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The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere: Making Music/Making History in Contemporary American Folk

Le Passé n’a pas disparu : musique et histoire dans le folk américain contemporain
Sophie Levy
p. 73-89


Bien que la musique populaire se préoccupe, bien souvent, de façon quasi-exclusive du présent, la popularité de la musique folk ne se dément pas, comme le montre le regain d’intérêt pour la musique bluegrass qu’a déclenché le film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. En effet, histoire, historiographie et présent immédiat se mêlent dans la musique folk américaine, où s’enchevêtrent des formes enracinées dans l’Histoire et des événements de l’histoire immédiate. Ces transactions entre passé et actualité créent ainsi une tradition américaine, qui se définit par sa capacité à intégrer des éléments européens, africains-américains mais aussi plus spécifiquement locaux. Le paysage de la musique folk — en particulier le rôle de la technologie dans ses techniques d’enregistrement et d’archivage — nous offre un axe d’étude historique et culturel unique de l’Amérique par le biais de ses traditions musicales.

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Index chronologique :

20th century / XXe siècle
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  • 1 Under this rubric, I am grouping European folk traditions now resident in the US, their derivation (...)

1History has a way of repeating itself. Uniquely among popular musical genres, American folk music 1 explores the tension between history repeating and repeating history. In common with other oral traditions finding their feet in the world of new archival and broadcast technologies, twenty-first century folk locates itself as witness, both giving voice to the present moment with the immediacy of fresh composition, and as archivist, reviving those immediate voices of the past as records of historical moments lost to more “official” accounts. Unlike most other popular musical forms, which are mostly (if not wholly) concerned with innovation that incorporates pastiche and revival, folk’s raison d’être is its lineage—a lineage which presents the pressing need for capturing the compositions and performances of its musicians. The growth and success of the Smithsonian/Folkways project in creating a wide-ranging re-visionary history of American culture through regional music that reflects the diversity of origins and experiences of Americans is demonstrated in other contemporary folk projects. This was brought to international attention by the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou?, a loving homage to Depression-era America that demonstrates brilliantly the centrality of grassroots musical performance and production to the developing ideal of American national culture. Moreover, in identifying popular music as the medium of both the workers and the work-shy, the film returns the means of cultural production, as it were, to labourers and the labour movements—even as it shows the market’s growing ability to capitalise on popular arts through the new technologies of radio, vinyl and national distribution.

2The same technologies that enable big business to sell the working classes their own music also enable ethnomusicographers such as Harry Smith and John Lomax to form archives whose material alludes to the historical circumstances of people otherwise absent from the standard histories except as statistics. As with Life magazine’s Dustbowl photojournalism, the tension between representation and appropriation/exploitation must inform any discussion of these archives. Folk historians such as Bruno Nettl and literary theorists such as Mark W. Booth point to folk music, from ballads of the Renaissance to strike and protest songs from the Depression and the Civil Rights movement, as a genre in which the constraints and conflicts of theorising between oral and written cultures and cultural forms are particularly visible (see Lynch; Sanger). As studies of ballad transmission in sixteenth-century England reveal, “folk” music did not only enter the economies of publication and distribution with Bob Dylan. Nettl’s dismissal of the popular/urban folk musician belies the recording tradition represented by the thousands of 78s Harry Smith amassed and donated to Folkways. This is the recording “industry” represented in O Brother: localised and fly-by-night, but still imbricated in the same economics of exploitation as today’s industry.

  • 2 Eric Gonzalez notes: “[T]he film-makers [Joel and Ethan Coen] take some licence with the South’s mu (...)

3Moreover, as the climactic final performance of “Man of Constant Sorrow” allegorises, folk music has a role not just in the telling of history, but in the shaping of it.2 As Smith said of creating his Anthology of American Folk Music for Moses Asch in 1952, “I felt social changes would result from it. I’d been reading from Plato’s Republic. He’s jabbering on about music, how you have to be careful about changing the music because it might upset or destroy the government” (qu. Ed Sanders, liner notes AAFM 4, 14). The potential for change offered by folk music relies on distribution and dissemination: the symbolic significance of “We Shall Overcome” to the Civil Rights movement (Sanger) saw a work belonging to an oral culture brought to national consciousness through mediatisation, as protest groups were shown singing the song on TV, and as singers such as Joan Baez not only sang the song live, but recorded it. Thus the recording technology that enabled anthropologists and folklorists such as Parry and Lord to make their collections problematises the division between oral and written dissemination, especially as it comes together with a form and genre—sung folklore—that had been “reclaimed” as proof of the importance of oral culture for recovering history from the bottom up. The protest song, a genre that by definition belongs to those fighting their exclusion from official history, particularly in America, enters “folk” in this context. The links between the unionising of the Depression and the Civil Rights and anti-war movements could be conceived as the melody to the harmony of folk musical historiography. This reveals folk’s double strategy of “performing” and “recording” in various ways, both complaints against how bad things could get and also celebrating the changes possible When We Were Good (as Robert Cantwell entitles his influential study of the 1960s folk revival). The tension between social history and the people who inhabit it, living the “Parchman Farm Blues” and dreaming of the “Big Rock Candy Mountain” is a productive one, to which folklorists, social historians and musicians are attracted even among the proliferation of musical genres at the start of the twenty-first century.

