A Revival of our Own: Why We Just Can’t Quit the Man of Constant Sorrow
Look around you, and you’ll find the world is changing faster than you can blink. Everything from politics to technology to the weather, even, is evolving and metastasizing in a way we’ve never seen before.
Those of us in the millennial generation grew up being thrashed by the winds of change. We came into our political consciousness in the wake of the deadliest foreign attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, which spurred rapid, then long-lived military incursions abroad. Just seven short years later, the global economy took a nosedive, positioning millennials to enter the workforce in the worst economy since the Great Depression. The concurrent rise of the 24-hour news media, broad social connectivity through platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and the Citizens United v. FEC decision of 2010 have shaken the foundations of the political and governing processes of our entire country, from the smallest city council all the way to the White House. Public acceptance of our LGBT brothers and sisters has leaped forward at a truly mind-boggling clip – just 12 years after the last sodomy law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2003, same-sex marriage was made legal in all 50 states. At the same time, state governments have taken action to prevent trans folk from using public restrooms in concordance with their gender identities, and hate crimes against immigrants, Muslim and Jewish people, and people of color have ticked up in frequency. Higher education has become both more expensive and more necessary than at any previous point in human history, leading to a debt crisis in my generation that has pushed back our ability to leave home, make major purchases, and start our own families.
So is it any wonder that the 20-somethings of today may be looking for something, anything, that feels familiar and constant? Or that that something may just be a banjo?
Folk music has been part of America for as long as humans have been present on the continent. From coast to coast, Native nations have developed their own unique musical sounds, most strongly characterized by vocals and percussion. As European colonizers began arriving in the Americas, they brought with them the folk traditions of their home nations. Those of the British Isles – especially the English and Irish folk traditions – have had the largest overall impact in defining the American sound, moving from early folk to “hillbilly” records to modern country, and can be heard in the music of artists ranging from The Carter Family to Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen. With the arrival of stolen slave populations, African spirituals and banjo-like instruments began to weave their way into the American sound. Regionally, you can find other influences and unique blends of sounds – the melding of African and French folk traditions leading to Cajun music in Louisiana, New Mexican music evolving from the mixing of ancient Anasazi traditions with Spanish religious music and Mexican mariachi and ranchera music, the advent of Western and cowboy music arising from the integration of southern Plains Indian music with British ballads and Mexican love songs.
Yes, folk music is tightly woven into the story of America. But those threads aren’t always at the forefront. What we find, when we look through history, is that revivals and resurgences in folk music have come at the times when people needed it most – when the world around us is so confusing and difficult that we seek the wisdom of the traditions that have been passed down to us.
The first major American folk revival came in the 1930s, following the economic collapse of the Great Depression and the political uncertainty leading into World War II, when a revival of hillbilly-style music swept the country in a direct response to the previous decade’s extravagant pop sounds. While the roaring ’20s were characterized by the flashy sights and sounds of brass instruments, grand pianos, and daring fashion, the 1930s were a time for austerity. People were struggling. The dustbowl became both a trial and a touchstone – a symbol of what the true American experience was. The gilded instruments that had once felt glamorous now seemed obscene. But the humble fiddle, once a hallmark of every frontier homestead, held no such ostentatious baggage.
With the Great Depression came a Great Migration – workers were displaced as jobs vanished, and droughts and dust storms pushed farmers out of the Midwest and into the promised havens of gainful employment in California and New York City. Difficult times were bringing people together. People wanted music that spoke to the issues they were facing in their daily lives – poor wages, illness, love, death, and God. They wanted music that addressed their hardships and told them that they were not alone.
Simultaneously, with the advent of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Music Project, musicians that were previously limited by their resources and their regional audiences were able to record their music and have it circulated throughout the nation, leading to a renaissance in folk music. From this came the library of songs and recordings of The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and others, along with access to technology such as the record player and the home radio, that made it possible to turn a cultural longing into a cultural phenomenon. Instruments also became more widely available to working Americans, as cheaply made versions hit the market through mail-order catalogs. This particular innovation is what led to the entire subgenre of bluegrass – bulky Italian-style mandolins received a redesign in 1919 by Lloyd Loar, leading to portable and loud instruments that formed the backbone of the bluegrass sound pioneered by Bill Monroe some 15 years later.
