October 26, 2016


What passed for “folk music” in the 1940s and 1950s, by contrast, was the remnant of English ballad preserved in isolated Appalachian communities, as rediscovered by musicologists. Joan Baez made a specialty of such things. John and Alan Lomax gathered Appalachian music, African-American music, and other scraps and shards distant from the American mainstream as an expression of authentic “folk” culture. The entire “folk” movement was Stalinist through and through (including Woody Guthrie, who was a Communist Party hanger-on and probably a member. How do I know this? My late mother was Arlo’s nursery-school teacher in the Red Brooklyn of the 1940s).

Of course, it was all a put-on. Woody Guthrie was a middle-class lawyer’s son. Pete Seeger was the privileged child of classical musicians who decamped to Greenwich Village. The authenticity of the folk movement stank of greasepaint. But a generation of middle-class kids who, like Holden Caulfield, thought their parents “phony” gravitated to the folk movement. In 1957, Seeger was drunk and playing for pittances at Communist Party gatherings; that’s where I first met him, red nose and all. By the early 1960s he was a star again.

To Dylan’s credit, he knew it was a scam, and spent the first part of his career playing with our heads. He could do a credible imitation of the camp-meeting come-to-Jesus song (“When the Ship Comes In”) and meld pseudo-folk imagery with social-protest sensibility (“A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall”). But he knew it was all play with pop culture (“Lone Ranger and Tonto/Riding down the line/Fixin’ everybody’s troubles/Everybody’s ‘cept mine”). When he went electric at the Newport Festival to the hisses of the folk purists, he knew it was another kind of joke.

Read the whole thing.

Earlier: Pete Seeger, America’s Most Successful Communist. Because not just anybody can say they’ve propped up every socialist dictator from Stalin and Hitler to Ho Chi Minh all the way to Saddam Hussein.

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