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Folk Wisdom

The acoustic sound of midcentury America.

May 23, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 34 • By RONALD RADOSH
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Political Folk Music in America from Its Origins to Bob Dylan

by Lawrence J. Epstein

McFarland, 213 pp., $35

Reading Lawrence J. Epstein’s wonderful, lively, and politically incorrect survey of political folk music, a reader cannot help but think of the sarcastic old lyrics of Tom Lehrer’s “Folk Song Army,” written in the heyday of the
sixties folk revival.

Remember the war against Franco?
That’s the kind where each of us belongs.
Though he may have won all the battles,
We had all the good songs.
So join in the Folk Song Army,
Guitars are the weapons we bring
To the fight against poverty, war, and injustice.
Ready! Aim! Sing!

Many others have attempted to write in mordant, respectful tones of the folkies’ desire to inspire left-wing activism through song, but Epstein presents a different take. The academic-sounding title of his book does not do justice to the lively, informative writing and the spirit he reflects of the singers he writes about and the music they wrote and performed. What Epstein says is that the effect the singers had was precisely the opposite of what they intended. Singers like Pete Seeger may have wanted to rally the working-class, but as Epstein writes, “the Left had simply very little support from the proletarians they sought to organize.” Instead, their audience was a new generation of middle-class radical students, those entering the university surroundings on their parents’ dollar, at a time of rising postwar prosperity.

As this new student generation moved to create a New Left, coming together in large auditoriums with like-minded friends gave them a feeling of solidarity and superiority to their parents’ generation, who, they believed, liked an older, bland, nonpolitical pop culture. But the truth was, as Epstein puts it, that they were producing music that “let teenagers rebel safely,” as the folk music they loved also became “pure entertainment or safe and contained rebellion.” It, too, had become “purely American, but not at all in the way that Alan Lomax or Pete Seeger had hoped it would be.”

Indeed, the alternative to rock ’n’ roll—which quickly became the real mass music of the age—was shadowed by scores of new folk pop groups, the biggest seller of which was the Kingston Trio, three college students with a clean-cut image who were privately all leftists but who carefully hid the message they believed in to achieve commercial success. “Their politics,” Epstein notes, “were carefully coded.”

It all began, not in the 1960s, but in the early ’30s, when the Communist cultural movement began to argue that, to reach the masses, they had to turn away from European classical forms to discover the authentic rural music of the poor in Appalachia and mining locales like Harlan County, Kentucky. The music from the mountains captivated people like Lomax, son of the folklorist John A. Lomax and a secret member of the Communist party. They saw themselves as all part of a cohesive musical and political tradition, and hoped that the link to the music of authentic America would become the byway through which they could advance the transformation of the United States to socialism.

Epstein begins with Woody Guthrie and ends with an appreciation and new assessment of Bob Dylan, who began as a folkie and ended up transcending the genre that gave him his start. Guthrie (actually a middle-class Oklahoman) grew up on the music of Jimmie Rodgers (the Singing Brakeman) and A. P. Carter and his family—who were not rebels but religious folks and patriots who suffered in “quiet dignity because of their optimism that each day would be better and their certainty of reaching Heaven as a final reward after their hardscrabble life.” God and family were enough; they did not need politics, especially of the leftist variety. 

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