In search of the Volk

by Chris Bertram on May 5, 2007

We had an interesting discussion the other day after Harry’s “post”: about Show of Hands and their song “Roots”. That argument was partly about the possible recuperation of song by the radical right despite the inclusivist politics of the songwriter. Yesterday’s Guardian had “an interesting piece”:,,2071468,00.html attacking the the politics at the origin of folksong as a distinct genre, and especially the politics of the folksong collectors Sharpe and Lomax. Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor argue that the search for authenticity and the untainted roots of distinct national tradition as embodied in besmocked peasants (and so on) is imbued with ghastly racist assumptions of various kinds and that we should simply reject the idea of a distinction between folk and popular song.



Henry (not the famous one) 05.05.07 at 9:59 am

Elijah Wald dealt with this illusion that blues artists–and in particular Robert Johnson–somehow simply sprung out of the ground in his book “Escaping the Delta,” with a great CD, “Back to the Crossroads,” to go with it.


John Emerson 05.05.07 at 11:07 am

A bit of overkill. If I understand the article correctly, if I deny that Britney Spears’ songs are folk that means that I am a racist or Nazi.

Bela Bartok was an active folklorist in Central Europe. While he was a Hungarian patriot of sorts, he collected songs from Rumanian, Slovak, Turkish, Bulgarian, and other sources. (Bartok was Hungarian, but most of his life before WWI was spent in areas Hungary lost in the peace settement.) Bartok was uncompromisingly anti-fascist (and anti-Communist) and boycotted the Horthy regime from the beginning, and to the best of his powers he defended Hungary’s national minorities against the nationalists.

For Bartok folk music was a window to the past, and for Bartok (as for Musorgsky) folk music was a musical resource helping him escape the strangling influence of Brahms and Wagner. It can be shown that Musorgsky’s appropriation of folk was impure too, but on the other hand, Musorgsky was the first European composer to succeed in escaping from the toxic late-romantic German tradition, and some of his new techniques really were learned from folk music.

One of the most prominent melodies in “Boris Godunov” had earlier been appropriated by Beethoven for one of his quartets. The recent “Mystere des Voix Bulgares” probably derives about equally from Musorgsky and from actual folk music.

If the guy had stopped at pointing out that all appropriations of folk music have been tendentious, that would have been enough.


JRoth 05.05.07 at 12:11 pm

Actually, I’ve had a long, rambling post objecting to Elijah Wald’s book in the back of my mind for a year. Sounds like the exact same problem that the guy in the Guardian has – he really wants to make the bold, strong argument, but he can only do that against a strawman.

Wald’s bete noir is the notion of chthonic bluesmen, isolated from larger culture and creating semi-literate cri de coeur (sp?) from nothing more than their own innate musicality, and perhaps pre-historical tradition. And he does, in fact, show that this is not an accurate description. But that doesn’t teach adults very much. What Wald fails to do is to prove that the music we think of as “country blues” or “Delta blues” has no pre-recorded, rather than pop and songbook, origins.

Look, people out in the countryside of the USA were, in the 1920s, still listening to Child Ballads in nearly-unchanged versions that dated back centuries. That’s folk music. The fact that those same people enjoyed Irving Berlin tunes proves nothing but good taste.


Luther Blissett 05.05.07 at 1:48 pm

JRoth — the problem is with the ideologies defining ideas of “folk music” versus “pop music.” For example, the former is seen as authored by the collective, by the earth; the latter by a single or small group of craftsmen for profit. But as Cecil Taylor shows in *Stagolee Shot Billy*, if we could recollect all the data, we could put an individual face of authorship on every “folk” tune. We could also put a historical moment of authorship on it, and so read understand the song in context.

And then there’s the whole issue of “authenticity.” Charley Patton played blues and Tin Pan Alley. He was a dance musician, and his job was to get the audience to dance. His performances of blues songs weren’t more “authentic” than his performances of pop songs. “Authentic” too often means that what one does is tied to who one is, as if who one is is prior and separate from what one does: I’m Jewish so my matzo ball soup is authentic. When in reality, who I am is simply the collection of what I do: I make excellent matzo balls and that makes me a great chef of matzo ball soup. It doesn’t make me Jewish, nor does it partake of my Jewishness.

So we can keep “folk” music as shorthand for a style or genre: the acoustic music of rural people. But at a certain point in America, the line between that genre and other genres was irrevocably crossed: “Long Black Veil” ain’t a folk song, though it seems like a classic murder ballad, while corporate country is now the music of rural people. (Or at least rural Americans in the subdivisions built on what used to be farmland.)


J Thomas 05.05.07 at 2:40 pm

“What is new and significant must always be connected with old roots, the truly vital roots that are chosen with great care from the ones that merely survive.” Bela Bartok

There’s nothing wrong with separating out some schools of music for awhile and letting them develop their own things. Later the popular music people will grab whatever they want and mix it in. Separate populations followed by some hybrid vigor is better than just mass selection over a giant mass.

It’s all good.

How does that fit into the politics? Every which way. It depends.


