BBC 4 has recently screened a magnificent series under the generic title, Folk America. Archive BBC footage of Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary and the Byrds have jostled with a contemporary concert hosted by Billy Bragg, and documentary material from the United States including Mississipi John Hurt, the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie and Honeyboy Edwards. It has been magnificent, a wonderful reminder that much of today’s rock is directly descended from that sublime, almost unimaginable, amalgam of black blues and southern country. Indeed one of the programme’s strongest musical messages is the fact that even in the southern states, ‘white’ music was constantly affected by black music.
The programmes however were more than a panoramic commentary on modern American music, more even than an illumination of American culture: they high-lighted the music of a generation, my generation.
The first album I ever purchased was Joan Baez’s Farewell Angelina. With their pure soprano voices, their harking back to a more rooted past and their casting forward to a brighter future, Baez, Judy Collins and others seemed to epitomise the aspirations of the 60s generation. Baez’s chaste style took on a rougher edge when she joined Dylan, Pete Seeger and others on the Freedom Marches and at Newport. Musical and political radicalism came out of a long-closed closet.
Woody Guthrie, balladeer of the migrant dust-bowl workers and 30s trade unionism, had recently died after 15 years of physical degeneration from Huntingdon’s Chorea. His communist colleague however from the Almanac singers, Pete Seeger, was very much alive, but the silencing web of McCarthyism had evaporated. The times they were a-changin.
One of the most powerful anecdotes of the series however, was that concerning Guthrie, who, with Seeger and other communist party inspired left-wingers, had seen music based on the folk tradition as a means to reach and politicise new layers of labouring America. They had also been stoutly anti-fascist, especially during the Spanish Civil War. Guthrie’s guitar was labelled, ‘This machine kills fascists’. When however, in August 1939, the Soviet-German Pact was signed a rapid about turn was required in the left-leaning folk scene. Pacifist and anti-war songs replaced the anti-fascist repertoire. At least they did until 22 June 1941 when the German invasion of the Soviet Union returned Communist Parties across the globe to a position with which they were more comfortable.
It was not only Guthrie’s politics however which were portrayed as less than consistently ethical. His personal life was driven as he moved from place to place, always prioritising music and politics above personal responsibility. Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers made plain her immense admiration for the artist but her distaste for the man. Even Jimmy Longhi, one of Guthrie’s closest friends, said that he hardly ever saw Guthrie smile.
The work of the Lomax family in collecting and recording music was also illustrated. Roosevelt’s New Deal not only encouraged this collecting odyssey but hired Guthrie to pen paeans of praise to both the American working man and to such New Deal artefacts as the Coulee Dam, one more illustration of the remarkable ability of America to reinvent itself in optimism.
Although the series clearly illustrated the poverty and hardship in which folk music was rooted, many of the singers themselves were far from traditional ‘sons of the soil’. Guthrie’s father had been a land speculator and local politician, Seeger’s a professor. That new generation of singer-songwriters however delved into traditions which had blossomed in the United States for over two centuries. Guthrie developed the talking blues (later adopted by Dylan) and Seeger tapped into southern white music. Goodnight Irene moved from vaudeville to blues to Seeger’s folk version in the 1950s. Songs transported by early settlers from Europe, such as Barbara Allan, re-emerged in the Appalachians and later in Baez’s repertoire. Religious hymns, built on a quietist tradition, All My Troubles Lord, Nearly Over or I Ain’t Got No Home in the World Any More, become anthems of optimism. We Shall Overcome was based on a negro spiritual. Again, the series illustrated that wonderful American capacity to move, almost effortlessly, from conservative religiosity to radical optimism, to marry tradition and dream.
Perhaps the one element which the series dodged was the capacity of red-neck America occasionally to harness this tradition to less life-enhancing causes. Hardship, pain, longing and hope can also create maudlin sentiment.
The series captured the survivors, Collins, Seeger, Baez, McGuinn, Paxton, all still vibrant performers, but also the new generation, Alison Moorer, Alison Krauss, Seasick Steve. For this baby-boomer who marched against the Vietnam war to American anthems and who in his 50s remains fearful of such American adventures as Iraq and Afghanistan but revels in Steve Earle and has tickets booked for Dylan’s May performance in Glasgow, BBC4 did a huge service. Hopefully more than the baby-boom generation enjoyed this cultural snapshot of that most complex of all nations.
The above article was first published in Scottish Review on 26 February 2009: http://www.scottishreview.net/AWood080.html