Child Ballads

I was recently involved, peripherally, in an online conversation with some left-wing intellectuals about the politics of music. In particular, a lively back-and-forth about the depressing quality of the “folk music” that, as leftists, we are all supposed to like.

This is hardly a new topic. Throughout the 20th century, leftists debated among themselves what kind of music best suited anticapitalist social movements.

The allegorical culmination of these debates, in one oft-repeated narrative, was Pete Seeger ‘s unsuccessful axing of the power mains at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 as Bob Dylan rocked out with rock band in a scandalously rocking fashion (the axe was lying around after a wood chopping demonstration by African American ex-convicts, in stripes, from the rural South… a performance so outrageously degrading by present standards that it is hard to fathom).

In England in the 1950s, one did not even have to crank one’s amp to draw the censure of left musicologists like A.L. Lloyd. In some articulations of the British CP line, all instruments (save for the traditional concertina) were considered suspicious, with a cappella performance the preferred medium of expression of British proletarian consciousness. [1] Thus when Martin Carthy, for example, began adapting the complex counterpoint of blues guitarists like Big Bill Broonzy to English folk melodies, the mere insistence on the political kashrut of virtuosic musical handiwork was itself a radical event. (England also led the US in the sectarian musical polemic department; no American ever came to close to the nutty ultraleftism of the Maoist syllogizing in Cornelius Cardew’s  1974  text Stockhausen Serves Imperialism).

More recently, discussion of “proper” left music often turns to Robin D.G. Kelley wonderful essay about youthful fights over revolutionary music, an essay centered around the recollection of radical ardor leading to the passionate proclamation that after the end of capitalism we will still want to listen to the music of  Bootsy Collins.

To those of us who prefer a star-shaped electric bass (or a low-slung Gibson SG or a Moog synthesizer or Technics turntable or a squealing Selmer saxophone, or what have you)  to a long-necked banjo, however, the ubiquity of a certain strain of folk music remains a problem. For some reason, left music must be dulcet, anodyne, and cloying. Formal experimentation and avant-gardism may be okay in left literature and film (the left literary tradition in the US has long embraced the weird, the new, and the non-literal and non-lyrical, as Cary Nelson points out in his Repression and Recovery, and as Michael Denning further argues in The Cultural Front), but when it comes to music, there is tremendous suspicion of any deviation from the domain of the faux-Navajo guitar strap and the wavering falsetto.

This despite the fact that there is an audible disconnect between “folk music” and American radical/left-wing/working-class musical traditions. The music played at the typical left political gathering has about as much in common with domestic plebeian aural traditions as the high-tech microfiber camping-wear that adorns activists’ bodies has in common with traditional working-class apparel. The “folkie’s” preference for solidaristic themes, politically uplifting subject matter, and memorization-friendly song forms is a latter-day reconstruction of traditional practices, a falsification in many ways as artificial as Colonial Williamsburg.

(I would wager, incidentally,  that most music fans experience a certain shock upon delving into the English ballads [collected and numbered by the Harvard folklorist Francis James Child and usually referred to as the ‘Child ballads’] at the heart of the US folk tradition: a series of stories about the murder of women, tricked virgins, and knights and kings. It’s not at all difficult to guess as to why such stories would have resonated with the poor of England and Appalachia, but it requires a much more generous and complex vision of working-class consciousness than allowed by the functionalist vision of music-as-propaganda that has dominated left thinking about music).

In contrast to the narrow construction of “folk” music, it is far more productive to think of the US left’s musical heritage as that heterogeneous set of practices premised on the collective search for new sonic resources, the quest for novel sounds and aural textures to express and mobilize group affects and desires. In such a reading, Billie Holiday and Bubber Miley, Tina Turner and Eddie Van Halen, the Bomb Squad and Missy Elliot– and many thousands of others aural revolutionaries, well-known and forgotten, widely imitated and sui generis, politically articulate and not–would be properly seen as the heroes of that which “folk” ought to denote.

To voice such a philosophy of music is to pledge allegiance to an extremely minoritarian and heteredox view of what music does and how music works. Even musicians who might be predicted to be aligned with such a perspective often revert to the old line. Why, for example, did Tom Morello, one of the great left-wing sonic innovators of our time, opt to entertain Occupy with acoustic guitar and the old red songbag? Wouldn’t the squeals and shrieks that Morello repurposed from the shred guitarists of the 1980s in his ornamentation of the songs of Rage Against the Machine be a more fitting soundtrack to the prefigurative politics of the moment than another round of “This Land Is Your Land?”