John Emerson 05.05.07 at 2:42 pm

At the present time there is probably little or no folk music anywhere in the U.S. Almost nobody’s far from a radio or a TV, a lot of the traditional communities have been absorbed, and not many people have been passing down oral traditions. (Questions of authenticity and folk aside, there really aren’t even many local music communities or regional styles any more — almost anyone who’s any good is tuned in to the national music scene and plans to give it a shot at some point).

To me it makes sense to say “We might as well forget about the line between folk music and pop music, because they’re really nothing to call folk any more.”

What the collectors were accused of was preferring one sort of music the musicians they were recording played to other sorts of music they played — specifically, they prferred the music that was distinguishable from what everyone else was playing everywhere else. I don’t see the problem. The guys were looking for music that was different and new to them, they weren’t trying to get a statistically correct sample of what was being played on the Delta.


Richard 05.05.07 at 2:44 pm

It may be overkill – it certainly, erm, exemplifies Godwin’s Law, more than once, and it’s easy to draw the conclusion that concepts of folk are inherently fascistic from it (although it doesn’t say that)… but is there any defensible concept of folk culture (of which folk song would be an aspect) to be had? For me the critical line is:

cultural integration had all but eliminated the purity of most of the groups in Europe and America producing “folklore”

That’s a common trope, but where do such groups come from? How do they develop folklore, and can we claim that such invention has now stopped because we’re ‘globalised?’ What, actually, is the difference?

…maybe I have to go read that other thread.


John Emerson 05.05.07 at 3:07 pm

Suppose you drop the words “authenticity” and “purity” and just say “A local popular (non-elite) style (possibly of a specific ethnic group) which is distinctly different from elite styles and widely-disseminated commercial styles”. The stuff Lomax, Bartok, and Childs collected would all count. If the same people playing the local styles also played the other styles, or if the local style was in some way influenced by past or present commercial styles, it would hardly justify erasing the folk-pop distinction.

One of the things Bartok tried to do was distinguish Hungarian folk music from a specific kind of commercial folk developed by mostly-Hungarian gypsies. I don’t see the problem with this; there were two different kinds of music there.

I agree that there probably aren’t any folk in the US any more, but that’s a different question.

Through the internet I know (or know of) a multi-lingual guy who travels around SE Europe doing folk-music stuff, and he seems to be finding stuff to keep him busy.


peter ramus 05.05.07 at 3:43 pm

Karaoke is folk music, John Emerson.


roy belmont 05.05.07 at 5:22 pm

The primary distinction between folk and popular song would be the commodified nature of the latter. Its sellable aspect. The organic living nature of the one, the cooked and processed nature of the other. One can be owned, the other never. The centrality’s on the copyright, and the royalty check.
That we live now in a world in which everything from water to embryos can be “owned” makes things a little murky. It makes sense that the beneficiaries of that commodification would be threatened by and antagonistic toward anything that wasn’t easily commodifiable, such as folk traditions. The same smooth flow exists in artifacts like spear points, shovels, steam engines etc. Refinements that could have been locked down as intellectual property were absorbed into the “folk” stream. Patents aren’t the arbiter, they’re where the money goes, is all.
“…if we could recollect all the data, we could put an individual face of authorship on every “folk” tune…”
Cecil Taylor to the contrary, no we could not. We could put an individual face of performative authority on every iteration of every song ever sung, but that would be near meaningless wouldn’t it?
There’s soldier ballads going back to the Hundred Years’ War that could be tracked right to the door of the Dixie Chicks’ big hit. Nowhere in that live continuum could absolute authority be established without truncating something more central and making the distinction less precise. Slapping tight definitions on a thing as bright and deep and alive as song is something only merchants would be interested in in the first place.
But then we’re nearly all merchants now, aren’t we? Or customers. Thus the reduction of music to pastime, entertainment, trivial. When every major passage of our lives except birth itself is marked by music.
Popular no longer means – though this is altering some now because of digital accessibility – “popular”, it means “sells a lot”.


peter ramus 05.05.07 at 6:05 pm

Revising and extending my previous comment:

Folk music is made by people singing songs they just know. In my own memory, people sat around picnic tables singing songs they just knew. This was a recognized part of any picnic, though nowadays less common. A songless picnic goes almost unremarked today, although it would have been considered exceptional by the sort of people I recall who anticipated songs breaking out in public as a regular feature of any picnic and took proper steps to include themselves affirmatively in the inevitable event or exclude themselves definitively from the near precincts of the thing for a game of baseball or a wander in the surrounding acres instead.

From the vernacular of commonly know songs they, remembered folks actively if not always inerrantly engaged in song there at that picnic, sang the songs they just knew; parlor songs and music hall songs and all the commonly known hits of recorded songs bought to them by radio, phonograph and film, and all the remembered songs of other picnics common to them, too.

What they were making was folk music, which nowadays karaoke formalizes and depends on for its popularity, is what I”m saying.


Ciarán 05.05.07 at 6:35 pm

…if I deny that Britney Spears’ songs are folk…

As most creepily featured on Richard Thompson’s 1000 Years of Popular Music…


Luther Blissett 05.05.07 at 7:07 pm

Yeah, see, folk music was always for sale. You always had to pay the piper. Sure, town musicians were paid to play for weddings, ceremonies, funerals, etc. Just as church musicians were.

