Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Depression Folk: Grassroots Music and Left-Wing Politics in 1930s America

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Depression Folk: Grassroots Music and Left-Wing Politics in 1930s America

Article excerpt

Depression Folk: Grassroots Music and Left-Wing Politics in 1930s America. By Ronald D. Cohen. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. Pp. [viii], 201. Paper, $27.95, ISBN 978-1-4696-2881-3; cloth, $85.00, ISBN 978-1-4696-3046-5.)

Ronald D. Cohen has an encyclopedic knowledge of twentieth-century folk music in the United States. His great output of writing on the subject, especially what is arguably his best work. Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940-1970 (Amherst, Mass., 2002), already gives credence to his expertise in and commitment to this subject. Perhaps due to his past emphasis on the post-Depression years, Cohen has gone back to the era when left-wing politics and folk music were first joined through the efforts of many individuals and groups, including the federal government to some degree.

In the introduction to Depression Folk: Grassroots Music and Left-Wing Politics in 1930s America, Cohen states that he counts grassroots, vernacular, and even commercial compositions as folk music, and he pledges to investigate a broad range of genres and artists, such as "hillbilly (country) songs, rural blues, spirituals, cowboy songs, western swing, ethnic music and performers, singer-songwriters, labor songsters, and various others" (p. 5). In particular, he vows to "highlight the complex role that folk music and musicians, collectors and promoters, record companies and others, played during the decade" and to explore "the clash between capitalism and the emerging grassroots proletarian movements" (p. 6). Certainly, this spectrum of music and the author's commitment to historically and politically examining it offers much potential. Unfortunately, the book's organization and emphases work against its stated purpose.

First, the discussion is laid out chronologically, which does not initially seem wrongheaded. But because there are so many veins of music, Cohen mentions multiple people, organizations, and political forces without a single thread, except for time, to hold any chapter together. As a result, each section only provides a broad review of people, companies, and organizations that were conceivably recording or documenting music that Cohen would place in the broadly stated folk category, but no sustained or unifying discussion of any grassroots or left-wing political movement appears. …

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