American folk music's long and winding road to relevance
“We Shall Overcome” marks its 50th anniversary this year of, well, overcoming obscurity, for one thing.
Written in 1901 as a church hymn, the ballad played an occasional role in the labor movement of the 1930s and 1940s. But by the spring of 1960, it had been pretty much forgotten except by a small circle of stalwart progressives.
Then in April of that year, a UCLA sociology alum who had taken courses in ethnomusicology here taught the song at the inaugural meeting of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Raleigh, N.C. By the following summer, “We Shall Overcome” was well on its way to becoming the official anthem of the civil rights movement, reverberating at sit-ins, marches and other protests throughout the South.
UCLA sociologist William Roy, author of a new book on this theme, traces the long road to recognition for "We Shall Overcome" and other folk classics. Reaching back to the mid-19th century, “Reds, Whites, and Blues: Social Movements, Folk Music, and Race in the United States” (Princeton University Press) shows how one movement after another struggled to leverage folk music for social justice.
In the case of “We Shall Overcome,” said Roy, a professor of sociology and chair of UCLA’s sociology department, “Doing music — especially in racially mixed groups — became an act of defiance against segregation.” The song still manages to bring tears to the eyes of the sociologist who joined the civil rights movement as an undergraduate in the ’60s at Atlanta’s Emory University. “It’s a powerful reminder of participating in history, of making a difference,” he said.
Writer Meg Sullivan spoke with Roy about the book that was his nine-year labor of love.
What is folk music and why have U.S. social movements embraced it so frequently?
There are purists who think folk music has to be ancient and anonymous. For others, folk is a style of music that springs directly from the people — something that’s pure and innocent and not ruined by industry and modern life. But most leaders of progressive causes weren’t purists. They just wanted to mine the music of ordinary Americans to rouse them. It didn’t matter whether a folk song was truly old, newly written or a kind of hybrid that used the tune of an old song like the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and set it to new lyrics like “Solidarity Forever.”
What was the first progressive cause in America to use what you’d consider to be folk music?
That was probably the American Revolution with “Yankee Doodle” and other songs spread by revolutionary soldiers. But the abolitionists were the first to use music that was embraced as authentic and moving because it came from common people. Abolitionists would bring slaves up from the South and have them sing spirituals at big meetings in the North. Many northerners had never met African Americans. Abolitionists were trying to vividly demonstrate the humanity of slaves, who had been compared to animals in the race-baiting imagery of the day.
These concerts featured such classics as “I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
But even though slaves had sung these songs in church, in the fields and in their homes, the abolitionists didn’t call them “folk music.” That recognition didn’t come until later.
When did folk music become recognized in America?
The first people to use the term “folk music” were 18th
century Europeans, and they used it exclusively to refer to their own music. They contended that Americans had no folk music because we didn’t have that long a history. Then an English folk song collector went to Appalachia in the late 19th
century and found such old English folk songs as “Barbara Allen.”
He said, “Wait — America does have folk songs!”
So the first generation of folklorists went to the Appalachians to try to find other old English songs that had been passed down by generations from early immigrants from the British Isles. Fairly quickly, though, there was a counter-movement that said, “Hold on a minute! These old English ballads aren’t uniquely American! They’re English!” A second generation of folklorists started collecting African-American spirituals, which combined African and European sensibilities into a new kind of music specific to America.
The late Texas folklorist John Lomax was especially active in this effort. He’s probably best remembered today for discovering the iconic American folk musician Leadbelly (Huddie William Ledbetter) in a Louisiana penitentiary. Leadbelly knew hundreds of African American folk songs, and he was responsible for introducing “House of the Rising Sun”
and “Midnight Special” — among others — to American popular culture.
How did folk music come to be associated with the labor movement?
In the teens, a radical union called the Wobblies was active in the West. At union meetings, on picket lines and even on street corners, they turned American classics such as “The Sweet By and By” into biting satires like “There Will Be Pie in the Sky When You Die.”
But the strong connection between labor and folk music didn’t occur until the 1930s and ’40s, when the Communist Party started to target trade unions. Labor organizers adopted folk music in a deliberate attempt to reach the common man.
Before that, the term “folk music” was used mostly by scholars. People like John Lomax’s son, Alan, and the Seeger family popularized the concept so that it was understandable to just about everybody. As Charles Seeger, a folk music champion and early UCLA ethnomusicology scholar, put it, “The main question should not be ‘Is it good music?’ but ‘What is the music good for?’” Labor-oriented songs from that period include “Talking Union,”
“Get Thee Behind Me” and “Which Side Are You On.”
What was the vision?
Labor organizers hoped to launch a singing movement. They wanted people singing together, especially people of different races. They understood the power of music to bring people together at events like hootenannies.
The term was discovered in Seattle by Charles Seeger’s son, Pete, and the singer-organizer brought it to New York City. Basically, it was a participatory form of music. The idea was that union sympathizers would come together to sing and swap songs. People actually did come to the events, but unfortunately not the ones that the party was trying to organize. Instead of workers, organizers ended up attracting other people like themselves — urban intellectuals.
If you had to pinpoint one factor that killed the relationship between labor and folk music, what would it be?
Labor organizers were naïve about what ordinary people wanted. For example, they would go to a union meeting dressed up in overalls. The union members would arrive in coats and ties because the gathering for them was a special occasion. There was a social gap between the organizers and ordinary people. Organizers thought the people’s music was folk music. But for the people, their music was Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey … not heavy-handed ideological music. The Red Scare didn’t help either. After the advent of McCarthyism, unions distanced themselves from the Communist Party and even Pete Seeger, who had been so popular.
How did the civil rights movement succeed where the labor movement failed?
Formed in 1871, the Jubilee Singers helped popularize the spiritual to American and European audiences and set the stage for expanding the definition of folk music from English ballads to include African American music.
While walking picket lines, sitting at lunch counters, riding on the bus, spending time in jail, civil rights activists joined in song. Music gave these people a sense of belonging and solidarity. African Americans were already used to singing together because of their culture. Especially in southern rural African American culture, singing is something people did when they got together. So it was culturally appropriate.
What role did the Highlander School play in this folk music renaissance?
The Highlander School was an organization in Tennessee that brought people together — mostly from the South — for instruction in community organizing. So say your town had a racist sheriff or failing schools or some other problem that seemed insurmountable. You’d go to the Highlander School to learn behind-the-scenes skills for effecting change — from running a mimeograph machine or a meeting to staging a sit-in and or a voter registration drive. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. number among Highlander alumni.
Another one of the skills that was emphasized at the Highlander School was how to use music in a social movement. One of the school’s teachers was Guy Carawan, an L.A. native who got a master’s degree in sociology from UCLA. As a song leader and a trainer of song leaders, he introduced classics like “We Shall Overcome,”
“Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” at workshops for civil rights organizations. Those organizations then carried the songs into the field — and the popular imagination.
What is the prognosis today for folk music and social movements?
Folk music today is just a niche market that has a handful of followers — mostly singer- songwriters. The music contains a fairly mild critique of modern life and a certain amount of nostalgia about how life was before cities, big industry and big corporations, but it’s pretty tame. Music plays a different role now that’s much less powerful. I don’t see that there’s much potential to return to anything like the civil rights movement. One reason is we no longer grow up singing together. We grow up with Ipods.