4As my title suggests, however, such questions are background issues for this article, which aims to engage with contemporary practitioners, and the re- evaluation of these debates under the sign of the postmodern. As post- structuralists defiantly abolish History in favour of histories, folk music seems both more and less relevant to our conception of the interaction of culture and society. By extending the critique of the interaction of the genre and new technologies to include CD, TV, video and the Internet, we can begin to explore the impact of this increasing archivisation and distribution on folk’s conception of itself as performance-driven, locally-connected and counter- cultural. It is not only the Smithsonian that has invested (in both the economic and psychological senses) in creating a website devoted to its back catalogue: folk music societies across America have pursued the same goal. It is in searching amongst these various online sites that another important question is raised concerning the definition of “folk.” Each geographical region and/or ethnic group uses “folk” as a descriptor for the kind of music particular to itself; yet the Smithsonian/Folkways project conceptualises the term as referring to a pan-American music. This sets up another tension: that between particularised representation and homogenisation. “Folk” neatly encompasses the impact of generations of immigration on the shape of American culture, saluting the (musical) contribution of each successive group as they form settler societies; it is also possible that it dismisses them, subsuming their cultural identities into the larger meaning of “American.” Both definitions are viable, and, more importantly, marketable.

5A useful analogy is E. Annie Proulx’s novel Accordion Crimes, where the central trope, an accordion that passes through the hands of representatives of successive immigrant groups, acts as a unifying metaphor for American culture, while also allowing the novelist to research and portray the specifics of various cultural groups. The localist and national debate is also entwined with the oral/written contestation, as folk music is differently constituted for different arguments, each with a specific investment in the value of a certain genre or artist or area. Given the mediatised transmission of knowledge and entertainment in our culture, one that has developed in parallel with the revival(s) of folk and with ethnomusicography and cultural anthropology, folk music is important because it calls the supposed binary into question, even as its historians and performers invest in the idea of a pre-technologised culture. These questions are all contingent to folk’s conceptualization of its own history, and of itself as history, as well as of the uses to which it puts the narratives it performs and records.

The Telling Takes Me Home: Postmodernism’s Slight Return

6Nanci Griffith’s song “Trouble in the Fields” encapsulates both the practice and problems of the folk music being produced in the 1990s. Its opening verse plunges us into the world of Depression-era farmers:

Baby I know that we’ve got trouble in the fields;
The bankers swarm like locusts coming to steal away our yields.

7Situated in the agricultural past of Steinbeck, Griffith’s song appears to be a world away from the contemporary concerns of industrial America. Its traditional bluegrass melody and the chorus which relies on its audience to feel incorporated by the reference to “our native soil” suggest that this is another cover of a folk standard (Griffith’s covers range from hymns to Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather.”) However, the second verse adjusts the listener’s perceptions, as it refers to “the Dust Bowl days” from a contemporary perspective, reinforcing the link between folk and the farming community, and revealing music’s ability to commemorate and interpret history.

There’s a book upon the shelf about the Dust Bowl days
There’s a little bit of you and a little bit of me in the photos on every page. Our parents had their hard times fifty years ago,
When they stood out in these empty fields in dust as deep as snow.

8Griffith reveals folk music’s interaction with other forms of cultural representation—photography and written text, personal/familial memory—in shaping historical narrative. Canadian musician Sarah Harmer’s rerecording on Songs for Clem, an anthology of American songs whose authors are most often given as “Trad.”, demonstrates folk’s ongoing ability to incorporate original, rewritten and re-interpreted material.

  • 3 News ballads were, in many senses, the precursors of today’s popular media. They incorporated curre (...)

9Griffith’s song also demonstrates folk’s potential for reflections on the meeting-point of the personal and communal past(s) that has ensured folk a space as postmodern practice. Incorporating community—or “folk” one could say—into the individual-centred narrative of the rock/pop tradition has been central to political hip-hop, which has reinvigorated the possibilities of folk/protest music. Political protest music has seen a diversification and resurgence in the wake of the post-1987 recession and as part of the anti- globalisation movement—for example, folk singer Ani Difranco and hip-hop artist Michael Franti sharing CD space on GAScd, a benefit anthology to raise money for those imprisoned during protests at the FTAA summit in Quebec City in 2002.3 Not only does the concept of folk music as indexed to the voice of the dispossessed as well as to the unionisation of American industry still give it a potent voice, but its historical consciousness and its fascination with the power of sung narrative are still dynamic forces in music-making. As Bruce “U. Utah” Phillips, the “Golden Voice of the American Southwest,” entitles the first song in his songbook Starlight on the Rails, “The Telling Takes Me Home.”