People like Robert Johnson or Charley Patton or Dock Boggs didn’t inherit their songs for free or play them for free. They sold their performances. (Boggs tells countless hilarious stories about playing for money.) They didn’t sit by the crossroads playing for art’s sake, or channeling the spirit of the folk. They played barn dances, moonshine cabins, weddings, funerals, whereever and to whomever would pay. And they taught people songs — whether Lomax or other musicians — for money.

The difference, then, might be that pop music had “mechanical reproduction” whereas folk music survived largely through live performance. But it was all always for sale.


John Emerson 05.05.07 at 7:17 pm

The karaoke part rings false. Karaoke may have stepped into a niche once filled by folk music.

Luther is more or less right about the commercial aspect, though nationwide commercialization is a different thing than playing for cash in bars.


nick s 05.05.07 at 7:58 pm

At the present time there is probably little or no folk music anywhere in the U.S.

Oh, I dunno about that. Appalachia is different, though.


John Emerson 05.05.07 at 8:14 pm

My guess is that Appalachian folk by now is pretty well wired into the national country, bluegrass, old-timey, and alt country circuits.


Steve LaBonne 05.05.07 at 9:21 pm

But it was all always for sale.

I do think, though, that there’s a difference between music (or product of any other art) that’s purely conceived as a salable commodity and music that at least originates as stuff the musicians actually want to play, even if some compromises end up being made in the interest of salability.


John Quiggin 05.05.07 at 10:30 pm

There are really only two views here

1. Folk music is what folk collectors collect
2. Folk music is what folk singers sing

I’m with Barker and Taylor that 2 is right, but they are a bit OTT in their attack on Sharp and Lomax.


roy belmont 05.06.07 at 12:03 am

Folk music is what the folk sing.
You know about “Robert Johnson or Charley Patton or Dock Boggs” because they sold their performances. They pass for folk because they’re so close to the doorway in. Obviously the unrecorded locals of two hundred years back aren’t part of your historical overview, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there.
You don’t know about the uncollected and unrecorded. So they don’t count. Because you don’t know about them.
People sang before there was money. That singing was carried forward to this day, in an unbroken chain of heard and responded music, by something we might as well call the folk tradition. If we can do that without copyrighting it.


radek 05.06.07 at 12:25 am

So we can keep “folk” music as shorthand for a style or genre: the acoustic music of rural people.

That’s Folk music. But for folk music in general, in this age of relatively cheap musical instrument there’s no reason why it needs to be limited to a guy pluckin’ a banjo. Scratchin’ a record on a turntable in your parent’s basement is just as folksy (or was 20 years ago).

At the present time there is probably little or no folk music anywhere in the U.S.

In the sense that there aren’t many “traditional communities” left – and what is a traditional community, a newly sprung up mining town in Appalachia? Camp for migrant agg workers on their way from Oklahoma to California? Southern Blacks arriving in Northern towns from Mississippi? – yes. But again, I don’t see why folk music needs to be fit in that strait jacket.

Anyway. Enjoy:

and there’s a lot more, except I’ve been out of the loop for a long time now.


Luther Blissett 05.06.07 at 1:46 am

Of course, Roy, there have been musicians of all sorts who didn’t perform for money. But my point is that we cannot use commodification as a way of distinguishing between pop and folk.

(And sure, there were musicians before money, but coin isn’t the only form of payment. Choice brontosaurus burgers were and are still welcome among musicians.)

I’d also be interested in learning how “John Henry” stretches back to time immemorial. What did “steel-driving man” mean among the cave dwellers?


J Thomas 05.06.07 at 3:51 am

What I sing is folk music. Nobody pays me, I sing when I want to until my kids tell me to shut up.

At least some of what science fiction fans do when they filk is folk music. Some of them get paid occasionally, some of them get into conventions free for their songs, but a big part of it is just people who like to sing.

You no longer find people who make music who haven’t been exposed to mass culture, at least not americans. So the folk music gets inputs from everything else which makes it “impure”. Similarly the coyote bands all through the southeast are hybridised with domestic dogs. OK, it’s true. So what?

Even in the market economy it’s fine for people to want niche markets, and to try to get them. They can restrict themselves to special styles, and they’ll have some effect on whichever markets are accepting outside input at the time. It’s all OK.

I’m not sure it matters a whole lot when niche music gets linked to political movements. Very likely the music would do better without the link and the political movement would do better without the link, but maybe sometimes one or both actually benefit.


Martin Bento 05.06.07 at 5:49 am

I think one problem with the folk/pop dichotomy has been the assumption that there’s intrinsically a certain kind of music that emerges from “pure” motives and another kind that emerges from commercial mass culture. There do tend to be differences, but they are not absolute. So defining “folk authenticity” as a function of the player’s intention per se, but also holding it to be something irreducible in the music as artifact doesn’t quite hold up, and leads to bad ideas, such as scolding folk musicians if they absorb ideas or craft from popular music and objecting when popular music uses material from folk. To use a trope from popular music: “There is nothing pure in this world”.

