Talking Postmodern Banjo-Pickin' Blues
Review by Hugh Blumenfeld

When We Were Good:The Folk Revival
By Robert Cantwell
Harvard University Press
416 pp. $24.95


I finished reading Robert Cantwell's new social history of the folk revival of the late 1950's at the fourth annual national conference of the Folk Alliance. It seemed appropriate. The organization was giving lifetime achievement awards to Pete Seeger and, posthumously, Moe Asch. Mike Seeger and Ramblin' Jack Eliot made appearances. But most of the musicians hovering at the bar and ballrooms of the Renaissance Hotel in D.C. were singer-songwriters hawking elaborately produced CDs. There were very few banjos. What was our connection, I wondered, to these leaders of the quiet revolution that ushered in the legendary folk movement of the 1960's?

Cantwell's account of that earlier era combines the personal perspective of an informed participant with theory-laden explanations. The point he stresses about the revival is that it was a revival. It did not consist of folk music itself but the performance of folk music, mostly by scholars and activists who had discovered in it an enduring honesty and democratic universality. Like the nineteenth century Romantics, the revivalists and their equally privileged followers used these representations of folk music to create an enobling idea of the "folk" and reconnect themselves to it. It was a fiction invented to transform both their individual identities and a postwar society degraded by militarism, commercialism, and mass culture. Cantwell attempts to show how, by shaping a new reality, the fiction became "more real than real."

Since the act of reviving folk music is itself a political act, he writes, the songs didn't have to convey any overt ideological content to work their transformative magic on his post-war generation. He credits McCarthyism with stripping away the ideological baggage that had attached itself to folk music during the socialist and labor movements of the 30's and 40's. The oppressive political atmosphere of the 50's forced left-wing dissenters underground, leaving the music pure once again for the next generation to rediscover and remake to address a different set of issues. In fact, his analysis shows how the folksong revival is in many ways a conservative movement rather than a radical one, an attempt to recover a more stable social structure and an older set of values.

Cantwell, an unrepentant amateur banjo player, writes with a deep love and passion for his subject, and this book creates an engaging and often poetic picture of a folk music revival that very few people know about. It is the movement that took place outside the limelight, growing underground through the McCarthy era, blossoming when the Kingston Trio's version of "Tom Dooley" hit the charts in 1957, and ending - not beginning - when Bob Dylan and Joan Baez appeared like Adam and Eve on the stage of the Newport Folk Festival together in 1963.

Recorded here are heroic acts left largely unexplained by other historians: the field recording trips by the Lomaxes and others that captured a rural south on the verge of disappearing, the overwhelming contributions of urban Jewish entertainers and activitists, and the clandestine work of blacklisted artists like Pete Seeger who retreated to the backwaters of summer camps and private schools, like Johnny Appleseed planting the seeds for the big, "public" revival to come.

Cantwell's portraits of early folk heroes are especially memorable. Pete Seeger bears an uncanny resemblance to his totemic banjo; Mike Seeger is a mythic, Lincoln-like figure whose nobility and integrity allow him to innovate on a musical tradition without losing its essence ("Certainly no such sound was ever heard on the frontier or anywhere else; at the same time, it is impossible to say that it was not heard."); Leadbelly metaphorically lives out his gunshot wound of a name; Moe Asch personifies the entire twentieth century Jewish intellectual tradition, a living nexus where Yiddish literature, Lenin, Trotsky, Montessori, Einstein, and folk all converged. Even Harry Smith's three-disk Folkways Anthology becomes a pivotal character: it is the folk mystic's philosopher's stone, whose grooves and liner notes are packed with arcane knowledge and occult, predictive powers. Young Dylan, of course, becomes the originator of punk and Baez is revealed as more Magdalene than Madonna. All these heroes and countless others committed themselves to conjuring up a democratic voice of indeterminate race and class that they could identify with America's soul, label it as such, and then remake themselves and the American social landscape in its image.

There is a darker side of the revival too, which Cantwell explores as well. The book can barely overcome one searing image of impressario John Lomax leading Leadbelly around the lecture circuit dressed in prison garb like a sideshow freak. And there is a pervasive irony in Cantwell's tale of a uniquely privileged generation that played at being world-weary working class rebels for a few years of college before entering their chosen professions. But even these facts and the acknowledgement that his folk revival soon merged into the multibillion dollar entertainment industry don't darken his memory of a brief moment when folk music was ultimately liberating and "psychosocially" transformative.

