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Archive for February 17th, 2010

Journal Entry #1 : Folk Music

In both Filene and Kyriakoudes’ article, folk music had been a way of identifying the American heritage from the 1920s to the 1930s. They both touched upon the subject of “authenticity”, but in different ways.  Kyriakoudes’ article focused on minstrelsy and vaudeville entertainment whereas Filene focused on creating a conflicting image of the artist to attract people. John A. Lomax had devoted his life to collecting American folk songs with the help of his son Alan Lomax. In their attempt to document folk music, Lomax had not specified a political agenda however his music did show the diversity of the American people. He had gained positive feedback from the Communist party’s Popular Front policy, which tried to unite the world to fight against fascism by defining the American culture and diversity. Lomax had much more concern with the African American culture and praised them for creating distinctive folk songs. He also adopted a moderate political view so that he was able to appeal to a bigger audience with his collections and music.

They made many trips to different places recording music. One of the first was an African American singer and guitarist named Huddie Ledbetter, who is also known as “Leadbelly.” They’ve discovered his musical talent when they were searching for African American “work songs” in Louisiana’s Angola Prison. Leadbelly had incredible virtuosic qualities playing his 12 string guitar and his ability to sing a wide range of songs had impressed Lomax. The Lomaxes took Leadbelly with them on their travels and also brought him to New York City where they promoted him as an icon of America’s folk-song tradition. What is interesting about the Lomaxes was that they were not only collectors and preservers of folk music but also promoters and, in a way, re-creators of the artist’s image. Although the Lomaxes’ conception of American folk music was heavily limited and relied on their personal preference, they were considered the first American folk song collectors. The Lomaxes were determined to promote Leadbelly because they liked his music and by doing so they also created a false public image for him. They’ve made Leadbelly the voice of the people in folk music and created an image for him like that of a “savage, untamed animal”. However, Leadbelly is just the opposite. They depicted Leadbelly as a common man but also an outcast and although these two ideas a highly contradicting the public was attracted to it.

In Kyriakoudes’ article minstrelsy had raised the question of authenticity. George D. Hay had made a radio program which southerners could reflect and project about their urbanization of the south during the late 1920s. The Grand Ole Opry was a response to anxieties about modern life and new technology because it included blackface and other forms of minstrelsy that addressed the issues of modernization by praising and also rejecting the changes in technology and society. It turned to mostly “old-time music” which had become popular with the southern audiences during the 1920s. Musicians such as Uncle Dave Macon sang about his reaction towards change, especially that of new technology such as the automobile. He would mostly reject the automobile because it threatens to change the traditional community and would change their historical roots. Minstrelsy allowed for white southerners to address their fears of rural social change. Blackface had attracted big crowds in the south as country artists, blackface singers, dancers and comedians all were appealing and entertaining to those in the southern areas.

Hays used racialized humor, that is, humor which were re-creations of African American dialect, acts and ridicules on their misfortunes. Blackface duos Lee Roy “Lasses” White and Lee David “Honey” set up comical acts and parodies to popular songs. They’ve applied the southern anxiety of modernization and culture into these acts which had drawn many people. They were popular to both white southerners as well as black southerners. The issue of blackfacing, therefore, was sensitive to the issue of being “authentic” where they needed to be real enough to appeal to the audience but at the same time sympathetic also. The Opry’s musical programming had assured the true white southern identity would not be altered by the rapidly changing times and modernization and they’ve stressed the importance of African American tradition and figures in their music.

All the fabrications made in folk music based on these two articles have raised the question of what exactly is “authentic”. In our society today, many things tend to bend towards that same problem from photo manipulation to video editing and even music. Since the advancement of technology we are able to manipulate many of the “original” to produce an effect that we believe would be best, however, wouldn’t changing the ‘work of art’ take away from the original meaning and intention? In relation to folk music and the Lomaxes, if the goal was to preserve heritage, history and roots I feel that it’d be better to have left it the way it originally intended to be, even with all the “rough edges” because that is what defines that specific piece of work to be unique.

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