Reds, Whites, and Blues: Social Movements, Folk Music, and Race in the United States

Reds, Whites, and Blues: Social Movements, Folk Music, and Race in the United States

Reds, Whites, and Blues: Social Movements, Folk Music, and Race in the United States

Reds, Whites, and Blues: Social Movements, Folk Music, and Race in the United States

Synopsis

Music, and folk music in particular, is often embraced as a form of political expression, a vehicle for bridging or reinforcing social boundaries, and a valuable tool for movements reconfiguring the social landscape. Reds, Whites, and Blues examines the political force of folk music, not through the meaning of its lyrics, but through the concrete social activities that make up movements. Drawing from rich archival material, William Roy shows that the People's Songs movement of the 1930s and 40s, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s implemented folk music's social relationships--specifically between those who sang and those who listened--in different ways, achieving different outcomes.


Roy explores how the People's Songsters envisioned uniting people in song, but made little headway beyond leftist activists. In contrast, the Civil Rights Movement successfully integrated music into collective action, and used music on the picket lines, at sit-ins, on freedom rides, and in jails. Roy considers how the movement's Freedom Songs never gained commercial success, yet contributed to the wider achievements of the Civil Rights struggle. Roy also traces the history of folk music, revealing the complex debates surrounding who or what qualified as "folk" and how the music's status as racially inclusive was not always a given.


Examining folk music's galvanizing and unifying power, Reds, Whites, and Blues casts new light on the relationship between cultural forms and social activity.

Excerpt

For any readers who know my earlier work on large-scale American industrial corporations, the transition to the study of American folk music, social movements, and race may be curious. Indeed it is curious to me. The common thread in all my work is how social patterns and relations come to be historically. The original question that animated my choice of sociology as a career was how the American power structure described by C. Wright Mills and G. William Domhoff came into being. After deciding that the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was the critical turning point, I did a dissertation under the late Charles Tilly on the role of business in American foreign policy. That project revealed the critical role of corporations in particular and the surprising (to a young graduate student) discovery that large industrial corporations were quite rare until that period, when they suddenly blossomed to reign over the economy. Writing Socializing Capital: The Rise of the Large Industrial Corporation in America (1997, Princeton University Press) nurtured my interest in the broad question of how things that we now take for granted came to be. I began to tackle that general question in teaching undergraduate honors courses at UCLA, leading to Making Societies: How Our World Came to Be (2001, Pine Forge Press). Written for an undergraduate audience, it reflected on how several aspects of our taken-for-granted world in Western societies differ from other societies and how the Western understandings and practices came to be. Western societies have particular understandings of and practices embodying time, space, race, gender, class, and their intersections, which can be explained historically at particular times and places by the actions of specific actors. Through this project, my thinking was influenced by the cultural turn in sociology, especially the renewed interest in the arts, including music. Music has filled my life since childhood, but never in sociological terms. I participated in social movements in college and developed an unfulfilled scholarly commitment in graduate school. And my teaching helped focus an interest in the study of race. This project originally posed the question of how social movements helped shape the racial identity of American folk music, which began as explicitly and assertively white, and broadened to include all vernacular music by all Americans. But the 1960s commercial folk revival was, with few notable exceptions, distinctly white, though less by intention than default. As I investigated the role that social movements played in the development of folk music, I began to make note of the radically different social forms taken by different generations of movements in their musical . . .

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