  • 4 The Free Trade of the Americas Agreement was initiated in 1994 by the 34 countries of North and Sou (...)

10Perhaps the abiding definition of folk music is that, as a sung genre derived from news-ballads, it privileges truthful narrative as both form and concept of representation4. As well as carrying emotional weight, the connection between folk music and oral transmission enables folk songs to carry current affairs, either through contemporary twists to traditional lyrics, or through setting lyrics about Casey Jones or the Ford strike to traditional arrangements (Lynch). Phillips, who is both a singer and a storyteller, exemplifies this practice. After travelling America as a railroad hobo and working for the state archive department in Utah, Phillips began performing and recording songs, some of which he had collected, particularly unionising songs, and some which he had written. In the 2000 online edition of Starlight on the Rails, he uses cyberspace as both a political platform and a songwriting journal, recording historical sources and inspirations for the songs he wrote, and linking them to the contemporary socio-political situation in the American West.

11Yet if the telling has taken Phillips home in terms of keeping his career in composition and live performance well into his 70s, it has done so by some strange routes. Not only does he host a nationally-syndicated radio show, available online via the website administered by two fans from the Midwest, but he reached prominence in the 1990s through collaboration with folk/punk singer-songwriter Difranco, whose influences span the American folk tradition from “Amazing Grace” through big band, bluegrass and Baez to hip-hop. She mixed and produced two albums of Phillips’ storytelling, the second of which was recorded live as he became part of Difranco’s ongoing (eleven years and counting) tour of North America. Indicative of Difranco’s political agenda in bringing Phillips’ tales to a new generation is the track “The Most Dangerous Woman in America,” which recounts the legend of Mother Jones, after whom America’s only “independent nonprofit magazine whose roots lie in a commitment to social justice implemented through first rate investigative reporting” is named. 5 Mary Harris Jones, an Irish immigrant married to a union organiser, created her character of Mother Jones at the dawn of the twentieth century. In this guise, she was a union agitator, a spokesperson for the underprivileged of pre-Depression America, and one of the most notorious public figures of the day: she received her appellation of “The Most Dangerous Woman in America” from President Theodore Roosevelt himself.6

12In Phillips and Difranco’s take, 1920s union politics receives a 1990s feminist slant through the interaction of the performers, again positioning the work on the boundary between record of a unique historical circumstance and an advisory allegory for the contemporary audience.

  • 7 In hip-hop, originally a grassroots, politicised representation of working-class black identity, th (...)
  • 8 The Harlan County Miners’ Strike, 1931-32 has been attributed to wage and job losses following the (...)

13Even more importantly, Phillips presents his production in terms of work. He was honoured by his local Musicians’ Union for Lifetime Services, a salutatory tribute in a culture industry in which artistic production has become increasingly indexed by luxury and divorced from being represented as work.7 For Phillips, as for Timothy Lynch, labour history puts the “united” into the States. The unionising movement brought local folk singers to national consciousness as, for example, Aunt Molly Jackson toured the Eastern Seaboard raising money for the Harlan County miners’ strike, attracting the attention of Mary Elizabeth Barnicle (NYU) and Alan Lomax (Library of Congress) as well as New York left-wing writer Theodor Dreiser, whose report Harlan Miners Speak mixes quotations from speech and song in its account of the situation (Lynch 63). 8 Thus, historically, labour, unionising and folk/protest music are culturally entwined. Lynch begins his book with a quotation from John Steinbeck’s preface to John Greenway’s American Folksongs of Protest. Steinbeck writes that “[t]he songs of the working people have always been their sharpest statement, and the one statement that cannot be destroyed” (Lynch, 1). Phillips turns this on his head when he regards folk singers as workers, labouring alongside miners and farmers in making music about their condition. Annotating “She’ll Never Be Mine,” a “love song for the country” which chronicles the relationship between labourers and the land they work on, Phillips demonstrates the centrality of folk music as a form of expression and communication in the union movement.

That’s what union organizing, or any kind of organizing, is supposed to be for: to help working people, no matter what their trades, to reach out toward each other, to sit down together and define their problems, define their solutions, and then to get to work on it and begin to get back some of the wealth they have created over the years. This is a love song. It’s my love song for the country I come from. I’ve tried to include in it a lot of the ways I know other people feel about it too.

14The connection between the “love song” and the social ideals of union organising are borne out in Phillips’ archiving practice, which is motivated by inclusivity of “the ways […] other people feel” about working and living in America. Like Studs Terkel’s oral history projects, collections of folk songs, while negotiating the potential reification and academicisation of recording oral culture and narratives, enact the demands for recognition and action that so many folk songs contain. Alongside one of the many worksongs that Phillips collects, he writes a brief history of the construction of the railroad in the Midwest, and adds this note:

There are songs like “Paddy on the Railroad” which are about those times and about that kind of work. Thing is, if you look through the past, if you read old diaries, if you talk to old-timers who remember, very often you find that things happened for which songs were not written. If I could find a traditional song that said those things, I would sing it.

