Which Side Are You On? An Inside History Of The Folk Music Revival In America
Except for those rare out-of-the-way primitive societies untouched by current events, everyone’s life is different after a world war, usually for the worse. Technologies which would ordinarily (that is, in peacetime) take decades to develop through the organic and creative process of human striving now come bursting forth with little regard for their ultimate effect (bad or good; usually bad) on society and culture. Atomic fission is the most obvious example; Scruggs pegs and Keith tuners are less obvious, but in the very long run, as important.
After the chaos and disruption of the Second World War, many people were ready for new things. We learned, for example, that singing together was much more fun when we were singing folk songs. But folk songs, as we understood the term back before the urban folk revival, were different from each other. Their structures were much looser than that of the Brill Building pop tunes of the ’30s and ’40s. And, most significant, they sang of things that were important to the folks who created them through their repetition over the years. They were not created for a purpose (like, to sell), but as part of the process of living.
These are only some of the reasons that folk music became so popular after the war. The debates and arguments surrounding these reasons are legion, but the one incontrovertible certainty is that folk music became a mainstay of the entertainment industry for a brief, glorious moment that ended (depending on who you read) sometime in the mid-’60s.
Dick Weissman’s book Which Side Are You On? is subtitled An Inside History Of The Folk Music Revival In America. “Inside History” seems almost oxymoronic. Inside suggests the author is sharing personal experiences, while history implies a verifiable, documented story. The urban folk revival, like all other human endeavors, is shot full of folk tales about the superstars involved. These stories get passed from mouth to ear, book to eye, constantly changed in the process. They finally assume a life of their own until it matters not whether they are ‘true.’ The very fact they exist has become part of the story.
Weissman is extremely sparing with his own anecdotes. But he lumps Bob Dylan and Joan Baez together, citing their “fanatical ambition” and their “narcissism,” and then goes on to illustrate these traits by telling some of the folk tales involving them. We all know the germ of truth here: that Baez presented Dylan to her audiences, giving his career a tremendous boost, but that he did not return the favor. While she was in his entourage on tour in England, Dylan, a big star now (as she was), ignored her. Never called her up to do a guest shot. So she left the tour. All else is folk tale, rumor, and lies. We know they spent lots of time together in between, but who knows what went down? I don’t, you don’t, and I don’t think Dick Weissman does either.
I performed at the first Newport Folk Festival in l959 and saw Bob Gibson introduce Baez to the huge audience. She sang two songs (I wish I could remember what they were); it was the trigger that rocketed her to stardom. But she never returned the favor. Weissman connects the two incidents, separated in his account by a single page, but fails to make the obvious observation that she was getting her comeuppance.
Not long after Newport, Gibson, Dick Rosmini and I were sitting around trading stories and Gibson related how he had called Baez and asked her to join the new group he was forming. According to Bob, her response was something like, “Why in the world would I want to perform with you?” His cynical laughter as he told it was a comment on her chutzpah.
Weissman does an excellent job tracing the growth and development of the urban folk revival from its first recognizable beginnings, the work of the early folk song collectors in the first decade of the 20th century. He then takes us to the Wobblies, who, instead of fighting with Salvation Army Bands for the attention of the masses on the street, wrote parodies incorporating their own union message, thereby enlisting the bands as accompanists rather than antagonists. From there he traces the revival as mainly a growing interest in folk songs as protest music.
There are as many versions of this story as there are people who lived it. Coming from a radical background, I was aware of the protest songs, loved them, sang them, laughed and cried with my fellow singers over them. But I was already converted. My main interest was in the music and the stories. The murders, the train wrecks, the brokenhearted maidens waiting for their lords to come home to them, the entire body of folksong and music. Protest music was a part of this, but never seemed to be the most important part.
Nobody questions the fact that left-wingers of all stripes — and that most certainly includes the communists — used folk music as a way to promote their causes. That never kept the political conservatives in the movement (and there were many) from enjoying the music and the camaraderie. And why should it? It is the music and the singing that counts; that’s where the good feeling comes from, not from the politics of the singers. Weissman finds it necessary to point out that someone who espoused a cause that had been pushed by communists was not automatically a communist.
In his use of the words folk and revivalist, Weissman makes a fairly sharp separation between the two. The folk created the music and taught it to the revivalists, who came upon it after the war. I used to believe this distinction made sense until I realized that the songs I learned as a child on and around the streets of Brooklyn were folk songs, in their purest form. (Because of their content, they could never be exploited by the general media, a process which always destroys their “folk” value.)
So does that make me one of the folk or just an ordinary revivalist? Personally, I couldn’t care less.
There are distinct and broad differences between folk and non-folk songs. But a person who sings folk songs with an educated understanding of the material, throwing themselves into the singing with unpatronizing acceptance and surrender to its primitive qualities is, to me, a folk singer with all the rights and privileges of any backwoods balladeer.
As Weissman so clearly points out, this debate has its roots in the writings of the early folklorists and collectors who were jealous of their territories and were often more concerned about who got there first than they were about the material they collected.
I am in awe of Weissman’s scholarship. Starting from the beginnings, he pursues the development of the revivalist music as it grew and changed into folk-pop, folk-rock, and rock ‘n’ roll. There are over 1,500 entries in the index, most of them singers, the rest periodicals. He also included many of the folk instrument shops around the country. (Though he left out Peter Carbone’s Village String Shop, not the biggest, but the earliest and the most influential in the sense that it was a going concern even before the revival started. And it was the only place one could find strings for the five-string banjo in the late ’40s.)
I would have been a lot happier if Weissman had given less space to the names of people illustrating his points and devoted more space to the names of songs he discusses. For instance, in Chapter 1 he relates a fairly complex situation between John Lomax (Alan’s father) and Cowboy Jack Tharp, two early collectors of cowboy songs. Tharp printed a collection of 23 songs, five of which he had written. In 1910, Lomax printed his collection, including a song from Tharp’s book, not knowing Tharp had written it. Then, in 1916, a new edition was printed that included all five of Tharp’s songs. Later, Lomax, in a letter to folklorist D.K. Wilgus, accuses Tharp of “cribbing” the songs from his book, and who knows how it all came out? But Weissman never tells us what the names of the songs were.
He is at his best in the later chapters, in which he discusses changes in the musical styles as it all developed into the ’90s. I fell behind through these years, and so a lot of this material was new to me. Also, for every note played in the early years, there are a thousand played these days. To have kept up with the whole thing, as Weissman has done, is monumental, and I believe he must have devoted much of his life to doing so. When you include his detailed stories of the development of interest in ethnic music that also grew as part of the entire urban revival — Cajun music, the klezmer music of the old Jewish immigrants, the blues, Hispanic music, and much more — the faults of his book fade into insignificance.
In the end, my most serious objection to Which Side Are You On? is the title. Had Weissman gone to the original words to the song written by Florence Reece in l931, he never would have written, as he did in the preface, “The song contrasted the lot of the working class and the bosses and asked the listener to choose sides.”
Untrue! The song is addressed to the coal miners and never mentions any contrast except to ask, “Will you be a lousy scab, or will you be a man?” The union organizers were being hunted down and killed by the mine owners’ hired killers. The dilettantish debates among folklorists and collectors over what is a folk song and who is a folk singer, and all the other “controversies” cited by Weissman in his preface, in no way measure up to the importance or profundity of the bloody “debates” going on in Harlan County in l931, which the title symbolizes more than any other protest song I can think of.
Don’t scab for the bosses
Don’t listen to their lies
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance
Unless we organize.