- Which Side Are You On? An Inside History of the Folk Music Revival in America
From Henry Wallace's presidential campaign to Kennedy's assassination, I was part of the most engaged and engaging social group I've ever known. We sang songs we called "folk" to the accompaniment of our own guitars and banjos. Our songs came from books and records, but usually we learned them from one another; because we were a folk group, connected by age and leftist politics, they were therefore "folk-transmitted" songs. Whatever our nominal careers, folksinging was the main thing we did. Eventually the experience sent me into being a folklorist. Now comes along my good friend of that time, Dick Weissman, with an encyclopedic history of that folksinging activity from the 1960s, in all parts of the United States. Though he acknowledges other authors who have treated this subject, Dick Weissman goes his own way, to compile hundreds of names with personal reminiscence and a bit of social history. He believes there was and is a folk music "movement," which takes in many separate styles and ethnicities and which still goes on, in the work of artists like Ani DiFranco (pp. 264–65). The person who "was there" will enjoy revisiting the past and learning about all these other musicians, rather more than the person who wasn't.
One reason is that the author often mentions people's names without introducing them until later. The book gives us an astonishing number [End Page 188] of facts. Its small errors are of two kinds. One kind a professional copyeditor [End Page 189] should have caught: spelling Alison Krauss's name two different ways (pp. 208, 246, 267), allowing the solecism "alright," or introducing Joy of Cooking twice on the same page (p. 128). The other kind of error the author is responsible for, such as misnaming "La Bamba" (p. 281), or invariably misspelling the name of the Harvard ballad scholar Francis James Child (b. 1825, d. 1896). Such irregularities, and many other misspellings of names, arise out of the author's appealingly personal and informal tone. Israel G. Young, proprietor of the Folklore Center in New York's Greenwich Village, is always "Izzy"; the late singer John Herald is introduced as "Johnny"; Moses Asch, owner of Folkways Records, is always "Moe." Dick Weissman's personal tone leads to some beautiful moments of reminiscence (pp. 201–2, 223, 235, 239), and a vindication of the collector Lawrence Gellert (pp. 25–29), but also to at least one wrong judgment. Woody Guthrie's regular songmaking was as traditional as can be: he used existing tunes and set new words to them, as the author says American singers always did (chapter 2). But Dick Weissman, in a generally negative assessment of Woody Guthrie, calls him a pirate for following this traditional practice (p. 50).
Perhaps it's ungrateful to ask the author of such a book to extend his scope beyond the "movement," but I think it would be appropriate to point out the enduring effects of the "folk music revival" on people's lives. Roger D. Abrahams built on his love for folk music to become one of America's most prominent folklorists. His Swarthmore College roommate, Ralph Rinzler (p. 107 and elsewhere) created the annual Folklife Festival, a hugely significant national event that attracts thousands of tourists every July to the National Mall. I link the omission of that kind of information to the author's frequent vague slams at unnamed folklorists of former times (pp. 32, 133) while he ignores folklorists of today like Archie Green and Bruce Jackson, whose lives have been virtually dominated by folk music. Before their time, university training of folklorists was almost nonexistent; an essential force to bring it into being was the effort of amateurs who made themselves professional, like Kenneth S. ("Kenny") Goldstein (pp. 90–91, 238).
The folk "establishment" that Dick Weissman sees in the present I don't think exists. It could...