Library. 

Whitney, S.H. (1914, September 26). “W.C. Handy, Composter of the Memphis Blues, the Man Who is Making Memphis Famous.” Freeman, pp. 6. Retrieved from newsbank.com.

The Ever Changing Traditions of Folk Music

Woody Guthrie was a folk song singer and writer known for his honest and captivating works. Guthrie is considered to be one of the most influential people in the folk genre. He collaborated artists like Pete Seeger, Jack Elliot, Alan Lomax, Lead Belly etc.  He was known for his headstrong views about the world and in particular how he could share his views through music. He was very much interested in the idea of representing folk music as a “democratic force” and advocated for its recognition and appreciation over pop music and other genres.

In his letter to Lomax and Seeger, Guthrie’s political and social views on folk music overwhelmingly permeate through his writing. This sample is taken from Judith Tick’s Made in the USA: A Documentary Companion.

“Every pop song sings down into your brain and it asks your brain to quit its very thinking…What they see wrong with the world and how to fix it up by hard work, hard fight, and hard sweat, long visioning and tall talking, mixed in with a hatful of salty sweating, good funny joshing, kidding, topping and friendly competition in the affairs of work, love, etc., etc.” ~Woody Guthrie

It was Guthrie’s romantic idealism of democracy and his passionate advocacy for the American people that made him so appealing. Because Guthrie was so invested in the folk tradition, I decided to explore just how influential he was in folk music. Guthrie worked and sang with different people, but also composed many songs in the folk tradition.

Guthrie influenced many artists in his career including Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. In the January 1969 issue of The Minority Report, the newspaper article “Ramblin’ Jack tops ’em all” by Mike Hitchcock praises the album Young Brigham. Hitchcock periodically mentions Guthrie throughout his article portraying him as an influential, mentor-like figure to Elliot.

“At the beginning of the sixties, he had distilled down the essence of Woody’s vocal and instrumental style, added a liberal dose of Jimmy Rodgers, a touch of Leadbelly and Jesse Fuller, and a little bit of every down-home guitar picker that ever picked into a style that was, and still is, at once completely traditional and yet uniquely personal” (Hitchcock,7).

Elliot’s music is typically categorized as country yet Guthrie’s style and music unexpectedly influenced not only “traditional” folk, but also a popular county/folk artist.

Another unexpected way in which Guthrie exerted influence in American music was though his song writing. One of his songs, So Long, was performed by Big Joe Turner, a soul jazz and blues artist. Though Guthrie and Turner did not collaborate, Guthrie’s songs clearly found their way into the world of jazz and blues. How can we explain the fact that a folk artist was so influential in not only traditional folk music, but also in other genres that are not as outwardly similar to folk? One way to explain this connection is to consider the very nature of folk music itself.  Because Guthrie was influential in jazz, blues, country and other folk genres, it shows that folk music was always changing and was never confined to specific musical idioms or attitudes that are associated with other genres. Folk music always varies whether that is geographically, over time, or through different styles of music.  It is an inherently changing tradition because of its communal aspect.  Both folk and jazz reflect an honest human experience, and for Guthrie, the ideal folk song did just that.

Works Cited:

Hitchcock, Mike. “Ramblin’ Jack Elliot Tops ‘Em All.” The Minority Report, 1 Jan. 1969, p. 7.

James Lincoln Collier. “Jazz (i).” The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd ed.. Grove Music OnlineOxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 7, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/J223800.

Joe Turner: Have No Fear, Joe Turner Is Here. Recorded January 1, 1996. Pablo, 1996, Streaming Audio. Accessed October 10, 2017. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic.

Stetson Kennedy and Ronald D. Cohen. “Guthrie, Woody.” Grove Music OnlineOxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 7, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/A2241373.

Tick, Judith, and Beaudoin, Paul, eds. Music in the USA : A Documentary Companion. Cary: Oxford University Press, USA, 2008. Accessed October 7, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.

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.