Just one generation later, with the political awakening of the Baby Boomers, folk music was once again revitalized as folk musicians began to become associated with new political movements. This led to the regrettable distinction between traditional “hillbilly” music, which began to be thought of as insular and regressive, and folk music, which gained a reputation for being radical and intellectual.
In the 1960s, the politicized sounds of folk perfectly fit with the unrest surrounding the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement, creating the subgenre of protest music – as popularized by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. However, by the 1970s, folk music began to fade into cultural obscurity as the US pulled out of Vietnam and the civil rights movement saw some of its largest victories, quenching the driving forces behind the revival of the day.
But the core reason for both of these revivals was the same: Current events led to social and/or economic anxiety around the idea of the American identity, leading to a trend of people seeking the comfort of “authentic Americana.”
New Folk Sounds
The most-recent modern folk revival began in 2000 with the commercial success of the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, whose soundtrack received almost as much critical acclaim as the film itself — and even more commercial attention. Just as traditional folk music began to reenter the broader American consciousness, the political climate underwent a drastic change with the events of September 11th. This attack on America, and hence on “American-ness,” generated interest in an art form that had previously been overlooked and even scorned – American folk music. The presence of a movie with such a traditional hillbilly sound fit perfectly into a burgeoning desire for reconnection with a cultural heritage that had been put aside for so long.
The success of O Brother, Where Art Thou? paved the way for new folk bands to begin making their way into a now largely empty scene, with The Avett Brothers among the vanguard. Evoking the themes of youth, uncertainty, and love, The Avett Brothers became the quintessential sound of the 21st-century folk revival, tuning into the heartbeat of young adulthood in a generation coming into its cultural consciousness during a period of political uncertainty and turmoil.
At the same time, Old Crow Medicine Show – a name that is itself a reference to the 1800s traveling medicine shows that were such an important component of the early commercialization of hillbilly music – popularized the song “Wagon Wheel” in 2004, a tribute to the trope of the “rambling man” originally put forth by Jimmie Rodgers. The rambler’s sense of detachment permeates the American folk tradition, very much including the modern folk revival. “Wagon Wheel” itself strongly evokes many of the motifs of both the music and plot of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which was a deeply American homage to the ancient Greek epic of Homer’s Odyssey. Both O Brother and The Odyssey featured strong themes of the never-ending journey and earthly trials, along with the overarching goal of returning home (wherever home may be). As seen in songs such as “Man of Constant Sorrow” (produced by Dick Burnett in the 1910s, leading into the first world war) and “My Long Journey Home” (written by The Monroe Brothers in the late 1930s), there exists a general sentiment of trying to define a concept of home and country during these periods of uncertainty and unease that lend themselves so naturally to folk revivals.
However, where the use of the draft forced the disastrous Vietnam War into the broad social consciousness of America, sparking that era’s folk movement, the September 11th attacks and later the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan likely wouldn’t have been enough to drive a true folk revival for very long. The fact of the matter is that, for better or worse, Americans now have the luxury of being much more disconnected from the military, with only about 1% of families having a member in active service. All of which makes the global economic crash of 2008, seemingly precision timed to strike just as Americans were starting to regain their optimism and confidence, quite fortuitous for the continued livelihood of the millennial folk revival (though, of course, it was terrible for, well, just about everything else).
