Monday, February 27, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Whether out of affection or in a spirit of ironical raillery I know not, but for Christmas last year my eldest son gave me a three-CD collection of recordings from the 1959 Newport Folk Festival.

I’ve had it sitting on the CD player in my car over the last couple of weeks. I’ve listened to it with pleasure, two or three times through, as I’ve been snarled in traffic jams coming home from work.

I know Pete Seeger was a complacently Stalinist creep when he was a young man, but I still love to hear his rich baritone proclaiming Careless Love or The Bells of Rhymney. I want to jig when Tommy Maken comes in with the pure Oirishness of Mountain Dew. Odetta sings with feeling a version of Cotton Fields Back Home more folksy and less rockabilly-inflected than the version that became popular in the 1960s. Oscar Brand sings out with the old socialist striker’s anthem Which Side Are You On?  Then there’s a special track – in fact the highlght of the three-CD set – where the then-well-known Bob Gibson fronts up with an unknown, unbilled kid and the two of them begin singing We are Crossing the River Jordan. Just a few bars in and her voice is easily out-soaring his. By the end of the song it’s plainly she who is getting the crowd’s roars of approval. It’s the 18-year-old Joan Baez on her first recording date – and she was damned good.

Listening to all this, I mentally reconstruct the ethos of an American folk-music festival 53 years ago. Good will abounded. Righteousness was in the air (far more songs came from a specifically Christian Gospel tradition than would be the case at a folk gathering now). In a few short years they were going to march on the Washington monument and listen to Martin Luther King have a dream and demand racial equality and desegregation. Goodness, guitars and plain folk without an agenda would prevail in the world.

Easy to be cynical with half a century’s hindsight and knowledge of how History (and Vietnam and cultural divisiveness and feminism and monetarism and postmodernism) would kick this simple dream to pieces. Too easy, in fact. I listen to the CDs and wish life were as simple and black-and-white in morality as the old folk festival ethos always implies.

But another set of thoughts come to me.

Is there any form of music that has been more haunted by delusions of “authenticity” than folk music? I doubt it. Why should this be so? Because old folkies want to believe that they are listening to the natural and authentic expression of “the people” without any intervening calculations of commercialism.

Consider that very term “folk music”. It suggests an upswelling from all of the “folk” (and doesn’t “folk”, like its German parent “Volk”, at once evoke peasants and countrypeople as opposed to urbanites and city slickers?). It ignores the fact that many “folk songs” are the compositions of specific individuals who had their own commercial and monetary interests. It implies that this is a natural and uncorrupted music. Especially when deployed by left-wingers (hello The Almanac Singers, hello The Weavers, hello Billy Bragg), it assumes the virtue of simple ordinary people in opposition to business corporations and the commercial mainstream.

Liking folk music means – supposedly – being virtuous and resisting commercial pressure.

You can get really grisly and dishonest versions of this ethos. In his 1962 play Chips With Everything, the left-wing playwright Arnold Wesker has an RAF recruit being pushed around by “the officer class’. Cynically, the officers want the proletarian squaddies to listen to Elvis Presley and rock’n’roll which are, of course, ways of keeping the working class drugged on inanities. An officer thinks he will get an easy chuckle by asking a recruit to sing. He imagines he is going to hear some banal rock lyric. Instead, the recruit gets up and sings a show-stopping “authentic” folk song and the officer is rightly put in his place.

Intended moral of left-wing playwright? Folk songs encode “authentic” folk culture which industrialised capitalist society is trying to stamp out.

Reality? Elvis and rock music more genuinely represented working class culture in the 1950s and 1960s than “folk” music ever did, and a left-wing playwright’s failure to recognise this is yet another proof of how much left-wing thought (especially in its communist guise) is a profoundly reactionary hankering after a peasant world that no longer exists. There is also that reproving puritanical suspicion that if the working class actually likes something (like Elvis) without left-wing theorists telling them to, then it can’t be good for them. Left-wing theorists have always had a hard time accommodating the real appeal of the mass media into their cultural assumptions, and are always ready to grab at conspiracy theories (“The ruling class are trying to drug you!”).

But I digress.

Folk music, for all its real pleasures, is no more “authentic” than any other genre of music. Some of its tunes come from long ago, sure. But others have been composed as knowingly, and with intended audience impact as much in mind, as anything that came from Tin Pan Alley or the Brill Building.

More than once, I’ve heard the term “folk tune” used to signal some number’s acceptability. Recently, on National Radio, I heard a caller fondly commending the “Irish folk song” The Mountains of Morne. Actually, The Mountains of Morne is no folk song. It’s a late nineteenth-century parlour ballad composed by the Anglo-Irish tunesmith Percy French (the same guy who composed Phil the Fluter and Adbul Abulbul Amir). But sing it to an untuned solitary guitar and be soulful about it and you can imagine you are hearing “the people” singing.

Like hearing the sea in a seashell.


  1. I'm no fan of folk, and do quite enjoy a bit of Elvis. But isn't the intellectuals dislike and distrust of Elvis actually more about their attempts at stopping the lowest-common dominator form of entertainment being imposed via the newly developed media corporations of the 50s. Elvis was something that occured with the introduction of national television in the United States, and rather than following a Reithian broadcasting model... CBS decided to give the people pure pop entertainment. It was to be Elvis, not regional music like folk, or blues (which upset the lefties) nor religious music (which upset the righties) nor classical music (which upset the conservative intellectuals).

  2. If you know who wrote it, it's not a folk song.