Folk Duet: Writing Discord and Folk Music
Molly Beer has taught literature and writing at the Universidad Técnica de Ambato, Ecuador, and the University of New Mexico. She wrote Singing Out: An Oral History of America’s Folk Music Revivals, with David King Dunaway, a Professor of English at the University of New Mexico. Singing Out is culled from more than 150 interviews and the story it tells spans seven decades and cuts across a wide swath of generations and perspectives, shedding light on the musical, political, and social aspects of the folk revival movement. In the original article below Beer looks at the experience of writing a book with another author.
“Apathetic,” he scoffs.
“Naïve and romantic,” I counter defensively.
These songs are so self-absorbed!”
“Those songs were so self-righteous!”
This is Pete Seeger-biographer David Dunaway and me debating the evolution of American folk music from our distinct generational perspectives, and we aren’t, technically, arguing. Beyond the pot-shots, we are engaging in academic discourse born out of the ever-shifting debate over purity, authenticity, and activism in folk music.
David presents the case that young people today are tuned-out technophiles singing only in the “key of me.” I rebut that the old peace-and-love folkies have gone soft, waxing nostalgic while Dylan croons from high-end speakers in their safe, shiny Volvos. We’re speaking indirectly of banjo-picking coalminers in Appalachia and guitar-toting folkstars in Greenwich Village, and we’re comparing it all to 2010: Why is no one playing anti-war songs about Iraq on the autoharp? Why is no one playing the autoharp? David and I have vying theories.
History written from a single, mysteriously objective, even omniscient vantage point is history, all but obsolete. Even personal history with its explicit, personified point-of-view can suffer from a shortage of counterpoints (David, for example, would write a very different story here). This is the argument for writing a history in many voices, for oral history, and for the braiding of accounts and interpretations into a multi-faceted, contradiction-ridden narrative.
Out of these dichotomies we crafted a narrative voice—a “glue” as we called it—for all the shards of stories and rants and explications that David has been collecting since before I was born and which I spliced and arranged into one, albeit schizophrenic narrative.
“There is no budding Pete Seeger on the horizon,” David remarks, pensively stroking his goatee. “Young people just aren’t writing protest music. I mean Ani DiFranco is in her 40s!”
If one applies Francis James Child’s philological criteria, or even Alan Lomax’s once-revolutionary cantometrics, the guitarist in Rage Against the Machine and the NWA rap-sheet rappers—also in their 40s—don’t play folk music, any more than the hip-hop, thrash metal, punk acts out there do. For this one needs Arlo Guthrie-esque “it’s all folk music!” definition. David and I agree on one thing: considering both ends of the spectrum is necessary for any book about folk music that hopes to wade beyond the “romantic mist” that can shroud the genre.
Of course, David might have written Singing Out solo. The thousands of pages of interviews are his doing. They are the product of his life’s work and passion. But Singing Out is not the book David would have written without a coauthor situated at a very different vantage point.
For one thing, there wouldn’t be Navajo punk rockers in David’s history of folk music. There wouldn’t be a scene of Pete Seeger picking his banjo astride a toilet, either. But these elements are now David’s: in our book we let the speakers of oral history disagree on the page; we speak—after much tuning—in one voice.
And once, while I was probably speaking irreverently about Cecil Sharp or some other folk music guru, David sighed and said that he was too close to the material, that I wasn’t personally entangled and could filter through the minutiae.
But this isn’t the whole of it.
In his introduction to Singing Out, David describes a scenario in which a collector “hiked across damp and dusty byways to find a local storyteller, or that ‘fiddler in the woods,’ only to be told: ‘But you should have seen his uncle—he was really good.’” Call this multi-perspectival process post-modern, call it modern-day academic discourse, but what it imitates is age-old: the accrual and transmission of knowledge across generations.
In today’s thinking, there is no definitive point-of-view for telling history, just as a folksong has no definitive versioning. There is great value in the long-cultivated skill of the master, but also in the handing down of know-how so sophisticated that it allows for reinterpretation, for revision, for reviving.
So, yes, to co-write a history in many voices is post-modern, and it is also age-old: almost without knowing it, we’re writing in the folk process.