Newport Folk Festival Hosts Composer of the “The American Folk-Song Mass”

As the folk tradition started to die out, American folk started to take flight when John and Alan Lomax recorded and collected music of the rural regions of the United State, particularly in penitentiaries. In the 1940s, artists around the country decided to takes these recorded folk songs and make their own recordings. A single vocal accompanied by a guitar became the standard folk song, and people decided to write their own songs in the “folk” style.1

Along with this surge of new folk composers came Father Ian Mitchell, “the guitar-toting Episcopal priest…, and his wife, folk-singing star Caroline.”2 Father Ian Mitchell composed The American Folk-Song Mass, consisting of several liturgical and some original text set to the twang of the guitar. The Chicago Defender stated that “Father Mitchel composed [The American Folk-Song Mass] because he got tired of ‘cloying, cornball, 19th Century hymns.’”3 Later, Father Mitchell released Catholic version of his folk-song mass, incorporating the texts of the Roman Catholic Liturgy. According to the liner of the Catholic version of the mass, Father Mitchell was later commissioned to compose the Funeral Folk Mass.

According to the Chicago Defender, Father Ian Mitchell and his wife Caroline signed on to the Newport Folk Festival, best known for hosting renowned folk singers such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell, to perform songs from their newly released album Songs of Protest and Love. However, I hardly consider Father Mitchell’s music to actually be “folk.” Father Ian Mitchell was “a city-dweller who spent three years in the wastelands of Utah,” seemingly making him more apt to folk styles.4 All he did was take liturgical text and sing them with a different melody with a guitar accompaniment. According to Oxford Music Online, “the [folk] revival spawned a large number of singer-songwriters who accompanied themselves on the acoustic guitar but had little in common with those concerned primarily to bear witness to the tradition.”5 I believe that Father Ian Mitchell falls into this category and his “folk-song” mass should be considered “Mass: Plus Guitar, Minus Organ.”

1 Laing, Dave. “Folk Music Revival.” Grove Music Online. www.oxfordmusiconline.com (accessed Mar. 12, 2015­)

2 “Newport Folk Festival to Feature “Singing Priest”.” Chicago Daily Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1966-1973), July 12, 1969. http://search.proquest.com/docview/493434506?accountid=351.

3 Ibid.,

4 Mitchell, Ian. Rev. “The American Folk-Song Mass” F.E.L Records. Back Cover.

5 Laing, Dave. “Folk Music Revival.”

Development of Folk: Pre-Civil War to Civil Rights’ Movement

Folk music is one that draws many questions from American music historians. Questions like, “who owns folk music?”, “where did these tunes originate?”, and “what is a folk song?”.  One perspective that is particularly interesting and comes to a strong conclusion is that the origin of American folk music is based upon African Tradition. An article in The Chicago Defender claims that from African Americans and slave music, the genre of folk emerged. The argument is that the melodies of African American music prior to the Civil war were considered true American folk songs. Some original, but also based on African traditional music. The English, French, and Spanish all brought their own style of song to the United States, so their music isn’t naturally American. Oscar Saffold wrote in his article, “There is, however, a real indisputable folk song in America, an American production, born in the hearts of slaves — expressing a part of the life of our country.” This can be argued against, saying that the music of the slaves is originally from Africa, but Saffold’s argument is moreover strong, in that the African American traditional music had a large influence on proceeding music styles such as the blues and then jazz.

During the time of the Civil Rights’ Movement, there were many protests in southern United States, to express the desires and rights of equality among people; To blur the racial lines. These protests were filled with demonstrations that used art to promote equality, and the folk song emerged as an effective protest song. This incorporated the melodies of the old slave songs, but with new words. For example:

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 1.16.50 PM

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 1.17.10 PM

This type of folk song is called a freedom song. It was used as a way to unite a community of people during the Civil Rights’ Movement, and was thought to communicate and express sentiments when words weren’t enough. This is tied into the work songs of slaves during the Antebellum South.

A poignant quote from the article says, “while there is no American folk song in the sense of expressing American life as a whole, still there is a folk song in America, and that is the music of the Negro” (Saffold). The roots of American folk music go deep into the history of the African American slaves of Southern American, and since, folk music has taken on many other attributes with the Folk Revival of the late 20th Century.

 

Bibliography

Saffold, Oscar E. “How american folk songs started.” The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967), 25 Feb. 1933. http://search.proquest.com/docview/492356076?accountid=351

“Songs seen Vital in Albany Demonstrations.” Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973), 22 Aug. 1962. http://search.proquest.com/docview/493909703?accountid=351.

 

What the folk is going on with the youths of America?