15The balance between recording the songs that exist and the desire to record even those things “for which songs were not written” is evident throughout the songbook, and in the work of contemporary singer-songwriters such as Emmylou Harris and Griffith. As Phillips describes it, when union organisers created and taught songs such as “Dump the Bosses off Your Backs,” they used hymn tunes or the tunes of folk songs to get reluctant workers to join in, and to make unionising seem as familiar as the love and murder recounted in ballads. The practice of new words and an old tune remains today, whether in the writing of satirical songs or, as for Phillips himself, in creating folk- pastiche which expresses a nostalgia for the world of folk songs through their melodies. For his song, “Hey Boys, Let it Ring,” based on a story he was told about Governor Daly and the unionising miners in Butte, Montana he

tried to use tunes that were contemporary with the times, tunes these boys might have known, or make up tunes that are similar. It makes it easier for me to describe the things I want to. <​songbook/​heyboys.html>

16As the final comment indicates, the tunes are not an act of Disneyfying history, but of enabling the songwriter’s imagination to dignify the memory of the people about whom he is singing, through the music they used to dignify themselves.

17Another aspect of this work of song writing is the sense that Phillips is not only involved in labour history, but in the labour of history. The songbook represents forty years of travelling around America, speaking to people, taking their words down exactly; Phillips represents history as something that is mined and made, paralleling his digging and constructing with the work of the people he is researching. Song writing and performing is also paralleled with travelling, particularly in his most famous song “Starlight on the Rails,” which records North America’s disappearing railroad culture, an extension of the 1930s Hobo’s Hornbook and all the Casey Jones songs recorded by Smith. As in O Brother, where the film’s narrative and musical journey is modelled on The Odyssey, for Phillips, music is both a nostalgia and its cure. “The telling takes me home,” as he entitles one of his songs about the American Southwest.

You can see where they’ve [the Anasazi] chipped their story in the rock in petroglyphs. Newspaper Rock has the writings of four or five different cultures, one chipped over the top of the others. A hard place to get to, but worth visiting.
That’s the West I grew up with, and it’s not the West you would know about unless you went and looked for it.


18Again, the work of excavation is noted as being a background to the song. History, like the desert, is a “hard place to get to, but worth visiting,” and in this case, preserved in written rather than oral form. The complete cultural erasure of the Anasazi by climactic conditions is not that complete if you have “looked for it.” Phillips creates a song that encompasses not only the immediate geography of his idea of home in the present, but, through the landscape which he has “looked for” and looked at, also American pre-history. The name “Newspaper Rock” is both a salutatory reminder of our desire to “read” other cultures through the forms of our own, and of the continuities of human history. Phillips positions folk music between petroglyphs and pixels, between handwritten sheet-music and its digital capture, suggesting above all, that folk music is capable of operating at all these levels throughout American culture—that if software writers ever unionise, he will write a “Hey Boys, Let it Ring” for them. In Phillips’ version, folk music is not only a reminder of where we come from but, as in Griffith’s “Dust Bowl days,” what it means to inherit such a history.

Every Tool is a Weapon: Folk’s Oral Tradition, Technology and the Media

19On her live album Living in Clip, Ani Difranco tells a story about going to a folk club in New York City in the early 1990s for an open mike night. She arrives in time to hear a Christian couple singing a guitar ballad whose first line, as she recalls, asks “Did Anne Frank find Jesus/ Before she died.” This unknown, incomplete song, mythic or real, takes on a life of its own through Difranco’s anecdotal interlude, becoming a folk song through its re- performance and its availability, captured on CD, in digital perpetuity. The genre of “live CD” is a hybrid fruit of the pressure to record for artists known for their live performances. As electronically generated and produced music gains currency through club culture, popular music has made repeated returns to the live music as the gold standard. The relationship between genres as diverse as punk, world music and folk music lies in their insistence on the performative. The live album highlights a song’s performability, suggesting that there is no definitive interpretation, a trope common to folk musicology. The AAFM represents the friction in folk’s myth of origin between the originary performance, and the transmission and recording of variants. The electrifying blues of Robert Johnson gained their reputation through their uniqueness, and also through their existence on vinyl due to his early death, whereas songs such as “Shine on Me” (Vol. 3) and “Kassie (Casey) Jones” (Vol.

201) are culturally and personally familiar because our parents or grandparents may have sung them, not because they created or rested on the reputation of a single artist. Both categories, however, can usefully be subsumed under “folk,” although some purists would reject any song with an identifiable author or single outstanding performance.

21Yet there is a danger in this of re-interring the individual performers that collections like Folkways have endeavoured to give biography and history. Greil Marcus analyses this conundrum when writing about Smith as collector and editor:

It’s interesting that most of the songs collected on Smith’s first Anthology, and many of those found on his Volume 4 […] had been sung for generations before Smith’s recordings were made. But the recordings he chose testify to the ability of certain artists to present themselves, as bodies, as will, as desire, as saved, as damned, as love, as hate—as if their singularity has removed them from the musical historiographies and economic sociologies where scholars have always laboured to maintain them
(Marcus, “American Folk” 311).

