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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.

In Singing Out, David and I took this multi-voice theory one step further: we co-wrote the book—a man and a woman, a child of the folk boom and a child of, well, Madonna and Nirvana, I suppose.

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!”

“True, but the guitarist in Rage Against the Machine has a political-science degree from Harvard,” I counter, Wikipedia churning out facts on my lap. “And NWA has a rap sheet with the FBI.”

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.

Recent Comments

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rebecca. Rebecca said: Molly Beer shares what it was like to write "Singing Out" with David King Dunaway: http://bit.ly/bAXiR2 […]

  2. Lucia

    So far, I love reading about the serious collectors of folk music of the US and Europe; some as students fighting their prestigious universities for the acceptance of musical folk lore as a viable, vital, and important cultural key hole through which to view day to day life for the past 500 years. Now that’s intriguing.

  3. Peter McKee

    “This is Pete Seeger-biographer David Dunaway and I debating the evolution of American folk music from our distinct generational perspectives, …. ”

    I must confess, when I read an opening sentence written by a professional writer making a fundamental grammatical error in the misuse of “I”, I find it hard to take seriously what the writer is trying to say. Writer – heal thy self!

  4. […] Singing Out. Written by Molly Beer and David King Dunaway, the book “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.” […]

  5. James McCormick

    “Why is no one playing anti-war songs about Iraq on the autoharp? Why is no one playing the autoharp?”

    I sing and play autoharp. In fact, I wrote a dandy little anti-war ditty a few years ago entitled “Sanctimonious, Profiteering, Fear Mongers Out!”

    You can hear that song (and several others) at my “Songs for Human and Autoharp” page on facebook:

  6. I think both of the authors should have been paying more attention to Mike Seeger than to Pete. He made it his life’s work to gather shards of continuing tradition, in the form of individual human tradition bearers, mainly from the Southeast, who exemplified the abstractions being talked about here.

    Protest music is a self-conscious genre of topical song, valid enough on its own terms, but which has little to do with traditional music, which is a feature embedded in traditional lifeways. Few traditional lifeways exist at this point, so such music tends to be shared among urban revivalist *specialists* and (mostly aging) tradition bearers. The rate of acceleration of culture change is so great at this point that it is unlikely the confluence of conditions that gave us the 78s and cylinders of it will ever repeat.

    Furthermore, Dave van Ronk once pointed out to me (correctly) that I would not want to see the conditions repeated that brought about the Blues and Old Time Music that inspired the Harry Smith Anthology.

    Nevertheless, there is a way to identify such music in our time, I think. The Blues, apart from its relations and sequelae, was the product of an outcast subclass of the lowest economic and social class in America. Look for the music of that subgroup and you may find something analogous.

    Contact me if you want to discuss this further.

  7. stew schneider

    First, what Andy said. Second, suggesting that nobody plays the Autoharp is, well…I don’t want to say “silly” or “uninformed” but I can’t think of less combustible terms. Of course people play the Autoharp. There are luthiers a-plenty building Autoharps costing in the 4 figures, so somebody is playing them. Me, for instance. And Andy.

    What we don’t generally do is to play protest songs. Andy calls them self-conscious, and I agree. A protest song is to a protest movement what glue is to a glider. No glue, no glider, but no organized glider, no need for glue. That’s a political question. The musical question of playing traditional songs on (more or less) traditional instruments is alive and quite well in the Appalachians. Can’t speak for the rest of you guys.

  8. stew schneider

    And while we’re on the subject, Andy, who is Ma Anthro? Is she the one that sued Ma Rainey over “See See Rider”?

  9. James McCormick

    I had a hankering to read “Ulysses” by James Joyce. During my lunch break I sauntered across campus to the library. I discovered that our library has dozens of books about “Ulysses”.

    However, the library does not actually have a copy of “Ulysses” by James Joyce in the collection. I found this to be rather odd.

    I did not check out a book about “Ulysses”. I want to read the book. I don’t want to read about the book.

    Likewise, I am far more interested in hearing, learning, and playing folk music than I am in reading someone’s analysis of folk music.

  10. Linda S. Huber

    I beg to differ – Many folks are playing the autoharp these days. Just Google autoharp and you will find tons of info including links to all sorts of related sites including Youtube videos of some of the best players in the world!

  11. Billie

    I look forward to reading this book. I grew up listening to Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie etc. I want to read David’s interviews and see what influence your Madonna/Nirvana vantage point had on it.

  12. Dawn

    Peter McKee- Did you think that sentence should have read:

    “This is Pete Seeger-biographer David Dunaway and me debating…”

    I am debating, not me am debating, therefore, I seems correct to I (or is that me).

  13. […] Get the inside scoop on what it was like for Molly to work with UNM Professor David King Dunaway […]

  14. Bud Quinlan

    “This is Pete Seeger-biogapher David Dunaway and I debating…”

    I agree with Dawn. “I” here seems right to be: nominative case after an intransitive verb (which is what “is” is).

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