Academic journal article Journalism History

The "Folk Problem": The Village Voice Takes on Folk Music, 1955-65

Academic journal article Journalism History

The "Folk Problem": The Village Voice Takes on Folk Music, 1955-65

Article excerpt

This article examines the Village Voice's coverage of Greenwich Village's growing folk music scene. The Village's "folk problem" had three manifestations: the contentious role that folk played in changing the community dynamics of the Village; the issues of taste raised by folk as a new genre of music; and disputes within the folk community over commercialization, popularization, and electrification. The study argues that the Voice's approaches to folk expanded readers' notions of popular music journalism and criticism, giving additional insight into the origins, purposes, and methods of critical consecration and serious writing about music. It also contends that the paper's popular music criticism deserves a more prominent place in journalism history, popular music studies, and mass communications.

The front page of the Village Voice's first issue on October 26, 1955, depicted a battle that would rage in New York City for years to come. In the article "Music Makers Quit the Square (But Only For the Wintertime)," news editor John Wilcock detailed the difficulties city officiais were facing in controlling the folk musicians who had begun staging impromptu jam sessions, otherwise known as hootenannies, in Washington Square Park on Sundays. The result of the entanglement this time, during which more than 100 revelers descended upon the Square, much to the dismay of the area's ethnic residents, was that the musicians would be denied a permit to play in the park during the winter season. Yet this was hardly the end of folk, both in the Square as well as in greater Greenwich Village.1 Over the next decade, folk exploded as a vibrant popular movement; produced celebrities such as Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan; and created culture wars that would be negotiated between opposing camps of the Village: one old world and the other counterculture, one hip and the other square, and one purist and the other progressive.2

The Voice, too, had to establish its relationship to folk music. As the most prominent alternative weekly in the country, the paper had a close relationship to bohemian culture; despite this, the publication was not an automatic or eager champion of the musical output of this alternative set. It had to determine not only how it would discuss folk music-as a community problem or a community celebration, as valid music or useless refuse-but also whether folk would be covered at all.

This article examines how the VilUge Voice tackled the "folk problem" in Greenwich Village between 1955, the publication's first year, and the end of 1965, when Dylan's electric performance at that summers Newport Folk Festival ceremoniously marked the genre's hastening toward rock music.3 The problem that the Voice faced in reference to folk is defined in three ways. The first was how the paper would cover the growth of the folk scene and its role in changing the community dynamics of the Village. What value the Voice would give to folk music as an emerging genre posed a second type of problem. Third, the Voice addressed what treatment to give the problem of the disputes within the folk community itself over commercialization and popularization of the genre, and its eventual movement toward rock. In all three circumstances, the Voice was not simply a vessel to carry the debate but also an active player in the framing of the issue, playing the multifaceted role of definer, deliberator, and arbiter of the music.

Referring to folk as a problem is not to suggest that the paper's staff had a conspiratorial stance against the music. Rather, it is to put forward the position that despite the paper's devotion to Village culture, it nonetheless had to develop a relationship to folk over time, follow trends as well as lead them (or miss them), make choices about what was newsworthy and what was not, and all the while forge its reputation within the Village. Thus, the title of this article speaks not only to how the Voice reported about folk music but what the commentary signified for the Voice, for folk music as a popular genre, and for the field of rock music journalism that was, in part, its outgrowth. …

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