An article written about the Mariposa music festival featured in Rock Magazine. 1972, Vol. 3, Issue 10

An article written about the Mariposa music festival featured in Rock Magazine. 1972, Vol. 3, Issue 10

The folk music revival was carried by and largely served the young men and women who were raised to volunteer, organize civil rights protests  and activist groups and work with political powers (at least at the start) to effect the change they envisioned for the world. These college-age individuals rejected commercial mass culture while they favored borrowing and adapting older music from previous generations to serve their own purposes.

During the 1970s, there was a boom in music festivals. Occurring over the span of 3-12 days, festivals became the best place to discover new artists, interact with new like-minded people and share new ideas about politics and the world. (They were also associated with drug use, but that’s not the focus of this article.) Festivals were generally grassroots efforts, organized by local communities, regionally or nationally and could have an educational focus. “The Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto, Canada is one of the biggest in North America. [In the summer of 1972] it broke even and its organizers were happy.”1

Many different artists came to the festival to perform the music that was shaping the mentality and ethos of the college-attending generation in 1972. Old folk tunes were repurposed, given new life with new words about the ideas and emotions of the heartbroken and those downtrodden by society.2

“In 1965, a young folk singer named Joni Anderson hitchhiked to Mariposa from Calgary and in 1970 she drew 12,000 to a night concert because she was the famous Joni Mitchell[James] Taylor was asked to Mariposa because ‘he has a lot of roots in folk’ not because he would draw people. Taylor came because he wanted to, not for the money, which amounted to $75. That is the most any performer is paid, along with his traveling and accommodation expenses. Why? Because Mariposa is an annual gathering of balladeers, not a rock festival.”

Today, we still see (or hear of) people borrowing from other musical ideas and traditions. What they borrow leads to commercial success––in the case of Amy Winehouse and Iggy Azalea. Artists borrow ideas for several reasons: they identify with some aspect of the idea or culture, to make money, necessity demands that they adapt their music to today’s pop standards by updating the sounds or affect they use, or, to make a statement. We are in a never ending cycle of cultural repetition. Everything we produce and consume will reoccur in another form some time (shortly or long after) the “original” was produced. However, the questions have not changed from the 1970s when the folk music revival was in full swing, nor from when bluegrass was in its developmental stage as a musical genre. What is the intent behind artist’s borrowing ideas from others and how many alterations must the new work undergo before it is something original? Is there a way to respectfully reproduce or change something when you yourself have not been around to experience the genesis of that idea or have little to no connection with that cultural movement, people, or idea? And what is the significance of festivals? What role do they play with the appropriation, adaptation and spread of ideas and are they important cultural hub or a temporary collection of society’s social outcasts and wannabe reshapers?

The Mariposa music festival still is around today. This year, the festival’s dates are July 3-5, 2015.

 

1. Musgrave, Corinne. “Mariposa: The Festival That Never Fails.” Rock, 1972 3, no. 10 (1972): 20-21.

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

Odetta Who?

When many people think of American folk music, some of the first musicians that comes to mind are Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie. Few people know of Odetta Holmes, known simply by her stage name Odetta. Her name isn’t even mentioned in the Wikipedia “American Folk Music” page! Most people know her as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” due to her influential role she played as an activist and blues/gospel musician.

Odetta in the Chicago Defender

Odetta in the Chicago Defender, 1964

[1]

However, Odetta started off not as a folk singer, but instead earned a music degree at Los Angeles City College. She went on to tour with a musical theater group performing “Finian’s Rainbow,” which was, fittingly, about prejudice. As she toured, she discovered that enjoyed singing in the coffeeshops late at night, infusing her music with the frustration she experienced growing up. In a 2005 National Public Radio interview, she said: ”School taught me how to count and taught me how to put a sentence together. But as far as the human spirit goes, I learned through folk music” [2].

