Roundtable | O Brother, Why Now? A Folk-Revival Symposium

Edited by Olivia Carter Mather and J. Lester Feder


Why Now? A Millenial Folk Revival?

The success of the Coen Brothers’ 2000 movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and its Appalachian- and Bluegrass-inflected soundtrack seemed to come out of the blue. When considered alongside other artifacts of popular culture from recent years—the re-release of the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, Moby’s album Play, and the popularity of the Dixie Chicks, to name a few—it is clear that the new interest in music drawing on “folk” or “roots” influences has obvious precedents. At the same time, O Brother’s popularity has spawned a wide array of “follow up” products and projects: new folk anthologies, books, concert tours, TV series, documentaries, women-in-bluegrass collections, soundtracks, and even church musicals. Taken as a package, it seems we are in the midst of a “folk revival”—a period when popular (and corporate) culture looks to music, art, and other cultural forms that are seen as “folkloric,” treated as if created by communities of music-makers without the interference or mediation of technology.

There have been many previous folk revivals in this century, the most (in)famous of which occurred in the late 50s and early 60s, including performers such as Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and collectors such as Alan Lomax. The 60s revival—whose presence is very much felt in the current moment—itself looked to a revival of the early twentieth century, when collectors such as Cecil Sharp, Olive Dame Campbell, and John Lomax (Alan’s father) headed into the rural parts of the United States in search of “authentic” indigenous expressions.

Because of the disparate paths that led participants to this music, it struck ECHO that this phenomenon required explanation—what is this thing (is it a thing at all?) and why is it happening now? What is its connection to earlier folk revivals, and how is it different? This symposium and the separate articles it contains argue that there is indeed something real and important happening in this realm of popular culture that participates in the negotiation of national identity, historical memory, and technology. Like its predecessors, this folk revival comes at a time of dramatic demographic change, the centralization of large corporations, and the rapid rise of new technology (the internet, in particular) that effects the way we relate to one another, to our communities, and to our nation on the most fundamental levels.

How Now? The Symposium

This symposium does not attempt to deal comprehensively with the large issues this revival raises. Instead we offer six perspectives on elements of this phenomenon and an initial discussion of its cultural implications. Our contributors deal with a variety of questions and approach them from different viewpoints as scholars and as individuals. Jeff Todd Titon and Bill Hogeland examine the relationship between the current revival and its antecedents. Looking at Ralph Stanley, who has recently been made into something of a patriarch (the “king of mountain soul,” as Patty Loveless dubbed him in a recent concert), Titon places his current reinvention in historical context. In light of the American Roots Music television series, Hogeland interrogates the issues of canonicity it raises. Anthony Seeger and Alan Williams consider how revival artifacts are made. Having been the head of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings for many years, Seeger examines the concept of the folk music anthology through the The Alan Lomax Collection. Investigating issues of recording production, Williams brings to bear his experience as a producer to explain the role of technology in creating sounds that signify the “rootsiness” so important to the revival aesthetic. Rachel Howard and Walter Nelson provide insight into how mass-mediated cultural artifacts connect to the personal and community experiences of fans and musicians. Howard discusses the unfolding of this phenomena from the perspective of a community of musicians and enthusiasts that formed around the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center and the D.C.-West Virginia Old-Time scene. Nelson reviews the movie Song catcherand critiques the film, soundtrack(s), and DVD as cultural products.

An overarching theme running throughout these articles is folk music and even folk revivalism as commodified practice. Of course, all the American revivals of the twentieth century have (at least) intersected with a market-driven economy and have reified music in recordings. This obsession with collections and objectification continues with the O Brother phenomenon: the success of its soundtrack has identified (and created) a new market for authenticity in the form of commercially available records. In some sense, the symposium articles focus on the folk revival as it is manifested in objects (CDs, DVDs, books, instruments, etc.) and how participants, including consumers, invest them with meaning.

We are pleased to present authors from a wide variety of backgrounds working with different critical methods. We have included ethnomusicologists, archivists, journalists, educators, and performers with several kinds of writing styles and formats (reviews, scholarly articles, historical narratives, and personal narratives). In addition to providing various perspectives and topics pertaining to the revival, the collection represents the multi-faceted nature of the revival itself as something that attracts many kinds of people.

What Now? Reviving Revival Debate

The preliminary discussion contained in this roundtable points to many areas that remain to be investigated. Perhaps the most important is an in-depth investigation of the racial implications of the current folk revival. The audience and musicians at the forefront of this phenomenon are overwhelmingly white, occassionally black, rarely Native American or Latino, and almost never Asian. This whiteness is especially conspicuous on the scholarly and collecting side, marginalizing the work of figures like Bernice Johnson Reagon and Harry Belafonte, both of whom produced collections of African American traditions that fall into a similar rubric as the one presented here.

An additional issue is the impact of technology on the ways we relate to one another, our communities, and music. As the internet provides a new space for community formation and facilitates the dissemination of recorded music, people experience their communities and the musical imagination of their nation in a new way. Where other revivals have placed a strong emphasis on do-it-yourself music-making and on forging personal connections through such activity, this revival seems to have substantially displaced that impulse in favor of popular recordings.

In presenting this roundtable, we hope to begin a discussion of the cultural implications raised by the revival at the beginning of the new millenium. We are undoubtedly in a period of tremendous change and reflection about what it means to be American, and what America means to those outside its borders. “Folk music,” constructed in various ways, has long been an arena of imagining nationhood, and, we believe, it is vital that we interpret this phenomenon to understand the nation we are imagining.

Next Essay (insert link to Hogeland)


Belafonte, Harry, comp. The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music. Buddha, 2001.

Reagon, Bernice Johnson, comp. Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions. Smithsonian Folkways, 1994.