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Romancing the Folk: Public Memory & American Roots Music

By Williams, Michael Ann | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

Romancing the Folk: Public Memory & American Roots Music


Williams, Michael Ann, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


Romancing the Folk: Public Memory & American Roots Music. By Benjamin Filene. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Pp. xi, 325. Acknowledgments, introduction, illustrations, coda, notes, bibliography, discography, permissions, index. $49.95, cloth; $19.95, paper.)

Fascination with "authenticity," "construction of tradition," and "public memory" continues to inspire works among younger scholars in the disciplines of history, folklore, and American studies. In examining the various relationships between the folk revival, commercial recording, and academic folklore, Benjamin Filene's Romancing the Folk: Public Memory Bc American Roots Music follows along ground broken by the late1980s exhibit "Folk Roots, New Roots" (and the accompanying collection of essays), as well as Robert Cantwell's When We Were Good: The Folk Revival (1996). Considering its earlier incarnation as a Yale dissertation, Romancing the Folk is remarkably readable and should interest a broad audience. Also, unlike many of its predecessors in the study of cultural representation, Filene does not seem to have a particular theoretical or political axe to grind.

The breadth of Filene's topic is potentially enormous and consequently his approach is selective. The most intriguing, and original, chapter focuses on Leonard Chess, Willie Dixon, and Muddy Waters. The blues revival's relationship with the larger folk revival has not often been explored in depth, and it is a refreshing change from the more often told tale of the early "hillbilly" recording artists and radio stars and their reincarnation as authentic folk musicians. The later chapter on Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan takes on more expected subjects. As with much of the rest of the book, few new facts are uncovered, but Filene does have an interesting take on Dylan's relationship with the folk revival. Unlike Cantwell, who dramatically states that Dylan's now-legendary 1965 performance at the Newport Folk Festival "terminated the popular folk revival," Filene argues that the music of the post-Newport Dylan was perhaps not so different from that of the revivalists (especially Seeger) after all.

Filene's material on the influence of academically trained folklorists on the folk revival will bring few surprises, at least to folklorists, but the chapter entitled "Searching for Folk Music's Institutional Niche" is a welcome synthesis of diverse material. Unfortunately, Filene does not do enough to challenge folklorists' own master narrative and overlooks facts that do not support the simplified story. For instance, he states that Duncan Emrich, Ben Botkin's successor at the Archive of American Folk-Song, worked to bring the archive into a closer relationship with the American Folklore Society (AFS).

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