Cover of Ballads and Blues

Cover of Ballads and Blues

[3]

Odetta released her first solo album, “Odetta Sings Ballad and Blues,” in 1956. This album would turn out to be influential for a certain Bob Dylan. He stated in a 1978 Playboy interview that “the first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta,” after listening to this album in a record store. He learned all the songs and found something “vital and personal” in her singing [4]. Not only did her music draw Bob Dylan to folk music, but she also met Joan Baez, another popular folk musician, and Baez cites Odetta as one of her primary influences as well [5]. Two of the biggest names in American folk music were influenced by a woman and social activist that would later go on to perform at the 1963 march on Washington, march with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, sing for presidents Kennedy and Clinton, as well as perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

I think that’s pretty neat

Ad for Odetta next to an ad for Bob Dylan in the Berkeley Tribe, 1969

Ad for Odetta next to an ad for Bob Dylan in the Berkeley Tribe, 1969

[6]

Odetta singing Muleskinner Blues, 1956

Bob Dylan Singing Muleskinner Blues, 1962


1.”Photo Standalone 23 — no Title.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967),  Jan 25, 1964. 10, http://search.proquest.com/docview/493137885?accountid=351.
2. Weiner, Tim. “Odetta, Voice of Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 77.” NYTimes.com. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/03/arts/music/03odetta.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (Accessed March 9, 2015)
3. “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, Expanded CD Cover.” 1956. wikipedia.org.
4.”Playboy Interview: Bob Dylan.” http://www.interferenza.com/bcs/interw/play78.htm (Accessed March 9, 2015)
5. Baez, Joan. And a Voice to Sing With: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009, p. 43.
6.”No Title.” Berkeley Tribe (1969-1972), 1969. 22-23, http://www.rockandroll.amdigital.co.uk/Search/DocumentDetailsSearch.aspx?documentid=1065486&prevPos=1065486&vpath=searchresults&pi=1

Newport Folk Festival: Inspiring Anarchist Revolutionaries?

Folk music is ingrained in a sense of community and expression of the common man that many young people of the 60s and early 70s found as representative of the times and themselves.  Folk artists played simply–typically a voice and guitar, with perhaps a harmonica.  Listeners could collectively identify with the simplicity, and would feel connected to their peers.  Folk music conveyed a peaceful time of long hair, free love, and a bohemian lifestyle.

But underneath the easy-strumming guitar and speak-singing voices were lyrics against the establishments that folk artists were so against.  In 1967 festival singer Tim Buckley’s song, “The Earth is Broken,” government figures are called thieves.

 

But soon love is broken, they’ll take you away

Oh the wars they been growing as no relief

And the old men who ruled them oh they’re just like thieves

They rob from the sunshine, oh the air ain’t so clean

Our rivers are dirty where once we could see

 

A smile from your lady friend looking down

Look at that river hey did you ever shiver

Well the earth is broken there is no one to save

 

The “Home on the Range” era of sunny skies and seldom-heard discouraging words is definitely over.

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 9.59.20 PMIn this article from East Village underground magazine The Other, Jerry Rubin presents his account of the 1967 Newport Folk Festival.  Rubin is so against the idea of paying for music that he decided to attend the festival by creating a fake press pass. Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 9.37.51 PM “Music concerts should be free,” he says.  “Profit is pornography.”  Rubin then gets himself kicked out of the festival by passing out “a copy of the free Yippie newspaper…(spiritual thoughts from our anarchist-revolutionary point of view)” to a pair of nuns.  The magazines are deemed to have pornographic images themselves, and the festival cops escort Rubin out, Rubin blaming it on his hippie appearance.

What this account illustrates is the atmosphere of festivals like the Newport Folk Festival.  They were attended by a variety of groups, but all came to experience the community spirit so often found in folk.  In unity, concert attendees were able to band together and share ideas.  In addition, the values of folk music are passed to the people.  While folk music quietly discusses political issues, listeners took these complaints to heart and acted out against the closest representation of the establishment–in Rubin’s case, the festival security.  The sense of community gave a feeling of strength to festival-goers which was heavily expressed in their actions.

While folk music is overall peaceful, its political undertones were strong enough to convince listeners to act out upon the messages they heard.  Political events of the time period combined with the inclusive underground communities created an acceptable atmosphere of dissent and resistance.

 

Sources:

Rubin, Jerry.  “Yippie go home!”   East Village Other, Vol.3, no.3.  December 15, 1967.  Accessed from Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950–1975.

http://www.rockandroll.amdigital.co.uk/Contents/ImageViewer.aspx?imageid=1099190&searchmode=true&hit=first&pi=1&themeF=Civil+Rights+And+Race+Relations%7cMusic&vpath=searchresults&prevPos=1065501

 

The folk music monarchy: Bob Dylan & Joan Baez

Quote

Perhaps the biggest stars of the 1960’s Folk craze, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez captured audiences performing duets in addition to their successful solo careers. Their relationship is filled with ups and downs, each giving and taking from the other over the years. This tumultuous relationship may have its roots in their motivations for performing this music.

