- Depression Folk: Grassroots Music and Left-Wing Politics in 1930s America by Ronald D. Cohen
Readers of American Music will no doubt be familiar with the work of folk music scholar Ronald D. Cohen. His 2002 book, Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940–1970, earned him the Choice Outstanding Academic [End Page 548] Book Award, and he was nominated in 2001 for a Grammy for his work on the five-CD-set The Best of Broadside.1 Cohen is nothing if not prolific: in the past decade alone, he has authored, edited, or collaborated on no fewer than eight books about folk music in the United States, including studies on Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie, and he recently coedited a book on the folk music revival in New York City.2 Given Cohen’s scholarly interests and seemingly inexhaustible output, it seems surprising that prior to Depression Folk he had not devoted an entire volume to the era. To be sure, the intersection of folk music and left-wing politics in the 1930s has been well covered by other scholars, but Cohen’s monograph stands out as the only study in this list to approach U.S. folk music during the 1930s as a discrete area for exploration.3
Cohen has a lot with which to work given this particularly rich era of American music history, and he casts a wide net with the agenda he gives at the book’s outset: to examine “the role of folk music, broadly defined, during the trying years of the Great Depression in the United States, 1929–1940” (1).4 Folk music “broadly defined,” we soon find out, includes “hillbilly (country) songs, rural blues, spirituals, cowboy songs, western swing, ethnic music and performers, singer-songwriters, labor songsters, and various others” (5). The author’s chosen tack is to approach the study “roughly in a chronological order,” because, he quips, “history unfolds year by year—and I am a historian,” while attending to a few central themes, including “the emergence of left-wing politics and its connection to vernacular music, folk music compared to classical and Tin Pan Alley tunes, the increasing relationship between urban and rural musicians, the connection between folklorists and vernacular musical styles, various regional differences but with a focus on New York City, and the role of the federal government” (6).
This is a lot of ground to cover in a book that spans a mere 158 pages, and it would be easy for an author to devolve quickly into list-making or name-checking exercises. Cohen, however, displays a rare economy of form that allows him to synthesize a great deal of information for the reader to digest. For example, the first two chapters of the book see Cohen tracing the history of folksong collecting in the United States; the emergence of folk music as an institutionalized commodity through the avenues of radio, commercial recordings, and folk festivals; and the ascendance of the Communist Party in the United States during the early decades of the twentieth century. He also brings to life many of the well-known figures of the 1930s folk music scene, including Woody Guthrie, Aunt Molly Jackson, Lead Belly, Charles and Pete Seeger, and John and Alan Lomax, with the younger Lomax quickly emerging as the central character in Cohen’s study.
At times, however, Cohen’s ambitiousness leads to a breakdown in the overall structure of the book. The chapter headings, for example, quickly transform from useful roadmaps to seemingly vestigial working titles. Of the twenty pages in the “Woody Guthrie Emerges” chapter (chapter 5), fewer than six are devoted to Guthrie, and Alan Lomax’s activities during this moment in the narrative receive nearly the same amount of ink in the chapter. Similarly, chapter 6, subtitled “The New Deal Survives,” is not so much about survival as it is about the period during the “Roosevelt Recession” of 1937–38, when...