Ah, yes, the problem of purity. I think others have dismantled the notion that the major canonical folk players had purely non-commercial motives. But I also question whether Steve Labonne’s “purely” commercial motives exist either. If I decide to make a lot of money by writing a song for Britney Spears, will I be able to make my imagination produce that without touching the spontaneous impulse to create music? I doubt it very much. At the least I will have to “act” in the theatrical sense – I will have to create belief in a false situation.

Which leads us to a more general error. If little if any music has either purely spontaneous or purely self-interested motives, does this mean that neither type of motive exists? Of course not. But this seems a common error, to suppose that if something is not found in pure form in the real world, it “does not exist”. If we define “green” as a set of light wavelengths that excite one set of our color cones to the exclusion of the others – which might be a reasonable physiological definition – than nothing is every purely green, because all cones respond to some degree across the visible spectrum. This does not mean that green “does not exist”, or that “green” is not a legitimate way to characterize an aspect of human experience. But I’ve seen arguments like: no discourse is fully meaningful stripped of context, therefore there is no transcendence, the author is dead, meaning is infinitely deferred, etc. I’m parodying to a degree, but I think such an error was in fact at work – if language relies on context to any degree, then there can be nothing in it that cannot be reduced to context, ergo, text are written by history not authors.


roy belmont 05.06.07 at 8:43 am

Three words: Roscoe Mitchell.


David Lloyd-Jones 05.06.07 at 11:46 pm

Small sidelight: Alan Lomax’s assistant, lugging the huge tape recorder around, was a very young Jerome Weisner!


peter ramus 05.06.07 at 11:55 pm

Another small sidelight on Lomax: the folks at Fisk who gave him entrée to the music of the South got scant mention from him, it says here.


Jay Bee 05.07.07 at 12:39 pm

In Ireland we’ve had both “trad” as in traditional Irish music as well as “folk” whatever it that is (ballad singing”?
When Planxty started in the early 1970s Liam Og O’Flynn an accomplished traditional piper was warned by the trad purists that he shouldn’t be playing in a band with guitars. Thirty years on the trad side of music is very strong, the use of guitars is common, the musical styles have evolved, even borrowing some of the styles and phrasing from rock/pop


john culpepper 05.07.07 at 5:30 pm

In 1985 folklorist Dave Harker a student of broadside ballads, who is a self-described Trotskyite, published a book “Fakesong” which attempted to triangulate the world of folk music by attacking folksong scholars as elitist villains while celebrating the genres’ more commericial aspects. Harker, who has theorized that folk music is a construct invented by upperclass elitists to oppress the poor, illustrated his thesis by savaging the character of collector and musician Cecil Sharp, accusing him of bowderizing his texts and misrepresenting his statistics. Recently, however, Harker, who believes that all folk music originated with published urban broadsides rather than oral tradition, stands accused of perpetrating the same sorts of falsehoods that he attributed to folk song scholars.

“Harker’s evident scorn for rural life and rural values reflects the contempt which doctrinaire Marxists have always expressed for the countryside and its inhabitants, from the time of Marx himself. So, to redeem the “rural proletariat” from “the idiocy of rural life,” it was necessary for Harker to integrate them into urban-based culture via the broadside.” — C. J. Bearman

Alan Lomax, by the way, contrary to what is said about him in the book by Gordon referred to above et al did ackowledge his collaborators from Fisk in his book “The Land Where the Blues Began” over 18 times!! That he did not do so is simply a smear and a lie.

C.J. Bearman

David Harker’s criticism of Cecil Sharp’s work [Published as Fakesong, and elsewhere] has been called the “beginning of serious critical work” on the early folk music movement, and it has become an orthodoxy which later commentary has accepted without question, taking its accuracy and the validity of its research base on trust. This article shows that the trust has been misplaced. It uses a fresh, more complete and more rigorous analysis of the Sharp MSS to show that Harker’s criticism is inaccurate, innumerate, flawed in its methods, and unjustified in its assumptions. It forces a reassessment both of Sharp’s work and of Harker’s, and renders untenable many of the assumptions upon which modern interpretations of the early folk music movement in Britain are based.


john culpepper 05.07.07 at 6:45 pm

The Guardian article’s description of Cecil Sharp as scouring the Appalachian mountains for “Aryan” tunes is typical in its misrepresentation of Sharp’s motives, making it seem as though Sharp were a proto-Nazi racist nationalist. Sharp was a composer interested in music education at a time when music education was based on German music and German folk songs. (And education in reading and writing was based on a classical — Latin and Greek — curriculum. There were practical linguistic reasons for seeking to build national curriculums and national literatures having nothing to do with racism). Sharp thought that a national music curriculum — remember that public education was then in its first glimmerings — should be based on British music. Sharp was thrilled that many of the tunes of the older ballads that had been forgotten in Britain were preserved in the United States. If Sharp were interested in Aryan music, wouldn’t he have been content with German melodies? As far as the ballads being particularly “Anglo-Saxon” as the Harkerites insinuate — this is nonesense. Everyone knew then that the texts of the ballads were Pan-European and North African. The tunes did vary from language to language, however.

