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Worth a read: Segregation Blues

From the Graun:

Folk music is liberalism with guitars, right? Wrong. Our understanding of it is based on deep-seated racism, argue Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor

...
One of the main tasks folk song collectors have always faced is choosing which of the many songs their informants sing are folk songs and which aren't. Most of them have thought this a relatively easy task: folk songs are uncommercial, pure products of a shared heritage, passed on from generation to generation, whereas pop songs are outside interlopers, invasive species that endanger the survival of the genetically unmodified, authentic, living tradition.

...most folklorists assumed that distinct and culturally separate groups ranging from American blacks to Appalachian whites still existed, despite the evidence that their music had undergone countless transformations through the mixing of traditions. John Lomax, who, along with his son Alan was the premier collector of American folk music, embarked on his monumental quest for black American folk songs in 1933 by defining them as the "songs that are ... the least contaminated by white influence or by modern negro jazz". What Lomax was really after, though, he had revealed a year earlier: he wanted to feel "carried across to Africa ... as if I were listening to the tom-toms of savage blacks". ...In other words, when deciding which songs were "most unlike those of the white race", Lomax would always choose the most primitive forms of expression, disregarding the jaw-dropping complexity and sophistication of much of the black music of his time.

The "white influence" was, of course, impossible for Lomax to escape. In the Southern black penitentiaries, where he assumed the prisoners would "slough off the white idiom they may have employed", his informants inevitably sang garbled versions of songs of black, white, and mixed origin, distantly remembered from their days of freedom. Lomax was also forceful in suggesting the kinds of songs he was looking for. In one recording he tries to cajole the blues singer Blind Willie McTell into playing some of that "complaining music" about hard times, in spite of McTell's protests that he didn't know any.

By contrast, the English folksong collector Cecil Sharp was interested in isolating white Britishness. He travelled the country lanes of England seeking out rural workers for their unadulterated traditional material. In their songs he saw a distant reflection of the "merrie England" of myth. Sharp then travelled to America to document the survival of the English and Scottish tradition in the isolated communities of the Appalachian mountains. At the time, one out of every eight Appalachians was black, but Sharp dubbed black Americans "a lower race", recoiled from towns with too high a proportion of them, and concentrated only on those songs he considered pure British folk song.

My own working definition of folk music is if it's gone through any kind of oral tradition it counts as folk, no matter the origin. Smoke on the Water? Totally folk. Works much better than any kind of purism.

Read the whole article (Via Crooked Timber). See also: Robert Johnson = Britney Spears.

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