What's Authentic About Folk Music?

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"What you sing and whistle, then, is...the result of a huge plot--involving thousands of dollars and thousands of organizing agents--to make you hear, remember and purchase. The efforts of (song promoters) assail our ears wherever we go, because it is the business of this gentry to fill the air with music..."

Swap out "thousands" for "millions," add something about ring-tone and video games, and this roughly describes our present. The line comes from a 1930 book on song publishing unearthed by David Suisman in his marvelous history of American music's "commercial revolution," Selling Sounds. What fascinates me about this quote isn't just the eerie realization that this "plot" was in place even back then, during a time we popularly romanticize as a pure or untainted moment of American musical history. It's that "this gentry's" interest was in selling a concept--namely that music should "fill the air." It's a feeling that music enhances our lifestyle or supplements our feelings or denotes distinction, and it's this set of received instincts that encourages us down the sidewalk to the record store or through multiple clicks to a band's PayPal set-up.

I thought about Suisman and Karl Hagstrom Miller's Segregating Sound, two marvelous reappraisals of early 20th century American musical culture, as I listened to this engrossing discussion between Rob Young, my old boss at The Wire, and Exotic Pylon podcaster Johnny Mugwump. Rob's just completed Electric Eden, a book about British "visionary" folk tradition (doesn't seem to be available in the U.S. yet...though you can apparently buy it for $2561.15 from a Rob Young fanatic on Amazon). Their conversation goes all over the place: witchcraft, Wiccan faiths and pagan rituals, H.G. Wells and Gustav Holst, the pre-Christian age, the British appetite for outdoor festivals, etc. on through to Fairport Convention, Boards of Canada, kode9, Alasdair Roberts and Ghost Box. Real Wire stuff. (Speaking of which, The Wire's blog, The Mire, has more here.)

I was especially struck by their conversation, about two-thirds of the way through, about "folk" music and authenticity, the agendas that promote "authentic" traditions and the weird but unshakable belief that a piece of music by some unfathomably distant songwriter (before they could conceive of the idea of the "songwriter") could offer some direct line to the past. Rob and Jonny's discussion of the oft-derided role of amateur (non-academic) collectors in shaping the "folk" discourse reminded me of this insightful interview Miller gave to the Village Voice about the effect obscurantist record collecting has had on how we choose to approach the past. In Segregating, Miller considers a similar set of questions in the American context--his book is rich with examples of folklorists or academics heading south in search of something "elemental" and pure, and editing out anything that didn't fit. And there was a lot. Taken together, some challenging if controversial questions emerge from these books: why do we need "folk?" What do we gain by nurturing this notion of an authentic cultural past? What awaits us in those ideal, eternal yesterdays?

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.
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