As for the term “Anglo-Saxon” — it had working class conotations at the time. As was alluded to in Scott’s Ivanhoe, the Anglo-Saxons had been subjectected to the Norman French aristocracy who had relegated them to lower status and forbid them to hunt, among other things. It is interesting that some of the foremost scholars of old Anglo-Saxon were working class in origin and had gone to study in German universities, which, unlike Oxford and Cambridge, were open to all.

Wikipedia: on Joseph Wright: “Born in Thackley, near Bradford in Yorkshire, the seventh son of a navvy, he started work as a ‘donkey-boy’ (carriage driver) at the age of six, became a ‘duffer’ (clothes peddlar) in a Yorkshire mill, and never had any formal schooling. He learnt to read and write at the age of 15, becoming fascinated by languages. He studied in Germany and completed a Ph.D. on Qualitative and Quantitative Changes of the Indo-Germanic Vowel System in Greek at the University of Heidelberg in 1885.”

Elijah Wald’s book on Robert Johnson which assumes that you can quantify musical influence on the basis of records sold is dealt with here:

Though I myself do not usually agree with the libertarian magazine Reason. Sometimes the authors that publish there do excercise that faculty.


John Culpepper 05.08.07 at 2:06 am

“I’ll make a ballad on it and it shall have no bottom” –Bottom in a Midsummer Night’s Dream (approximate quote from memory).

The ballad of John Henry may not go back before the invention of the steam hammer but the form of the ballad — the four line strophe with or without refrain that tells a story — goes back to the popular songs of the Roman Empire. See Ted Gioia’s book on Work Songs (Duke U Press, 2006) for the numerous claimants to the John Henry ballad.

Ballads in strophe form, routinely hundreds of verses long, were still being danced in chain dances in the Faroe Islands — some of them about Charlemagne’s exploits — into the 20th century. Faroese was not a written language until the 1880s so it is doubtful that people learned these ballads from commercial broadsides.

Hammer songs have a truly immemorial tradition, probably going back to the invention of iron and were sung whereever people are employed breaking stones or in smithy work. In Great Expectations, Dickens has Miss Haversham ask Pip to sing her a blacksmith hammer song (remember that Herbert Pocket gives Pip the nickname “Handel” because he is a “harmonious blacksmith.”)

Victor Hugo writes of the prisoners: “What can be done in Hell? .. They sang. For when there is no hope, song remains … The poor poacher Survincent, who had passed through the cellar prison of the Chatelet, said, ‘It was the rhymes that sustained me.'” (Quoted in Gioia, Work Songs (2006), p. 210-211.

Mark Twain also notes the singing of interminable ballads by illiterate raftsmen in “Life on the Mississippi”; and in Wuthering Heights Catherine Linton sparks Hareton Earnshaw’s interest in learning to read through a recital of “Sir Patrick Spens” (in this case the ballad is from a printed source probably Percy’s Reliques).

“One song of Burns is of more worth to you than all I could think of for a whole year in his native country. His Misery is a dead weight on the nimbleness of one’s quill … he talked with Bitches, he drank with blackguards, he was miserable. We can see horribly clear in the works of such a Man his whole life, as if we were God’s spies.” — John Keats (c. 1818) on Robert Burns


seth edenbaum 05.08.07 at 4:56 am

No memtion of Harry Smith?

The Anthology of American Folk Music?
Harry was just a goddamn record collector.

“What’s your scene, man?”
“I guess that means pretty hard work with big books and piles of paper on a big table?”
“No, I drift. Mostly, I just drift.”

Goddamn, well I declare
Have you seen the like?
Their walls are built of cannonballs,
their motto is Don’t Tread on Me
Come hear Uncle John’s Band
by the riverside
Got some things to talk about
here beside the rising tide

That would be “Uncle” John Cohen.


John Culpepper 05.08.07 at 7:50 am

In a 1969 interview for Sing Out Magazine, John Cohen asked Harry Smith: “Where did you first hear of the Carter Family?” Smith: “I would think from that mimeographed list that the Library of Congress issued around 1937, ‘American Folksongs on Commercially Available Records’ [Sic. This list was issued in 1941 and includes 12 of the 60 songs and several of the artists represented in Smith’s collection.] Shortly after that, two Carter Family recordings, ‘Worried Man Blues’ and ‘East Virginia Blues’ were reissued on the album Smoky Mountain Ballads [compiled and annotated by John A. Lomax in 1942]. That album would come to stores that wouldn’t ordinarily have Carter Family records.” John Cohen: “In that album John and Alan Lomax made hillbilly music respectable enough to have it sold along with art music and symphonies.” Smith went on to tell John Cohen that he had first heard recordings of Buell Kazee singing Child ballads at the University of California while visiting the home of English literature professor Bertrand Bronson, who had purchased them as they were issued. Smith maintained that he had selected the songs for the Anthology on the basis of what would be of interest to scholars and to people who might like to sing them. See Sing Out (4/5, 1969): 2–6. Bascom Lamar Lunsord, one of the artists on Smith’s anthology had come to NY in 1937 to sing for the English department at Columbia University. The editorial apparatus of the Smithsonian reissue of Harry Smith’s Folkways Anthology makes no mention whatever of Harry Smith’s connection to these scholars nor his indebtedness to them in his choice of material.