22Marcus’ powerful description alludes not to the continuing influence of the songs and singers on musical tradition, but to a cultural history where the labour is not to “maintain” borders and disciplines, but to record those material things that supposedly resist the reification of recording: bodies, passions, abstract ideals. Unlike Phillips, Marcus is not a labour historian but a music journalist, yet they both argue that music—this music, made with and by the people about whom it speaks—can achieve the impossible and carry human bodies out of history into the present. In both cases, folk music is represented as agency, recognising that access to the history books is also access to the future. Marcus concludes in this vein, that:

If we now see the artists Harry Smith found gazing on a common predicament, each one from their own perspective, it may be time to return them, not to the sociologies that once ignored them, but to their republic, where each is a moral actor: a citizen
(Marcus, “American Folk” 314).

23This gift of moral agency draws a forceful alignment between musical and political voice—an alignment which has been the motivation, if not the raison d’être, of folk music since its incorporation into union politics. Certainly, the popularity of folk revivals, both traditional and newly written political protest songs, now and in the 1960s, has been folk music’s casting of itself as a left- wing political forum, not only in content, but in form, as artists collaborated, sang and altered each other’s material, and encouraged their audiences to propagate their messages and create their own.

  • 9 The song has now been recorded on her double live CD So Much Shouting So Much Laughter (2002), and (...)
  • 10 See note 8 above on the Harlan miners’ strike. The Union of Auto Workers led a 44-day occupation (s (...)

24At more recent Ani Difranco concerts, audiences have been hearing “Self-Evident,” an evolving poem about the events of September 11, which speaks out expressly against the US government. Updated versions are posted on her website <> as it is shaped by live performance and by the continuing ramifications of the events. 9 This immediacy of reaction and reportage is not new to the making of folk music, which, as Lynch demonstrates, happened in situ in Flint and Harlan.10 The novelty is the mutual shaping of events and description: a poem posted on the Internet is available for reading and comment by anyone with access to a terminal, and the hundreds of thousands of visitors to Difranco’s website, as well as the thousands of concertgoers, are carrying the words of her poem into their understanding of the ongoing political situation. The dynamic of live performance and recording technology is complicated by the fact that it is easier to respond as an individual to the poem via the website than in a concert situation. This situation is given as an example both of folk’s continuing ability to speak about and to local and national politics, and of how this ability is dependent upon an increasingly complex interaction between “pure” oral transmission (should that exist anywhere) and sophisticated recording and archiving technologies which offer seemingly democratic access, multiple versions, and forums for debate. Folk music’s—and ethnomusicography’s— dual concerns with archiving the past and recording the present moment therefore have a problematic relationship with the prevalence of new recording and archiving technologies. While Smithsonian Folkways gladly makes use of CD-ROM technology to offer an enhanced CD in Volume 2 of the AAFM, including interviews with some of Smith’s artists, Difranco, who has only ever released music on her own record label Righteous Babe, sings about the problematics of the record industry in many of her songs. Difranco’s career can be interpreted as proof that “every tool is a weapon if you hold it right”

25(“My IQ,” Puddle Dive). A bona-fide “folk” musician who plays several instruments, she has been on tour almost constantly for eleven years, while releasing an album a year, and using a website and email fan-list as her primary marketing tools. Yet she is aware of the crux in which she is caught, using the master’s tools.

26In “Fuel,” a meditation on the recovery of a slave cemetery during the “digging [of] a foundation in Manhattan,” Difranco looks at the political situation in America, and asks “Who’s going to be President/ Tweedle-dum or Tweedle-dumber” and, flicking radio stations, bemoans the state of the music industry, which is implicitly implicated in/by the national political situation. She states that

People used to make records
As in a record of an event,
The event of people
Playing music in a room.
Now everything’s cross-marketing,
It’s about sunglasses and shoes
Or guns and drugs, you choose.
We’re digging up all the graves
And spitting on the past.
Little Plastic Castle.

27There’s a connection between the commerciality of the music industry, invested as it is in the novelty value of the artists it is selling, who are little more than clothes-horses for merchandise (see n.7), and the rejection of history. Difranco’s reading of music history as “a record of an event” agrees with Booth’s definition of a song:

A song text is the document of an occasion on which people of some time, place, and circumstance pause their personal selves to enter into a common consciousness. Songs are different as time and place and circumstance differ where people seek to confirm what they are and what it is (26).

