What passed for “folk music” in the 1940s and 1950s, by contrast, was the remnant of English ballad preserved in isolated Appalachian communities, as rediscovered by musicologists. Joan Baez made a specialty of such things. John and Alan Lomax gathered Appalachian music, African-American music, and other scraps and shards distant from the American mainstream as an expression of authentic “folk” culture. The entire “folk” movement was Stalinist through and through (including Woody Guthrie, who was a Communist Party hanger-on and probably a member. How do I know this? My late mother was Arlo’s nursery-school teacher in the Red Brooklyn of the 1940s).
Of course, it was all a put-on. Woody Guthrie was a middle-class lawyer’s son. Pete Seeger was the privileged child of classical musicians who decamped to Greenwich Village. The authenticity of the folk movement stank of greasepaint. But a generation of middle-class kids who, like Holden Caulfield, thought their parents “phony” gravitated to the folk movement. In 1957, Seeger was drunk and playing for pittances at Communist Party gatherings; that’s where I first met him, red nose and all. By the early 1960s he was a star again.
To Dylan’s credit, he knew it was a scam, and spent the first part of his career playing with our heads. He could do a credible imitation of the camp-meeting come-to-Jesus song (“When the Ship Comes In”) and meld pseudo-folk imagery with social-protest sensibility (“A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall”). But he knew it was all play with pop culture (“Lone Ranger and Tonto/Riding down the line/Fixin’ everybody’s troubles/Everybody’s ‘cept mine”). When he went electric at the Newport Festival to the hisses of the folk purists, he knew it was another kind of joke.
Pathetic stupidity. Here is the top comment which captures my mood although he is not hard enough on these cultural vandals.
You know, sometimes I think we overthink these things. John Steinbeck was never an Okie, but he wrote a good book about them, and followed that with a lot of other good books about people he wasn’t. And sure, he was an Upton Sinclair socialist (at least) but he grew up, and his Nobel Prize address is something everyone should read.
Woody Guthrie was a child of the middle class, but he also spent some years as a hobo, and he wrote some good songs that people still love.
Bobbie Zimmerman wrote a helluva lot of songs people loved, and if he was *ever* a lefty, he’s over it now. And he clearly isn’t taking this Nobel Prize thing seriously, unlike, say, Sartre, who practically made a second career out of declining.
What purpose is served by the agita?
As for Pete Seeger, this is what I wrote when he passed away. If you don’t like folk music, or the 1960s folk revival, or folk singers or their politics, well that’s great. If you can think what purpose is served by any of this rummaging through the political past of some of the greatest folk musicians who ever lived, well I would like to hear it. Whatever you might think about their politics, their music is among the treasures of our culture which we must do what we can to preserve and protect. Listening to these critics, I am reminded of Islamists as they topple ancient monuments in the Middle East to prove some political point of their own.