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 yearsthe re-release of the Harry
Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, Mobys album Play,
and the popularity of the Dixie Chicks, to name a fewit is clear
that the new interest in music drawing on folk or roots
influences has obvious precedents. At the same time, O Brothers
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 revivala 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 revivalwhose presence is very much felt in
the current momentitself looked to a revival of the early twentieth
century, when collectors such as Cecil Sharp, Olive Dame Campbell, and
John Lomax (Alans 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 explanationwhat
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 Congresss American Folklife Center
and the D.C.-West Virginia Old-Time scene. Nelson reviews the movie
Songcatcher and critiques the film, soundtrack(s), and DVD as
- 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.
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.