Thalia May 05.08.07 at 10:07 am

Harry Smith does get a long section in the authors’ book ‘Faking It’ which takes a longer (and less sensationalist) look at these issues as part of an examination of the idea of authenticity in music. He is depicted as something of a hero for his non-purist approach.

Incidentally, it seems to me that the article makes it clear that being a ‘proto-fascist’ is a complex thing as many of Sharp’s views were common at the time. My understanding of his views is that he was in the Appalachians looking specifically for English and Scottish songs. But he was also generally interested in linking the study of these into discovering the European (Aryan) roots of folksong. That doesn’t make him a Nazi, but maybe it does make him a ‘proto-fascist’.

Harker’s book Fakesong is very biased as he wants to attack Sharp from a pure Marxist viewpoint, and assert that Sharp misrepresented the voice of the ‘urban proletariat’ – I think the article is correct to suggest that this is a fruitless line of attack – one should instead ask if there is any pure tradition there at all.


John Culpepper 05.08.07 at 3:23 pm

“[Sharp] was also generally interested in linking the study of these into discovering the European (Aryan) roots of folksong. That doesn’t make him a Nazi, but maybe it does make him a ‘proto-fascist’.”

So, anyone who is interested in European history is a proto-fascist? That’s painting with a pretty broad brush. Sharp was looking for the tunes of the Child ballads and other English folksongs (which were also Irish, Scots, Welsh, Manx, Cornish, and French to name a few).

The method of folksong study was based on philology — comparative analysis. It did try to trace back the oldest tunes and texts — as classicists did when they compared different manuscripts and papyruses of Ancient Greek texts. The scholarship based on these methods is rock solid and has not been superseded. It was a historical method — well, what of it? The nineteenth century invented historicism (and also nostalgia, concomittantly) — that was the cutting edge at the time. How an interest in historical roots makes one a fascist or proto-fascist is not at all clear to me. As far as the Aryan smear, Hungary, Finland, and the Basque country do not speak “Aryan” languages and are not Aryan (Iranians and Afghans do and are).

Many “European” ballads, by the way, were preserved by the Jewish communities of North Africa and Turkey. The accusation that Cecil Sharp, a progressive, was a protofascist because he was interested in European ballads is completely bogus. Sharp’s assistant, Maud Karpeles was even Jewish. I’m sorry, you are just repeating folklore.

Harker is a fundamentalist Marxist of the stupid variety, for whom Marxist-Hegelian Providence moves in only one direction — from agriculture to mass industrialization — to utopia. Marx himself did not do justice to the advances that had taken place in agriculture up to his own time. It was a blind spot of his. To be a small farmer, with mixed agriculture and animal husbandry required considerable skill and planning. To be a craftsman or musician (folk or “learned” i.e.,reading music), the same. That in advanced industrial society people are pauperized and loose these skills is not necessarily “Progress” — as we may well find out if or when we hit “Peak Oil.”

The shock of the old:


John Culpepper 05.08.07 at 3:24 pm

History is the enemy of BS artists.


Chris Bertram 05.08.07 at 3:35 pm

John Culpepper – just a note to say that I’ve learnt a good deal from your comments and from the links you’ve given us. Many thanks for taking the time and trouble.


seth edenbaum 05.08.07 at 5:21 pm

On a related note we could consider when the religious the European makers of illuminated manuscrips became more than folk artists. Giotto was until recently referred to as a “primative.”

Also the question of whether Rap is a the most (only) recent folk/pop hybrid, “folk” in the sense of an indigenous form brought into the mainstream that still maintains direct and reciprocal connections to it’s place of origin.

I’ll second C. Bertram’s thanks to John Culpepper. However, it’s quite possible to be both a progressive and a protofascist. There were a few of them around.


John Culpepper 05.08.07 at 6:55 pm

It is possible to be progressive and proto-fascist, maybe, but calling someone that doesn’t make it so. To be believed something more than namecalling is needed, namely evidence — not cherry picked either. For example, I would like to know some of the names of the “quite a few” that Seth Edelbaum knows about.


seth edenbaum 05.08.07 at 11:45 pm

I wasn’t trying to cause trouble, and I don’t know enough to argue about Cecil Sharp, but the ins and outs of left and right in intellectual and avant-garde 90 years ago are as well documented as the borders between them are fuzzy, and this is true in Britain as much as anywhere. I going to use Isadora Duncan’s offer/suggestiion to George Bernard Shaw but in searching I found this from H.G Wells:

“The new ethics will hold life to be a privilege and a responsibility, not a sort of night refuge for base spirits out of the void; and the alternative in right conduct between living fully, beautifully and efficiently will be to die. For a multitude of contemptible and silly creatures, fear-driven and helpless and useless, unhappy or hatefully happy in the midst of squalid dishonour, feeble, ugly, inefficient, born of unrestrained lusts, and increasing and multiplying through sheer incontinence and stupidity, the men of the New Republic will have little pity and less benevolence.”

Never trust an aesthete.


John Culpepper 05.09.07 at 1:23 am

That’s very interesting. You do encounter this Nietzschsian strain among other writer of that era — Jack London, for example, comes to mind. There was a desire among reformers of both left and right to build “the new man.”