Concert Poster for Joan Baez and Bob Dylan

Concert Poster for Joan Baez and Bob Dylan1

At first sight, Dylan describes the first time he saw Baez singing on TV while he was still in Minnesota, “I couldn’t stop looking at her, didn’t want to blink. . . . The sight of her made me sigh. All that and then there was the voice. A voice that drove out bad spirits . . . she sang in a voice straight to God. . . . Nothing she did didn’t work.” 2 Unfortunately Joan didn’t reciprocate Dylan’s admiration for him. She recalls being unfazed by what she heard when she first saw Dylan perform in 1961 at Gerde’s Folk City (a popular venue for the Greenwich village folk music scene artists in the 1960’s).

Joan Baez is originally from Staten Island, NY. Her father Albert, co-invented the electronic microscope as well as published a Physics textbook still commonly used today. Because of her father’s work in health care and with UNESCO, the family moved many times, living in towns across the U.S, as well as in England, France, Switzerland, Spain, Canada, and Iraq. Joan became involved with a variety of social causes early in her career, especially civil rights and an advocate of non violence. “Social Justice”, Baez says, “is the true core of her life looming larger than music.”3

Joan Baez performing “Mary Hamilton” at the Newport Festival in 1960, one of her earliest performances.

In contrast, Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Hibbing, MN. Dylan began attending the University of Minnesota in 1959, only to drop out a year later and move to New York City to pay tribute to his idol, Woody Guthrie who had taken ill from Polio at the time. Dylan’s motivations for writing and performing folk music seem less rooted in social justice and more in its connection to the human spirit. At the 1965 Newport Festival Dylan walked on stage with an electric guitar in hand and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band backing him up. He was booed offstage after only three songs, at which point he returned with an acoustic guitar and a message for all the folk purists: “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”4 Dylan was later quoted as saying he switched from Rock n Roll to Folk because “it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”

Bob Dylan covering “This Land is Your Land” in Minneapolis in 1961 before moving to New York City to meet his idol, Woody Guthrie.

It seems that Baez felt a stronger connection with the movement surrounding the folk revival of the 1960’s, while Bob Dylan saw it as more of a form of political expression as much as a way to make his living and see his name in lights. Perhaps this difference was so decisive, that it ultimately caused their romantic as well as professional relationship to end?

1 Ehrenreich, B. (2001, May). Positively 4th street: The lives and times of joan baez, bob dylan, mimi baez farina and richard farina. Mother Jones, 26, 105. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/213812109?accountid=351

2 “Joan Baez: How Sweet The Sound.” American Masters. October 14, 2009. PBS. Retrieved March 7, 2015. 

3 “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum.” Bob Dylan Biography. January 1, 2015. Accessed March 9, 2015. https://rockhall.com/inductees/bob-dylan/bio/. Retrieved from Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975. http://www.rockandroll.amdigital.co.uk

2 “Joan Baez: How Sweet The Sound.” American Masters. October 14, 2009. PBS. Retrieved March 7, 2015. 

Hammering Out “Our Singing Country”

Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, N.C.

Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, N.C.

[1]

John Lomax and his son, Alan, set out for one of the most ambitious tasks attempted in American folk song history: To travel thousands of miles and collect recordings of as many songs as possible in order to preserve them in the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song. Early in their travels, they came upon a black guitarist and singer named Huddie Ledbetter. He would later be more commonly known by his nickname, “Leadbelly.” The Lomaxes were very impressed with his repertoire of folk songs as well as his virtuosic skill as a twelve-string guitarist. As a result of his four year imprisonment in the Louisiana’s Angola Prison for murder, he was cut off from hearing the popular music of the day. For the Lomaxes, he was a prime living example of the folk tradition they were seeking out and sought to bring his voice to the American public. After employing him as a driver and servant, they brought him to New York in order to record and promote his “pure folk” sound.

Leadbelly, three-quarter-length, profile, facing right, lifting car out of snow, at the home of Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, Wilton, Conn.