28Booth’s definition does not engage in questions of musicology or historicism, instead advocating song-making not only as an activity which draws communities together, but one that reaches across communities while—in “document[ing]” each “time and place and circumstance” individually— preserving their differences. Difranco takes this a step further, arguing that there is a connection between songs that are “the document of an occasion” and occasioning a tradition. Folk music is invested in “see[ing] that my grave is kept clean,” as one standard has it. The maintenance of tradition, which does not involve foreclosing change—and in fact, encouraging it at the political level—is advocated in this song which also advises Americans to “dig deeper this time” to recover the oppression and occlusion on which their history is constructed.

Coda: “Music and sports are the first places people start to melt”: The Song of American History11

  • 11 Sayles in Sayles and Smith, 123.

29O Brother Where Art Thou is far from the first film to suggest the multiple connections between race, music and politics in Depression-era America and the development of American social history, although it has been visibly—or audibly—successful at creating a new awareness and appreciation of the kind of music that was already a collectors’ item for Harry Smith and John Lomax fifty years ago. In an interview in 1968, Smith told John Cohen that he didn’t “think people should spend too much time fiddling with old records—it’s better to switch on the radio” (liner notes to AAFM 4, 40). If they had taken the bitter, broke collector at his word, they would have heard music by Dylan, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones only made possible by Smith’s recovery of artists such as Robert Johnson (Marcus Mystery Train, 19-35). The “Down from the Mountain” tour has brought together artists who had recordings on the O Brother soundtrack. One could construe this as a strange kind of anthropology, a version of the performing Native Americans and African tribespeople of the nineteenth century’s travelling sideshows, or as an obscure element of the American past rediscovered and reified in order to whet the commercial appetite for nostalgia packaged as novelty.

  • 12 The Hatfield-McCoy feud spanned nearly thirty years, 1863-1891, ending in the same year as the town (...)

30O Brother itself suggests an alternative reading, in the relationship between the black guitarist Tommy Johnson and the three white criminals on the lam who give him a ride, and later save his life. As left-wing film-maker John Sayles puts it, “in the alleged melting pot of America, music and sports are the first places people start to melt.” Far from disregarding the racism and exploitation endemic in the music and sports industries, Sayles suggests that at the level of “the event of people/ Making music in a room”—or as in Matewan, in a strikers’ camp—it is possible that the “folk” of folk music can be as inclusive and eclectic as Smith’s collection. Situating this claim within the context of Matewan, a film about the infamous mid-1930s strike that ended in a gun battle in the streets of the town, Sayles draws strong links between race, music and labour politics in the shaping of twentieth-century America. As both Sayles and Lynch point out, Matewan already had a place in folk music as the location of the Hatfield-McCoy feud of the nineteenth century, a place in which the meaning of “folk” at family, state and national level had already been contested in song. 12 The feud exemplified at a familial level the hierarchies and tensions which twentieth-century folk music and its concomitant in the labour music are working against, and simultaneously recording.

31The news of the Hatfield-McCoy feud and its attendant murders and trials spread across America via song, transmitted orally and via sheet music and newspapers. In the early days of recording technology, it was groups like the Carter Family and artists like Skip James and Robert Johnson who had access to recording their music and their performances of traditional music. As Cantwell describes, the folk revival of the 1960s was made possible by the availability of eight-track recording equipment as well as the bar and festival circuit, encouraging musicians to perform live and to record at grassroots. Digital recording and the internet has created another platform for recording, archiving and distributing music outside the recording industry as long as one has access to the technology. A folk song’s transition from oral transmission to some published form—whether sheet music or mp3 file—always implicates “the master’s tools.” “We Shall Overcome” lost its effectiveness as a weapon when Lyndon Johnson used the phrase “we shall overcome” in a speech, and the members of the Civil Rights movement rejected his attempted interpellation via reference to their slogan (Sanger 29). On the other hand, the Smithsonian Folkways collection and ongoing projects such as Utah Phillips’ web-based songbook celebrate the attempts of a diverse cross-section of the American public to get their voices heard in song.

32If, as Santayana’s famous adage has it, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,” then the many folk revivals are melodious repetitions, prophylaxis against forgetting. Folk music acts as a reminder that the names change and the songs stay the same, leaving documentation of two events: the narrative of the song, which, in the case of protest songs and news ballads, is also the circumstances of its composition; and, repeatedly and diversely, “people/ Making music in a room.” The “time and place and circumstance” create both an oral performance and a graphic trace that, as in the case of a song like “Dog and Gun,” has left oral echoes and written evidence across four centuries and at least two continents. The “Down from the Mountain” tour makes bluegrass accessible both on stage at stadium venues such as the Air Canada Centre, on CD, and online, history repeating and preserving itself—as folk songs do—with an appetite for variation. With the advent of recording technologies, versions and performances of folk songs become available as documents of social history and individual talent, their submersion and recovery adding layers to the story of the relationship between America and the difficult memories of its past.

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Works Consulted

Primary Material

BRAGG, Billy, and WILCO. Mermaid Avenue. [CD] Elektra/Asylum, 1998. CHAPMAN, Tracy. Tracy Chapman. [CD] Elektra/Asylum, 1988.