Cantwell often writes as if he - like many in the lost generation he describes - came close to chucking his academic career to roam the countryside with his beloved but neglected banjo, and the book is best when he interprets the movement's history through this personal perspective. He tells the story of how the social forces that created the folk revival created him and ultimately the contemporary postmodern world with its vestiges of feudal nobility and peasantry. He explains how this music from untutored, unlettered Southern Whites and African-Americans captured the popular imagination, largely mediated by genteel scholars and displaced Jews, and how it lent its energies first to the burgeoning labor movement and then to a counter-culture programme of introspection and self-discovery. The mystery he is trying to get to the bottom of is a shared one, and there is a generosity of spirit running through the book, directed toward those who made the music, those who revived it for their own ends, and us, his readers.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from a postmodern Mr. Jeckyll and Dr. Hyde inversion. In the process of getting his academic credentials, the genial Mr. Cantwell has swallowed too much badly written critical theory, and when the evil Dr. Cantwell appears, he mangles long stretches of the book with impossible paragraph-sentences and strangles its voice with overly-clever puns and academic jargon.

At the center of the book, for instance, is a chapter on the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by Harry Smith for its 1952 release and aptly described as the folk revival's "musical constitution." Its collection of old field recordings made twenty years earlier becomes:

Eavesdropping on an eavesdropping, auditioning an audition, imaging an image - caught up in its own reflexivity the Folkways Anthology attempts to recover a recovery even as the the nature of recording itself thrusts the performance away and into the past, opening in its absence an imaginary field in which all its sounds are immediately and urgently present (197).

So much of the book is marred by obligatory rehashing of patented PoMo dogma and style that one of its living scholar heroes admitted to me that, regretably, he could not get through his review copy.

While Cantwell is a social historian, what really underpins his argument is the possibility of a personal transformation through music. He quotes Carl Sandburg and others who claim that studying and living with folk songs long enough adds depth to one's psyche, a connection to the collective human experience of the past. Jack Elliot becomes a prime example of an urban Jew who, by playing the fantasy cowboy hero, reinvented himself as one.

But the representative conversion in this book is not Elliot's but Cantwell's himself. He recalls a single evening at a Pete Seeger concert that changed his life and sent him hunting for a banjo and an audience. Young Dylan, too, had an unnerving capacity to absorb folk songs all at once. "Dylan had never sung 'In My Time of Dyin' prior to this recording session," testifies Stacey Williams in the liner notes on the back of Dylan's first album. Even if it is only another of Dylan's fabrications, these recurring anecdotes of instant assimilation seem to go against the grain of Cantwell's thesis and his idea of "folk" traditions and their role. The new consumer society with its genius for voraciousness has already gotten a hold of folk music and, as with a drug, gets a high from its raw power and what Dylan called its "emotional wallop."

In his final chapter, Cantwell goes back to tie up some loose ends from chapter three, developing further his picture of American society that accounts for the striking mix of race, class and ethnicity during the folk revival. I wish instead that he had looked ahead here, testing his thesis by trying to glimpse how we are reinventing ourselves now.

When We Were Good offers a perspective on the folk revival that could not be more relevant and timely. Sadly, most of it will be incomprehensible to those who most need and want to read it.


[excerpt: a description of the Almanac Singers of 1942]:

"[Pete] Seeger's voice alone was a nest of contradictions: a lower Hudson Valley accent delivered in the tones of a schoolmaster affecting the idiom of a ranch hand with overtones of the Broadway stage. Lee Hays's stentorian enunciation smacked of the Methodist pulpit, through a kind of asthmatic fog, in the accent of the Mississippi Valley socially at the lower edge of respectability, but with vowels rounded by the reading of very grave and profound books. Millard Lampell, though projecting bravely, could not entirely put aside the galvanized consonants and elastic vowels of working-class New Jersey, nor could Cisco Houston fail to resonate like some smooth radio crooner singing the praises of a brand of cigarette or chewing gum.

"Bess Lomax's bright, youthful unmodulated voice would have been at home with piano accompaniment in a Bryn Mawr music room - but textured with the east Texas wheatchaff that still sounded in her sibilants, as well as the little whimpering line ends inherited from genuine mountain ballad singing. The group's only real country singer [Guthrie] could from time to time raise his reedy, drawling, but not particularly powerful voice above the cacaphony, though his contribution was no more marked than the others'.... Plentiful but, it seemed entirely spontaneous and uncoordinated harmonies and vocal decorations mingled, crossed, and wove around each other with an almost jazz-like improvisatory ease (pp. 140-141)."

© 1996 Boston Book Review