Yeats, Eliot, D.H. Lawrence I would consider proto-fascist. Yet unlike them, when push came to shove, and even before, Wells (and even Kipling who had made the Swastika his emblem) repudiated Hitler’s racism in the strongest possible terms. According to wikipedia Wells was at the top of Hitler’s enemies list.

Sharp was a reformer, a Christian socialist, if anything. If you go over his private writings and utterances with a fine-tooth comb you will find some “gotcha” epithets and use of terms that we now find objectionable and which were in common use at the time. But such comments hardly typify the the tenor of his life and his genial treatment of people of all walks of life, which were never that of a racist or a snob. Also, he accomplished a great deal as a meticulous collector of thousand and thousands of songs which would otherwise be lost.

In the Victorian era when religious forces were stultifyingly powerful, it was necessary to present secular music and theater (even Shakespeare) as elevating and improving in order to make them acceptable at all, especially if designed for audiences of children.

On the other hand, I believe that racist and antiSemitic stereotypes were certainly blatant and even ubiquitous in the commercial and vaudeville worlds that Harker et al wish to exalt as “authentically” working class. They conveniently overlook this fact.

I am certainly bothered to see people like William Morris, Jane Addams, Olive Campbell, or Eleanor Roosevelt, or Cecil Sharp (d. 1924) pilloried as reactionaries because they didn’t idolize Leon Trotsky — or weren’t fans of the Rolling Stones avant la lettre — or simply because they were born to privilege. This seems to me a form of racism.


Xboy 05.09.07 at 5:02 am

“it’s all folk music. I never heard no horses playin it.”

Louis Armstrong


peter ramus 05.09.07 at 3:09 pm

I apologize to John Culpepper for confusing him with my use of the word “scant” in referring to Alan Lomax’s mention of the Coahoma County Survey by Jones and Work of Fisk University. He reminds us that Alan Lomax mentioned the Fisk folklore team 18 times!! in his book The Land where Blues was Born.

I must have looked surprised, for there was my research party, the team of my friends from Fisk University: Allen, the slim, lazy, brilliant young music professor, who hid his intensity behind a big loose grin; Eduardo, the keen, dapper Argentine sociology student. I thought both of them looked at me with a little hostility as I shook hands with the young English major from Columbia, an extremely handsome octoroon who had come along as an observer on the trip. And finally, regarding me from the corner of the booth with his sardonic but kindly gaze, was Lewis Jones, the man upon whom the success of this trip depended. Jones had a powerful build and the face of an Algerian corsair; but when he came South with his sociologist’s notebook in his pocket, he was careful to move along as lazily as any plantation-conditioned black and his face, when interviewing a white overseer, wore an expression of rapt and humble consideration.

There’s no way to overstate the importance of the Lomax family as American folklorists. As the New York Times blurb on the cover of The Land Where The Blues Began says, “Lomax’s influence on the shape of popular music is incalculable.” The controversy, such as it is, over credit for the Coahoma County work begun by the Fisk people and taken up by Alan may be just another example of the irritation that arises when the famous name gains credit for work done by research assistants, a situation that’s not particularly unheard of in academia, complicated, of course, by the impression that the contributions of African American scholars are the ones being scanted here.

(Puzzled by this, however:

The editorial apparatus of the Smithsonian reissue of Harry Smith’s Folkways Anthology makes no mention whatever of Harry Smith’s connection to these scholars nor his indebtedness to them in his choice of material.

(The reissue I own contains a reprint of Harry Smith’s marvelous, peculiar “handbook,” in which he bothers to fully annotate every one of his selections with references to what must have seemed to him a comprehensive bibliography of scholarly works on the subject. So I’m not sure why John Culpepper would make this claim)


John Culpepper 05.09.07 at 3:51 pm

I am a big fan of the Harry Smith anthology and owned and played the original LP’s continously when they first came out. I deplore the way the Smithsonian re-packaged the collection.

Harry Smith’s own notes acknowledged previous scholars. There was no competition or rivalry between him and them, rather there was agreement and cooperation. The triangulation was accomplished by others. In his introduction to the Smithsonian re-issue, Greil Marcus, following Harker, claimed that Harry Smith’s collection had been forged in the fire of commercialism and its songs were therefore better than those collected by the Lomaxes, who were merely collectors of “back porch music.”

1) Marcus was imputing to the Lomaxes a straw-man purism that they never possessed. (Since they had selected many of the songs and pointed Smith to many of the artists, obviously, whether or not performers had or hadn’t recorded commercially was not an issue for them.) 2) Many of the artist in Smith’s collection had made one or two records and then faded back into obscurity, since they had recorded in the 1920s when virtually anyone could go and make a record. So it is dubious that their skills had been forged in the fires of commerce. During the 1930s the commercial recording industry collapsed and was revived later in a much more centralized form.