[2]

However, in order to make Leadbelly’s music palatable to the public, it seems some edits had to be made. Take the work song “Take This Hammer,” which can be found in the Lomaxes’ collection Our Singing Country: Folk Songs and Ballads from 1941 shown here:

“Take This Hammer” as it appears in Our Singing Country

[3]

Library of Congress Recording of prisoners at Florida State Prison singing “Take dis Hammer”

Now compare it to the transcription found in The Leadbelly Songbook, as transcribed by Jerry Silverman in 1962 and recorded by Leadbelly in the 1940’s:

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 23.59.57

“Take This Hammer” as it appears in The Leadbelly Songbook

[4]

As you can see, the general notes and rhythms are still the same, with some added notes in Leadbelly’s performance. However, in the Leadbelly version, the controversial verses about the “captain” calling him a “nappy-headed devil” and grabbing his gun are omitted. Also, in Our Singing Country, “Take This Hammer” is considered to be a highly rhythmic song that was sung when a slave worked in a gang in order to synchronize the dropping of axes and to “…make the work go more easily by adapting its rhythm to the rhythm of a song.” (citation) In the field recording, which lacks the dropping of picks but is conveyed through the “wahs” of the men singing, the tempo is considerably slower than when Leadbelly sings it.

If the Lomaxes wanted to accurately portray the pure folk tradition in this song, they would have sent the Florida State prisoners to New York to record it how it would have been performed. But no one would have bought the record or even bothered to listen to it. Instead, they realized that in order for the dying folk tradition to be kept alive they had to bring the style into American popular music. Unlike the folk song preservers of the past, they respected the black musical tradition and wanted it to be accessible to white audiences without losing too much of its authenticity. In doing so, the Lomaxes brought folk music to the American popular music sphere and created a new musical tradition.


1. “Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, N.C,” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Lomax Collection, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660160/ (accessed 3/2/15).
2. “Leadbelly, three-quarter-length, profile, facing right, lifting car out of snow, at the home of Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, Wilton, Conn,” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Lomax Collection, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660303/ (accessed 3/2/15).
3. John A. and Alan Lomax. Our Singing Country: Folk Songs and Ballads. (New York, Dover Publishing Inc., 2000), 380-381.
4. Moses Asch and Jerry Silverman, The Leadbelly Songbook. (London, Oak Publications, 1962), 45.

Romanticizing the Struggle of the Common Man in Folk Music

For black Americans in the 1930s and 40s, Jim Crow laws made it impossible to forget the color of their skin, even for celebrated musicians performing in upscale venues.  Lead Belly, discovered in a penitentiary, was no stranger to these racial prejudices.  In a trip to Washington DC in 1937 requested by Alan Lomax, Lead Belly wrote the song “Bourgeois Blues” in response to the unfair treatment he received.

Me and my wife went all over town
And everywhere we went people turned us down
Lord, in a bourgeois town
It’s a bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around …

I tell all the colored folks to listen to me
Don’t try to find you no home in Washington, DC
‘Cause it’s a bourgeois town
Uhm, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Prison compound in Louisiana, Lead Belly in front.

Prison compound in Louisiana, Lead Belly in front.

Although his life contained many of the hardships described in blues and folk songs, Lead Belly was never quite portrayed as a poor folksperson.  Instead, to gain the respect due his talent, he adopted a more professional persona, working extremely hard and finding passion in every aspect of life.  In an interview with PBS, Alan Lomax said that “he simply felt that he triumphed over everything”  (PBS).  In this, he left his early life in the penitentiary far behind.

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Huddie Ledbetter and Martha Promise Ledbetter. Wilton, Conn., Feb. 1935.

 

Woody Guthrie, on the other hand, tried to embody the folky image, but never achieved it fully.  He became a spokesperson for the hardships of ordinary Americans but due to his popularity was never a common man himself.  And, as a white American, his persona never needed the sort of professionalism that Huddie Ledbetter needed to adopt.

Woody with his guitar.

Woody with his guitar.

Alan Lomax, a champion of folk music and a believer in its romanticism, spent years recording both Ledbetter and Guthrie and championing their cause as remnants of true American voices.  Many Americans who listened to folk music idealized the singers as tortured souls moaning out their troubles.  But while Lead Belly and Guthrie experienced the sorrows of racial prejudice, the Great Depression, and dustbowl-era America, neither one completely represented the hardworking common man so heavily lauded in the work of the Lomaxes.  Their fame and status as alternative folk heroes lifted them way beyond the label of common man.  Instead the common man remains in his dusty home, toiling his hours away and singing folk songs to bring up his spirits.

