Transatlantic Roots Music: Folk, Blues, and National Identities

By Komara, Edward | ARSC Journal, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Transatlantic Roots Music: Folk, Blues, and National Identities


Komara, Edward, ARSC Journal


Transatlantic Roots Music: Folk, Blues, and National Identities. Edited by Jill Terry and Neil A. Wynn. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012. ISBN 978-161703-288-2.

"Roots" or "routes"? The editors of this set of conference proceedings intended to keep both senses of this homophonic pun. The title of the September 2009 conference at the University of Worcester, England was "The Transatlantic Routes of Roots Music." As Jill Terry and Neil Wynn explain in their introduction (p.ix), "As knowledge of the music and culture of the non-English-speaking, nonwhite, non-European, and non-American grew, folk music broadened into 'world' and then 'roots' music." That is not to say that folk music evolved by itself into world music and roots music, but rather the perception of listeners, researchers, editors, and retailers evolved to such labels. Terry and Wynn confirm this by adding (p.ix) "the collection [of essays] explores not just the interconnectedness of folk/roots music on either side of the Atlantic, but also issues"--the "routes" in the conference title--"of discovery rediscovery and representation of such musical forms. Continuing into the first paper, Terry and Wynn amplify their sense of "routes" through historical and social contexts since 1950, of which I presume the present book is the latest event. While reading the rest of the proceedings, we should note the direction each contribution is headed: eastward to the United Kingdom, or westward to the United States?

Organized chronologically, the two contributions about the early research of Paul Oliver are placed first. Since the publication of Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues (Cassell; Horizon, 1960), Oliver has been the longest-standing leader in blues research, and in his native England through his books and media broadcasts, he is a cultural hero. For the Worcester conference, he gave a sketch of the history of the promotion and appreciation in Europe of African American music from the 1870s to the 1970s, including his key early works Blues Fell This Morning and The Story of the Blues (Barrie & Rockliff, the Cresset Press, 1969). Christian O'Connell follows with a frank appraisal of Oliver's pre-1960 blues writings. For all intents and purposes, as the first British scholar of the blues, Oliver had to begin with a very romantic notion of the culture that spawned the blues. As O'Connell admits (p.52), "The reader of Oliver's work from the 1950s is presented with images of a world where the boundaries between historical fact and the fictive elements of the writer's imagination are often unclear." As such, his publications through 1959 may have to be regarded as juvenilia.

The next three contributions treat musicians in the white American ballad tradition and folk music. Erich Nunn leads first, noting that John Lomax had learned what was to become the popular song "Home on the Range" from a black singer, and that Bradley Kincaid had acquired his first guitar from his father, who in turned had traded for it from an African-American man. If the attitude of early researchers like Cecil Sharp in American folk music was to seek Anglo antecedents, then Nunn may be right to call Lomax's situation of finding in a white cowboy culture an African American source "the anxiety of ancestry." Let me render such anxiety in today's terms. "Can a white man sing the blues?" has been an abiding question since the 1950s. But that a black man sings cowboy music is a troubling one, especially for mainstream white culture who has adopted "Home on the Range" since its first publication nearly a century ago. To take my argument further, can a black man sing "Dixie"? According to Howard L. Sacks and Judith Rose Sacks in their book Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family's Claim to the Confederate Anthem (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), an African American may have been the song's creator. Will Kaufman examines the international influence of Woody Guthrie, ascribing it to three pairs of contrasts: the low-class laborer and the middleclass city man; Midwest rural versus East Coast urban; and the commercial appeal of the music versus its potential for activism. …

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