Romancing The Folk: Public Memory And American Roots Music
Roots music, that blend of folk, blues and country, served as the building blocks for much of the popular music of the 20th century. In Romancing The Folk, Benjamin Filene examines the history of the American folk music tradition, and how that tradition was used and shaped by four performers: Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan.
It’s an insightful and educational look at a cultural evolution that continues today. Filene, a public historian at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, credits 19th-century Harvard professor Francis James Child as the progenitor of this tradition with his collection of British ballads, many of which predate the invention of the printing press. Other researchers, such as Carl Sandburg (with The American Songbag), would follow in his footsteps, preserving and classifying old-time songs.
The preservation effort would be changed with the introduction of recorded music in the 20th century. Entrepreneurs such as Ralph Peer, and musicologists such as John and Alan Lomax, saw the value in aural documentation of a singer’s performance, rather than just having the words of a song on a printed page.
Peer recognized the commercial possibilities of the music with such acts as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. The Lomaxes made thousands of field recordings of performers, including Lead Belly and Muddy Waters, establishing, as Filene writes, “a cult of authenticity, a thicket of expectations and valuations that American roots musicians and their audiences have been negotiating ever since.” It led Bob Zimmerman to change his name and distort and romanticize his background when launching his career as a folk singer.
Almost from the start, commercialism and market became intertwined with art. Lead Belly, an inmate in a Louisiana prison when recorded by the Lomaxes, would (reluctantly) perform at concerts in prison garb, another way of manifesting his authenticity. After moving from Mississippi to Chicago, Muddy Waters adopted an electric sound to attract a wider audience.
Seeger and Dylan, sons of the middle class, expanded the folk tradition: The former with his social activism and audience involvement at concerts to narrow the gap between spectator and performer, the latter with a writing and vocal style that set new standards in the protest and singer-songwriter genres.
With its reliance on roots music, Dylan’s latest album, Love And Theft, shows there are new chapters to be written in this story. Filene’s book is an illuminating overview on the meeting of folk culture and popular culture.