Sources:

Lomax, Alan.  [Prison compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana. Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) in the foreground].  Photograph.  Louisiana, 1934.  From Library of Congress: The Lomax Collection.  http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660073/

Lomax, Alan.  Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) and Martha Promise Ledbetter, Wilton, Conn.  Photograph.  Connecticut, 1935.  From Library of Congress: The Lomax Collection.  http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660385/

Aumuller, Al.  [Woody Guthrie, half-length portrait, facing slightly left, holding guitar].  1943.  From Library of Congress: Prints and Photographs Division.  http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/95503348

So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh

Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) was an American singer-songwriter whose folk music gave voice to people’s struggles and considered his songs as his weapon in the fight against injustice and hardship among many other things.

Woody Guthrie experienced enough tragedy and hard times to inspire thousands of songs. Alongside his passion to voice his own trials, Woody became a voice for more than just himself.

woody_guthrie

Wilson, Charles Banks. [Photograph]. Retrieved from http://www.oksenate.gov/senate_artwork/images/artwork/woody_guthrie.jpg

He crisscrossed across America and made ends meet playing guitar and singing in saloons and work camps during the Great Depression. As he would follow his insatiable wanderlust, Guthrie would absorb certain ballads and styles of the folk style he heard on the road and would write song after song that reflected the struggles and good times of the ordinary people he would meet. Listeners responded immediately to Guthrie’s heartfelt, down-to-earth style.

In the mid-1930s, The Great Depression had already swept across the nation, and a drought had hit the plains of the United States. The prairie grasses had been over-plowed and the dust that collected would sometimes blot out the sun. From his experiences in the “Dust Bowl”,  Woody had realized the power that music had to capture the core of individuals and the events and places he understood.

Woody-Guthrie-Dust-Bowl-Ballads-495806

eli.com [Photograph] Retrieved from http://eil.com/images/main/Woody-Guthrie-Dust-Bowl-Ballads-495806.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“In thinking back about this time, he wrote, ‘there on the Texas plains right in the dead center of the dust bowl, with the oil boom over and the wheat blowed out and the hard-working people just stumbling about, bothered with mortgages, debts, bills, sickness, worries of every blowing kind, I seen there was plenty to make up songs about.’” 1

Behind the simple song, a rich and complex personality that Guthrie instilled, still exudes. One of his first songs to reflect what he saw happening around him became one of his most famous songs. “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You”

Jackson, Mark. “Rambling Round: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie — Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song: Correspondence, 1940-1950 | Collections | Library of Congress.” Rambling Round: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie — Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song: Correspondence, 1940-1950. Library of Congress. Web. 2 Mar. 2015. <http://www.loc.gov/collections/woody-guthrie-correspondence-from-1940-to-1950/articles-and-essays/rambling-round-the-life-and-times-of-woody-guthrie/>.

Flocking to Folk Festivals

In the 20th century folk song was afforded new status as a legit musical form. Previously folk song was sidelined by other more “artful” musical forms from famous composers such as Brahms or Beethoven (even though their music did often draw on popular contemporary songs or folk songs for themes or ideas). Academics, musicians, and composers all studied folk music with new vigor when they realized folk music was something worth paying attention to. Composer Hubert Parry spoke highly of the emotional value of folk music saying it is one of “the purest products of the human mind” (Crawford, 598).

Of particular interest in the folk music festivals that were founded in the early 20th century to around the 50s or 60s. Many of these festivals still exist today in some facet and it wouldn’t be hard to hear “modern” folk music somewhere like the Newport Folk Festival.

Academics became concerned with folk music that was being performed in their time because they were concerned with their musical past disappearing and being replaced with the popular music of the age. Ironically, today we would probably consider their popular music our folk music now.

band

Bog Trotters Band from Virginia http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.00412

The best way to share music is of course performance and creating a festival where many performers and listeners come together is a great way to share and learn new things about folk music. These festivals were highly attended in the height of their popularity. For example in 1968 70,000 people paid entry for the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island (Link to article: <http://search.proquest.com/docview/118382353?accountid=351>).

Folk Festivals were a huge part of why folk music was successful and pointed to the large demand for folk music in American consciousness. Without these festivals for sharing music across regions and states folk music might have stayed in its small box without having room to grow. If there had not been a strong community around folk music it indeed would have died in the libraries no matter how meticulously it was cataloged.