I would like to say that folk music — or music of oral traditions is not the music of any one class. Rather it is distinguished by certain observable traits that appear to facilitate oral transmission — a tendency to short, phrases joined by “and”, interchangeable “floating verses” drawn from a common stock, lack of subordinate clauses — to name a few. In the melodies, lack of modulation, lack of a “bridge”, whole tones (in US folk music), and so on. Because of this, “Long Black Veil”, for example, doesn’t seem to qualify in many respects — though in some other respects perhaps it does. These things have nothing to do with whether a song is good or bad — However, it is an objective fact that a folksong can have a striking economy of expression perceptible to anyone who listens to it, that is why, among aficionados you frequently find a consensus of opinion. It is not a conspiracy.


s.e. 05.10.07 at 12:53 am

But which of the classes maintain a specifically oral tradition?
A preference for simplicity implies that it’s an option, but the economy of expression in folk tunes is not the result of choice but of the need to work within limits.


john culpepper 05.10.07 at 4:11 pm

There are all kinds of oral traditions and not all are simple by any means, on the contrary. The “simplicity” of folk song had to do with the exigency of communication across long distances in time and space — and possibly across class boundaries, as well. I am not convinced that they were really that simple either. The Bible is written in a paratactic (oral) style as many have pointed out.

It makes more sense to ask which “classes” — social groups — maintained written traditions. In European history these were the book and printing trades and professionals — teachers lawyers priests and the like — not all of them wealthy — in fact, a quite marginal group in many cases, — you might call them the clerisy. Oral tradtions persisted among the vast majority in all social strata until quite late. For example, the Scots novelist James Hogg (b. 1770), friend of Shelley and author of Confessions of a Justified Sinner, had only six months of schooling (he taught himself to read at the age of fourteen).

Mass education and cheap paper were phenomena of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


s.e. 05.10.07 at 7:16 pm

You nitpick and quibble, both unnecessary since I agree with you in general. Homer comes from a “folk” tradition, as does the bible… of course. That was not my point.

Vows of poverty by academics and priests have more in common with the vows of simplicity taken by the members of suburban garage bands than they do with the back porch guitar picking of illiterate sharecroppers.


john culpepper 05.10.07 at 8:16 pm

It is not nitpicking. It is a major point and one not held just by me, but pointed ad nauseam out by such scholars as Wilgus and Peter Burke (not to mention C.J. Bearman, cited above), namely that folk culture — until recently –was just about everybody — not only “illiterate sharecroppers.” Peter Burke’s book on Popular Culture is superb and tells you all you need to know.

In 1940 only 38 percent of Americans were high school graduates. In 1900 far fewer — since public high schools were a novelty. Francis G. Child’s Harvard graduating class in 1860 or so comprised 60 students. Emerson’s far fewer Harvard at that time was a boarding school chiefly of teenagers.

* According to census figures The proportion of young adults (25-29) who were high school graduates rose from 38% to 86% between 1940 and 1985; the proportion of young adults who were college graduates rose form 6% in 1940 to 22% in 1985.

That only illiterate sharecroppers qualify as folk is a recent (strawman) notion.


John Culpepper 05.10.07 at 11:48 pm

I think that you can accurately say, however, without it being a “ghastly racist assumption” that (predominantly illiterate) bluesmen who worked as sharecroppers were closer than urban musicians to authentically African musical traditions — the diddly bow/ slide guitar connection — for example, along with complicated syncopations that captured the imaginations of so many fans. Or the association of the Devil (the voodoo god Legba — master of the crossroads/ threshold of the spirit world) with the acquisition of superior skills.

Athenticity is sometimes only a cigar.


roy belmont 05.11.07 at 2:33 am

Authenticity is a way of enjoying a cigar, a way of elevating the experience that doesn’t rely on things like actual knowledge, reverence for tradition, and soul. The fact that the cigar is Cuban, smuggled, costs 100$ per, as opposed to it’s a fine smoke wherever it came from.
Mike Seeger, last time I saw him, was major-domo-ing for Elizabeth Cotton at a venue in Mill Valley CA.
She of the “backwards” guitar, because she was left-handed and no one would set one up for her the “right” way, so she learned to thumb the treble strings and oddly catch the bass.
But more important was what she brought with her out of the traditions she lived within, and all that that became, marketed or not, a classification for purposes of retailing, cataloging, etc and what we heard, all we got from what that was.
What she was was her, all 110 pounds of it. Fierce old black lady singing like an angel, looking like Harriet Tubman, holding onto and reverberating those early song-things.
Lots of those “finds” – Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White, Clarence Ashley… – had their selves blown up and illuminated, but what’s there when you look hard is something you can extrapolate back from toward the real thing.
The assumption is blue notes were never played until they got played all the time, as a thing, the “blues”, and codified and kept. But that’s crap. The changes were inevitable, built into the music, not local or owned. The musicians who played that strangely first were discarded and left no record that can be drawn on second-hand. Jazz in the Middle Ages, off to the side entirely. Players who were freaks of their time, and not carried forward by praise, though the music changed by them.
Viz. Roscoe Mitchell’s analog back when.
I heard him limn the rise and fall of every civilization we’ve yet seen all the way back to the first grass-blade reed caught between the thumbs and palms of some long-gone ancestral figure. That kind of art began right along with language, and it hasn’t stopped since.
The drive toward categorizing, holding the names rather than the sound, is secondary, and flirts too much with mercantile ambition. There’s no break in the inheritance from the bird-imitating mad fool of the Pleistocene through Albert Ayler and on to now.

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