DIFRANCO, Ani. So Much Shouting So Much Laughter. [CD] Righteous Babe, 2002. DIFRANCO, Ani. Little Plastic Castle. [CD] Righteous Babe, 1998.

DIFRANCO, Ani. Living In Clip. [CD] Righteous Babe, 1997. DIFRANCO, Ani. Puddle Dive. [CD] Righteous Babe, 1993. GRIFFITH, Nanci. Best of Nanci Griffith. [CD] MCA, 2001. GRIFFITH, Nanci. Other Voices, Other Rooms. [CD] Elektra, 1993.

GUTHRIE, Woody. The Very Best of Woody Guthrie. [CD] Music Collection International,


HARMER, Sarah. “You Were Here” tour. Toronto: Danforth Music Hall, March 2001. HERSH, Kristin. Murder, Misery and then Goodnight. [CD] 4AD, 1998.

HERSH, Kristin. “Sunny Border Blue” tour. Toronto: Horseshoe, July 2001.

PHILLIPS, Utah, and Ani DIFRANCO. The Past didn’t go anywhere. [CD] Righteous Babe,


KOPPLE, Barbara, dir. Harlan County, USA. [Videocassette] Cabin Creek, 1977. PHILLIPS, Utah, and Ani DIFRANCO. Fellow Workers. [CD] Righteous Babe, 1999. SAYLES, John, writer and dir. Lone Star. [Videocassette] Castle Rock, 1996. SAYLES, John, writer and dir. Matewan. [Videocassette] Hallmark, 1987.

SMITH, Harry, ed. Anthology of American Folk Music. 3 Vols. Reissue. [CD] Smithsonian Folkways, 1997.

SMITH, Harry, ed. Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume 4. [CD] Revenant, 2000. SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS RECORDINGS. Home page <>. Last checked June 17 2003.

VEGA, Suzanne. Solitude Standing. [CD] A&M, 1987. VARIOUS, GAScd. Ram. [CD] 2001.

VARIOUS, O Brother, Where Art Thou? OST. [CD] Universal, 2000.

Secondary Material

BOOTH, Mark W. The Experience of Songs. New Haven & London: Yale, 1981. CANTWELL, Robert. When We Were Good: The Folk Revival. Cambridge MA: Harvard U.P., 1996.

CARSON, Diane, ed. John Sayles: Interviews. Jackson MS: U.P. Mississippi, 1999. DIFRANCO, Ani. Homepage <> Last checked June 17 2003.

GONZALEZ, Eric. “The Motif of Music in Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where ArtThou and Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train.” Revue Française d’Études Américaines no. 98 (December 2003) : 99-110.

GORN, Eliot. “Mother Jones: The Woman.” Mother Jones Online. < magazine/MJ01/motherjones_gorn.html> Last checked June 17 2003.

HAUBEN, Ronda. «Flint Strike: Lest We Forget.» <> Last checked June 17 2003.

LYNCH, Timothy J. Strike Songs of the Depression. Jackson, MS: UP Mississippi, 2001. MARCUS, Greil. “American Folk.” Granta 76 (Winter 2001): 299-315.

MARCUS, Greil. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock and Roll Music. 1975. 3rd ed, rev. New York: Plume, 1990.

MOORE, Michael. Roger and Me. [Videocassette] Warner, 1989.

NETTL, Bruno. Introduction to Folk Music in the United States. Detroit: Wayne State UP,


O’BRIEN, Karen. Hymn to Her: Women Musicians Talk. London: Virago, 1995.

PHILLIPS, Bruce “U. Utah”. Songbook. <> Last checked June 17 2003.

PHIPPS, Keith. “Billy Bragg” The Onion. <> Last checked Dec 10 2002.

PROULX, E. Annie. Accordion Crimes. New York: Scribner, 1996. RANCHERS’ DAY. <> Last checked June 17 2003.

RORRER, Katie. «Prepare to Meet Thy God: War in the Harlan County Coal Fields.» <> Last checked June 17 2003.

SANGER, Kerran L. “When the Spirit Says Sing!”: The Role of Freedom Songs in the CivilRights Movement. New York: Garland, 1995.

SAUER, Abram. “Can Hip-Hop Cash In?” <>. Last checked April 24 2004.

SAYLES, John, and Gavin SMITH. Sayles on Sayles. London: Faber and Faber, 1997.

STOP THE FTAA. <> Last checked June 17 2003. VEGA, Suzanne. The Passionate Eye. New York: Avon, 1999.

WALLER, Altina L. “The Hatfield and McCoy Feud.” Matewan Online. <> Last checked June 17 2003.

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1 Under this rubric, I am grouping European folk traditions now resident in the US, their derivation in country and western music, Afro-American gospel and blues traditions, and twentieth-century labor and protest songs, all of which are referenced as “folk music, American” in MLA Bibliography. All have common roots in oral tradition, and an ongoing commitment to live performance.

