Which Side Are You On: An Inside History of the Folk Music Revival in America

Article excerpt

Which Side Are You On: An Inside History of the Folk Music Revival in America. By Dick Weissman. New York: Continuum, 2005. [296 p. ISBN 0-8264-1698-5. $24.95.] Bibliographical references, index, discography.

Dick Weissman is known to many as the author of the Folk Music Sourcebook (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976; reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1989) and the guide, The Music Business: Career Opportunities and Self Defense (New York: Crown Publishers, 1979). His qualifications for writing those books, and indeed for the volume at hand, include his role in the folk-pop group the Journeymen, playing as a sideman on recordings by the Brothers Four, The New Christy Minstrels, and Peter, Paul and Mary, and as a record producer for ABC. With those credentials, one might expect a set of personal recollections telling an inside story of the folk music revival. Weissman, however, chooses a different path, attempting instead to write a history of the American folk music revival by exposing its conflicts, both in business relationships and personal ones. Hence his title comes from the coal miners' labor song, "Which Side Are You On?" Only briefly, at the end of each chapter, does he relate any personal experiences.

Weissman adopts several approaches to support this history of conflict in the folk song revival. He identifies underdogs in the movement who have been unjustly ignored, while at the same time downplaying the importance of more iconic figures who he feels "may have received more attention than they deserved" (p. 277). He makes frequent references to the conflicts between the musicians and the music business, especially in matters of copyright, royalties, and the usual bad guys: the artists' agents, the record companies, and publishers. Underlying his narrative seems to be a certain amount of bitterness revealing his own conflicting sentiments about the revival.

One underdog figure is "Cowboy" Jack Thorp (whose name erroneously appears as "Tharp"). Thorp's collection, Songs of the Cowboys (Estancia, NM: News Print Shop, 1908) predated John Lomax's Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (New York: Sturgis and Wallon Co., 1910) by two years. Citing D. K. Wilgus, Weissman justifiably vilifies Lomax for his claim that Thorp had cribbed from Cowboy Songs, rather than the other way around. Here, Weissman takes the opportunity to note Lomax's predatory approach to copyright, both in his claim to the cowboy songs (some of which were actually penned by Thorp), and also in his later claim to the copyright of songs by his "discovery," Huddie Ledbetter (commonly known as Leadbelly). The use of copyright by various folk figures to make money on music that doesn't clearly belong to them is a continuing theme throughout the book.

Weissman also raises the cases of Lawrence Gellert, the leftist collector of African American protest songs, and the early recording artist and repertoire man, Ralph Peer. Gellert, a liberal journalist transplanted from New York to Tryon, North Carolina, found himself immersed in African American culture in one of the few Southern towns where such interracial contact was possible. There, he collected several hundred songs, many of which were unusual in their rebellious and angry attitude toward whites. Gellert's early detractors discredited his work on the basis that few printed collections contained similar songs. While Weissman's championing of Gellert is interesting, it is by no means new. He has long been vindicated by the work of D. K. Wilgus ("From the Record Review Editor: Afro-American Tradition," Journal of American Folklore 85, no. 335 [January-March 1972]: 99-107), Richard Reuss's American Folk Music and Left Wing Politics, 1927-1957 (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2000), and Bruce Conforth's M.A. thesis "Laughing just to Keep from Crying: Afro-American Folksong and the Recordings of Lawrence Gellert" (M.A., Indiana University, 1984; forthcoming from University of Illinois Press), among others. …