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Radical History Review 84 (2002) 1-5
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Karl Hagstrom Miller and Ellen Noonan
A pivotal scene in Joel and Ethan Coen's 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? finds four Depression-era southerners—three white escaped convicts and an African American blues guitarist straight from the crossroads—barging through the door of WEZY, a crumbling radio station resting on a nondescript southern farm road. They have money in mind, and they have heard WEZY will pay cash to musicians willing to commit their songs to wax. The ruckus of their entry brings forth the station manager, a blind man who assures them that the rumors of payment were true. "You boys do nigger songs?" he barks. Flustered, but undeterred, the convicts lie, "Well, sir, we are Negroes, all except for the fellow that plays the guitar." "Well, I don't record nigger songs," the manager retorts, "I'm looking for old-timey material. Folks can't seem to get enough of it." In an abrupt turn, the convicts reply that they can deliver the goods: "We ain't really Negroes, all except for our accompanist." They sing their song and get paid.
Rife with stereotypes of southern working-class culture, the scene from O Brother nevertheless offers a useful parable of the relationship between the bearers of folk culture and those that collect, study, and sell it. It traces in microcosm the recent history of the academic love affair with vernacular culture. Historians have been fascinated with folk culture at least since the rise of the New Social History in the sixties and seventies. Collections of folklore, folk song, traditional dance, and material culture offered historians windows into the culture and consciousness of those who left few written records. They opened up new ways of unearthing the past, new subjects of study, and new ways to talk about power and politics. Many scholars diligently mined folklore collections to enable yesterday's subaltern to speak to us today. To paraphrase the WEZY manager, folks couldn't seem to get enough of vernacular culture. 1 Slowly, new scholars began to challenge the veracity of folklore [End Page 1] collections by examining the collection process itself. Collectors often went to the field with their own desires and a priori assumptions about the folk, visions that inevitably complicated and compromised what they collected. Thanks to a still growing body of work critiquing the politics of folkloric and anthropological fieldwork, scholars have become increasingly sophisticated and self-reflexive in their approach to folklore material. 2 The blind station manager—a collector who knows what he wants even though he cannot see what is in front of him—is receiving important, if overdue, attention in recent scholarship.
Yet the parable from O Brother also presses beyond academic self-reflexivity to portray "the folk" as conscious, rational 'courters' of collectors' attention, power, and capital. Aware of their musical traditions, the characters use them to great advantage, twisting their culture to fit the station manager's desires, to gain media access, and to put money in their pockets. Such conscious and often contrived use of vernacular culture by informants is vital to understanding the history and politics of everyday culture, the long-term effects of cultural commodification, and the ongoing challenges of writing cultural history. Yet artists' savvy, uneven deployment of folk culture during encounters with outside authorities (be they corporate, academic, or governmental) has often fallen through the cracks between those studies claiming the privileged place of tradition and those declaring that collectors got it wrong.
This special issue of Radical History Review presents work that attempts to live up to O Brother's challenge by exploring ways in which those identified as bearers of vernacular culture used this designation as a source of cultural and political power. Interested in maintaining traditions that helped define alternative or oppositional identities, many folk artists nevertheless understood the traditional arts as important sources of cultural capital that could be saved, invested, or spent according to their changing social needs and desires. These "uses of the folk" went far beyond campaigns to...