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Chapter 6 I Was So Much Older Then Folk Revival into Rock ’n’ Roll The emergence of the folk music revival and the invention of rock’n’roll overlapped in the late forties and early fifties, and both had elements of revival because of the need for a new identity amongAmerican teenagers rebelling against everything their parents’ generation stood for. Identifying with folk and rock music was a way of rejecting middle-class white values and romanticizing white and black working-class folk.Although I liked the folk songs I heard in the late 1940s and early 1960s,I was too young for them to have any effect on my identity; that came later with the emerging rock’n’ roll of the mid-1950s and later. The appeal of rock’n’roll was directly racial because it was derived from black rhythm and blues, and it was also a way to romanticize African Americans as naturally primitive and rhythmic (see chapter 2). But the folk revival had more to do with finding a new identity in an idealized pastoral past. The folk have been imagined as simple rural people since the eighteenth century, when European intellectuals invented the notion of folk (see chapter 1), and folk still had that meaning when the folk music revival captivated teenagers in the fifties and early sixties. The American folk were imagined by middle- and upper-middle-class people as being rural, uneducated, and backward to some extent but also in touch with nature in a way that“civilized”educated urban and suburban people had lost. This is part of the meaning of“going native”within the underlying civilized/native dichotomy of American popular music in general. There was an elite“we” that both looked down on and romanticized a folk, “they,”and other dichotomies followed: educated/uneducated,urban/rural, civilized/primitive,complex/simple.The folk were conceived as simple,but the idea of folk in the popular imagination is a complex mixture of romantic and pathological traits. I Was So Much Older Then 117 For instance,Appalachian folk were stereotyped as ignorant,superstitious hillbillies but also as people who were close to nature and had knowledge of herbs and roots that were perceived as folk medicine that really worked. Their music might be thought of as simple,but it communicated emotional depth and timeless homespun truths. At a time after the Second World War when high school kids and college students were becoming disenchanted with their middle-class surroundings,the folk offered an intriguing alternative to bland conformity. Folk music was familiar and exotic at the same time; it represented a simpler and more authentic past since the folk were considered isolated from modernity,uncontaminated by technological change and industrialization—a pure source of tradition. And you could tap into that source fairly easily by wearing blue jeans and work clothes, playing the guitar or banjo, and singing in a nasal mountain or bluesy Mississippi Delta style. By imitating the folk, you could become one. You might still be living in the suburbs or in an urban college dorm, but you could take on a new identity by playing and listening to a different kind of music. The folk music movement revived an imaginary rural past that was preferable to the stultified urban/suburban present. Individually a person could create a new identity that was the antithesis of his or her previous one.We did so as part of a communal revival of the old and isolated that was antithetical to the new and threatening present of local suburban conformity, global cold war, and nuclear threat. No wonder we preferred the idealized pastoral American past. As a rock ’n’ roll fan, I was never caught up in the folk music revival as much as the folkies were, but as a child, folk music did appeal to me. In 1950,when I was nine and lived with my family in Bay City,Texas,we often went to eat at Etie’s Café on the courthouse square. That was where I first heard the Weavers’“Goodnight Irene” on the jukebox, and I loved it. The Weavers learned the song from the black singer Leadbelly,so white people’s fascination withAfricanAmerican folk was already part of the process.The song made me want to sing along, and I still remember most of the words, especially the chorus,“Irene, good night; Irene, good night / Good night, Irene,good night,Irene.I’ll see you in my dreams...


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