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  • O Brother, What Next?:Making Sense of the Folk Fad
  • Benjamin Filene (bio)

After O Brother, Where Art Thou? spurred a surge of interest in all things folk, I got calls from friends coast to coast. Since I wrote a book about folk revivalism, they assumed I'd be thrilled to see that the film and soundtrack had once again sparked interest in traditional music. I watched the movie; I listened to the sound-track album; I read the breathless testimonials from the new folk fans. But the whole thing left me grumpy. Recently, I've been trying to figure out why.

I'm not a purist: I'm not griping about the fact that the performers benefiting from the revival are longtime commercial popularizers like Emmylou Harris or a Californian neo-billy like Gillian Welch, both prominent on the O Brother soundtrack. I'm not a protector: I'm not so much worried that the more traditional rural voices getting swept up in the revival—performers like Ralph Stanley—will get burned or somehow shorn of their edge as they get Hollywoodized. I'm not a hoarder: I don't have that feeling of remorse that comes as something that used to be private and precious and one's own—something that perhaps was personally transformative in one's coming-of-age period—gets commodified and spread casually across the globe. Such tinges of regret are to some extent built in to any folk revival; they are inherent in the concept of trying to bring mass popularity to a cultural form beloved for its isolation from mass popularity. Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me if the O Brother phenomenon made some longtime public folklorists, revivalists, and preservationists uncomfortable. There is always some shock and regret when you get what you asked for—in this case when the music that one has been protecting and pitching, praying and proselytizing for all these years suddenly, seemingly with hardly any effort at all, is all over the airwaves and in everyone's living room. But I'm not a longtime public folklorist, revivalist, or preservationist. And yet, as a cultural historian, I find that today's folk chic bugs me, too.

The O Brother revival—and my reaction to it—has deep roots. It's no coincidence that director Joel Coen, and his brother, producer Ethan Coen, chose the 1930s, sepia-toned in their filmic memory, as the backdrop for their romp [End Page 50] through American folk culture. Of course, efforts to preserve and popularize so-called "folk" materials go much further back than the thirties, but an array of efforts to embrace vernacular American culture did coalesce powerfully during the Depression. We're still dealing with the legacy of that intense burst of revivalism—directly in the sense that you can trace a lineage back from today's revival artists and cultural brokers to the thirties and indirectly in that thirties revivalists shaped our assumptions about what a revival is, who gets revived, and how. As influential as the revival of the fifties and sixties was and is, it was a wave that emerged from currents set into motion in the thirties by a group of ambitious cultural brokers who set out with missionary zeal to change how Americans saw their musical heritage. Today's revival is in many ways the fruit of this group's work—people like John Lomax and, especially, his son Alan, Ben (B. A.) Botkin, Charles Seeger, and his son Pete. What, then, has nearly three quarters of a century of "cultural brokerism" brought us? Is the O Brother revival what the advocates of the thirties had in mind?

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Figure 1.

You might expect that the author of a prize-winning book on folk revivalism would have been pleased by the new interest in folk music sparked by O Brother, Where Art Thou? But the whole thing left Benjamin Filene feeling a bit grumpy. CD cover of the soundtrack, courtesy of Lost Highway Records.

To some extent, the answer is yes. Let's think about what the cultural brokers of the thirties were trying to do. First, as...


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