Just as the Great Depression prompted the rediscovery and romanticization of “the folk” in the 1930s, so too did the Great Recession of the late-2000s. Where in the 1930s the main consumer of hillbilly music was the migrant farm worker (who was facing the brunt of the economic fallout of the time), the main consumers of 21st-century folk are members of my generation, the “millennials,” i.e., the generation growing into adulthood and political awareness at the start of the 21st century. As we millennials grow up and enter into the workforce, we find ourselves in a struggling economy with poor job prospects, an overwhelming amount of student debt, and an uncertain future – the perfect conditions for a folk revival. In addition, in a modern world where technology is advancing more quickly and relocation is more accessible than it has ever been, we now have a generation of young people who have traveled far from home. Their personal histories are so starkly different from those of the previous generation that they now have only an amorphous or tenuous sense of connection to their roots. For some, this climate of economic and political turmoil and personal aimlessness led to a rejection of the synthesized and Auto-Tuned sounds popular in the mid-2000s, which evoked the economic prosperity and certainty that had been so abundant during those times. A small but growing subset of young people instead started seeking songs that, as Pete Seeger once famously said, contain “all the meat of human life in them,” including a revival of the acoustic sounds and themes of traditional music, such as disillusionment, religion, love, family, and death. These songs can be sad or desperate or lonely, but they speak to universal and timeless truths. Namely, that even with all of our advanced technology connecting us to each other, being away from home can be isolating. That entering into a changing economy, be it an urban diaspora like that seen in the 1930s or our current shift away from manufacturing and into service and information technologies, can be anxiety-inducing. That change, while inevitable, can also be miserable.
But not all folk music is gloomy. Some groups have joined in the tradition popularized by Hoover during the start of the Great Depression of taking the tack of idealism, treating economic and political decline largely as a symptom of public doubt. With this belief, the natural conclusion is that prosperity will accompany a revival in confidence. Therefore, along with the large body of folk music filled with rawness and deep-seated aching, there exists its natural counterpart: willful optimism. This kind of song can be seen in the body of work of The Lumineers (“Ho Hey”) and Punch Brothers (“This Girl”). These songs cite the folk tradition of the benevolent presence of God in the lives of the singer, also seen in the repertoire of The Carter Family with one of their biggest hits, “Keep on the Sunny Side.”
Just as the folk revivals of the 1930s and the 1960s spurred evolution in the American folk tradition – by creating the subgenres of bluegrass and protest music – so too did the modern folk revival bring new life to the genre itself. Bluegrass and early commercial hillbilly music were strongly informed by the blues, and modern folk music has likewise been modified and expanded through borrowing from other genres. From artists such as Chris Thile and Punch Brothers, we find strong influences (and in fact complete genre-hopping) from jazz and classical music. From groups such as Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers, we find the influence of grandstanding contemporary pop and rock. Just as in the past, there exist people who stand solely by the more traditional art forms and styles, claiming them as the “True Folk Tradition,” and there are those who accept and participate in the evolution and blending of styles to create new traditions.
We Americans have always prided ourselves on our ability to struggle. The American dream is not to be wealthy, but rather to achieve wealth through hard work, dedication, and entrepreneurship. This glorification of toil and hardship, along with our founding heritage as religious pilgrims and refugees, make Americans naturally more predisposed to appreciate the messages within traditional music. That is just as true today as it was 100 years ago, and that is what gives this music such incredible staying power. In his landmark book on the subject, Kip Lornell noted that American folk music “varies greatly over space but relatively little over time,” referring to the fact that the unique vernaculars of individual communities and their folk traditions can be quite niche while also being timeless. I would argue that, while not every song will be universally relatable to all people (I, for one, have never spent my days swinging a nine-pound hammer in a dirty old calaboose), there are still themes in these traditions that are accessible to us all as humans seeking security and connection. And it is these themes that will continue to draw people closer, into jam circles and onto festival grounds, for many years to come.
Kara Kundert is the executive director of Bluegrass Pride, a Bay Area-based nonprofit devoted to nurturing and uplifting LGBT voices within the bluegrass and old-time music communities. She also moonlights as a freelance writer on all matters roots music, social justice, and astrophysics, and her work has been previously published at The Bluegrass Situation, No Depression, and in theIEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation. She makes her home in Oakland, California, with her mandolin and her elderly cat.