Of course, the anathematization of “folk” music in which I have indulged here is far too crude. It’s not even reflective of my own history with “folk” music, the hundreds of hours I have spent with Smithsonian Folkways records. But I agree with Doug Henwood, who differentiated one kind of “folk” music– the earnest singalongs of the Weavers, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Judy Collins–from other kinds of “folk” music. With an eye to avoiding the traps of “authenticity”-based arguments, I think that the important gesture here is to look not only at what PBS pledge-drive “folk”” doesn’t do (i.e., “accurately” tap into some deep well of real plebeian experience and rural folkways), but rather to think carefully at what such music does do: create a “habitus,” a structure of feeling, an enveloping affective territory in which some of our comrades, to our puzzlement and consternation, like to luxuriate.

Zeroing in on the details of this “habitus,” what do we find? Smugness, self-satisfaction, and the aesthetic conjuring of what Ernst Bloch used to talk about as the premature resolution of social antagonisms, or the artificial construction of totality where none exists in reality. Consider vocal harmony, which in rural musical traditions  expresses either a unity-in-difference (as in the melding of the very different voices of the members of the Carter Family, young and old, male and female, scratchy and smooth, on key and off), or evocations of an uncanny similitude (most audible in “brother” and “sister” group recordings, as well as in practices like Sacred Harp) that, it seems to me, carries a subversive edge in its estrangement of the tacit confidence in unproblematic individuation at the heart of liberal possessive individualism (in much the same way that the visual spectacle of identical twins haunted early modernity).

In PBS pledge-drive “folk,” harmonizing takes on instead the quality of binding individuals together or assimilating difference, calling to mind the bourgeois college singing groups that, in fact, inspired a great deal of 1960s “folk
revivalism. The removal of coarse, aleatory, and grotesque sonic elements from the folk genre (a process brilliantly tracked by Benjamin Filene in his Romancing the Folk, particularly regarding Pete Seeger’s role as unofficial curator of the folk canon) has had a similar effect [2]. And whereas US folk traditions have tended to be tragi-comic (often with an emphasis on the comic, in the Kenneth Burke-an sense of a “frame of acceptance” through which the barrier to peace and social harmony is human folly, in contrast to tragedy’s cosmic forces and preordained failure, a point underlined in Ralph Ellison’s classic essay “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke”), PBS pledge-drive folk seems to me almost universally tragic in tone, given to lamentation, mourning, accusation, and guilt.

Finally, there is the question of literalism. The “folk” music we do not like seems to be premised on a fundamental paranoia that meaning will not be properly conveyed, that surplus signification might cause confusion, that insights need to be stated plainly. Contradiction, in this aesthetic universe, can only be the source of subversion and distortion, not the productive underlying condition of human self-activity. The voice is authoritative, reliable, consistent, and parental. It is lacking utterly in libido and sexual desire. Because this music is premised on a sort of prelapsarian nostalgia, it remembers precapitalist working-class culture as the lost childhood of our neurotic, degraded, capitalist adulthood. And, as we know, it has often idealized certain others because, in the bourgeois tradition, those others have long been represented as the children of world civilization, naives without a history. Thus, folk music becomes, universally, children’s music. Perhaps this is why this aural attempt to conjure self-celebration so often registers as an insult.


[1] The English folk revival was rooted in the work of song collectors Cecil Sharp and the Reverend Baring Gould, and the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Sharp also collected songs in the United States, and exchanged ideas with his Texas counterparts, father John and son Alan Lomax, in the 1930s. The folk activism of A.L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl (born James Miller)–both born into left-wing British families and both drawn to the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1940s and 1950s–drew on the preservationist tradition established by Sharp. MacColl worked with Alan Lomax during the latter’s sojourn in the United Kingdom in the 1950s on projects for British radio; at around the same time, he married Pete Seeger’s sister Peggy, thereby squaring the circle of the prewar left-wing musical currents. In the early 1950s, the CPGB began pushing against the US imperialism that took the form of musical conquest: in the pamphlet The American Threat to British Culture, the CPGB warned against the invasion of British music by American-style “slurred vowels and forced inflexions.” Doctrines of musical correctness were handed down at the many Singers Clubs throughout Britain, in the form of “Policy Rules.” The most extreme versions of these rules forbade all but demonstrably British songs, banned amplification, and looked askance at guitar accompaniment. See C.P. Lee Like The Night: Bob Dylan and the road to the Manchester Free Trade Hall (London: Helter Skelter Press, 1998), 25-34.

[2] Filene writes: “For his part, Seeger never felt comfortable with the blues. He did include some examples of the genre in his songbooks and performances, but often… he relied on vaudeville blues (such as ‘St. Louis Blues’), which had a close relationship to Tin Pan Alley songs. Writing in 1965, Seeger noted that ‘some kinds of music… I admire but could never listen to for long at a stretch’; along with ‘real flamenco guitar playing,’ he included ‘blues,’ such as those of the great Robert Johnson. Why? Hard to put in words. Perhaps the aggressive sound puts me on edge. I just don’t feel that aggressive.'” Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 220.