2 Eric Gonzalez notes: “[T]he film-makers [Joel and Ethan Coen] take some licence with the South’s music and political histories. It was Jimmie Davis, not O’Daniel, who recorded the immensely successful “You are my Sunshine” (Herzhaft 51) before becoming Governor of Louisiana in 1944. However Wilbert Lee ‘Pappy’ O'Daniel did exist. He won fame as a radio host for the Light Crust Flour and later his own Hillbilly Flour. He was also the manager of a very popular western swing band called… the Light Crust Doughboys” (Dumery 16, Herzhaft 51) and was elected Governor of Texas in 1938. During the campaign, he was accompanied by his band, the Hillbilly Boys; he presented himself as “The ‘Common Citizen’s’ Candidate for Governor” and—like the character of Homer Stokes—posed as a simple hillbilly fighting the establishment.” (104)

3 News ballads were, in many senses, the precursors of today’s popular media. They incorporated current events into songs sung to traditional tunes, and were both sung and made available in print in the markets of early modern Europe. See Mark Booth, The Experience of Songs, for the transmission and sociology of the news ballad. The Ranchers’ Day website <> provides an interesting note on the transatlantic transmission of ballads, and their influence on what the site calls “cowboy poetry.”

4 The Free Trade of the Americas Agreement was initiated in 1994 by the 34 countries of North and South America (excluding Cuba). Its intention is to create an economic free trade zone across the Americas—similar to the European Union, but without the civil and judicial checks and balances. The summit in Québec marked the first openly publicised meeting involving heads of state, and was held in the heavily guarded Chateau Frontenac, Québec City’s citadel. Peaceful protestors were gassed, beaten and imprisoned. The title of the CD puns on both the use of tear gas, and the control of natural resources that lie behind the Agreement. See <> for more information on Québec and ongoing protests.

5 Quoted from the magazine’s home page at <>

6 See the article by her recent biographer Eliot Gorn “Mother Jones: The Woman,” Mother Jones Online.

7 In hip-hop, originally a grassroots, politicised representation of working-class black identity, the description of the hip-hop lifestyle has created the phenomenon of product placement within songs. Abram Sauer, in his article « Can Hip-Hop Cash In ? », cites brand strategist Lucian James, author of American Brandstand, who describes artists’ motivation in name-dropping as « ‘to achieve relevance’ .» The “work” represented in mainstream hip-hop is often criminalised, and depoliticised.

8 The Harlan County Miners’ Strike, 1931-32 has been attributed to wage and job losses following the Wall Street crash, leading to unionising among the miners. The National Miners’ Union supported the strike, and men with union affiliations were evicted, and eventually, murdered. Many protest songs, as well as reports by outside organisations came out of the Harlan County strike, and it has become a paradigm of the labour unrest in America in the late 1920s and 1930s. See Katie Rorrer, “Prepare to Meet Thy God: War in the Harlan County Coal Fields” for a summary of the strike’s history and representations. Harlan’s strong unionised identity led to a further strike in 1973-4, documented by film-maker Barbara Kopple in her Oscar-winning film Harlan County, USA. The film features many original and traditional songs, sung by the strikers and their families, including an elderly Florence Reece singing “Which Side are You On,” written by her during the 1931-32 strike, at a town meeting in 1973.

9 The song has now been recorded on her double live CD So Much Shouting So Much Laughter (2002), and is very much framed as performance by the intro of back and forth with the audience.

10 See note 8 above on the Harlan miners’ strike. The Union of Auto Workers led a 44-day occupation (sit-down strike) of the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan in 1937. The strike was successful in winning bargaining powers for the union, and produced many ballads and poems which were published in the strike’s newsletter and the Union’s magazine, The Searchlight. See Ronda Hauben, “The Flint Strike: Lest We Forget.” The role of the GM plant, and of the famous strike, in Flint’s current history can be seen in Michael Moore’s controversial documentary, Roger and Me, about the closure of the GM plant just after the strike’s 50th anniversary.

11 Sayles in Sayles and Smith, 123.

12 The Hatfield-McCoy feud spanned nearly thirty years, 1863-1891, ending in the same year as the town of Matewan was established. It appears to have been related to the market for timber, but in the ballads that related the spiralling violence (livestock and people shot dead, fires set), it came to symbolise the fierce family loyalties and state-resistant rough justice of Appalachian life. The Matewan website has a useful account and timeline of the feud < History/HM%20story.htm>.

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Sophie Levy, « The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere: Making Music/Making History in Contemporary American Folk »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°2 | 2004, 73-89.

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Sophie Levy, « The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere: Making Music/Making History in Contemporary American Folk »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°2 | 2004, mis en ligne le 18 novembre 2009, consulté le 07 décembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Sophie Levy

(University of Toronto, Canada)
Sophie Levy is a researcher in English and Women’s Studies at the University of Toronto, on contemporary feminist poetics and theory. Her critical work has appeared in University of Toronto Quarterly and Masthead, and her creative work has appeared in magazines in the US, the UK, Canada and Australia.

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