City Folk: English Country Dance and the Politics of the Folk in Modern America

By Reish, Gregory N. | Journal of American Folklore, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

City Folk: English Country Dance and the Politics of the Folk in Modern America


Reish, Gregory N., Journal of American Folklore


City Folk: English Country Dance and the Politics of the Folk in Modern America. By Daniel J. Walkowitz. (New York: New York University Press, 2010. Pp. xv + 335, preface, acknowledgments, notes, bibliography, index.)

The history of the English Country Dance (ECD) movement since the beginning of the twentieth century winds complex pathways from England to America, intersecting with a variety of educational, scholarly, and political phenomena. Its shifting cultural meanings and progressive political applications make the ECD movement an ideal case study of twentieth-century liberalism and remind us of the many agenda-driven contexts in which folk arts movements and folklore scholarship operate. In City Folk, cultural historian Daniel J. Walkowitz traces this complex development, using it as a "prism through which to examine ... the culture of liberalism" (p. 3). Walkowitz ties his account explicitly into ongoing anxieties about modernism, authenticity, and the identity of "the folk" in contemporary folklore studies. At issue is some contemporary scholars' desire to view folk culture as an antimodern alternative to industrial society, "an imagined subject from the rural past that contemporary and largely urban-suburban dancers revive" (p. 3). Dismissing the modern/ antimodern dichotomy as misguided, Walkowitz argues for an " alternative modern view, seeing the folk as rooted in a local culture with its own political resonance" (p. 4). It is a compelling viewpoint, though one that lurks far beneath the surface of the book until its final chapters.

City Folk divides into two parts: part 1 recounts early twentieth-century progressivism and its relationships to early folk revivalism in England and the United States, while part 2 concentrates on the postwar revival and the political culture of the modern ECD movement. Although Walkowitz rightly points out that his early chapters do not take a strictly chronological approach, they are certainly historical. Chapter 1 locates early twentieth-century ECD as part of the progressive response to the physical stresses of urban industrial society, particularly for the more "fragile" populations of women and children. The folk dance movement emerged as a type of physical exercise, connecting directly to the establishment of physical education programs in American schools and the playground movement. In chapter 2, Walkowitz ties ECD to the progressivist project of the bourgeois middle class and to a liberal effort to "build an inclusive American identity" in the face of increasing nativism (p. 50). He describes the work of Elizabeth Burchenal, one of several key women in the development of the American folk dance movement, and posits early twentieth-century folk dance as both a political response to the " historical crisis" of industrial society, and as a type of physical exercise infused with political and even moral power.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 take the reader back and forth between England and America, offering a revised account of Cecil Sharp's seminal career with an emphasis on his involvement with the English folk dance movements on both sides of the Atlantic. Sharp's collaborations and confrontations with Burchenal, Mary Neal, Maud Karpeles, and Lily Conant (née Roberts) underscore the political complexities of his scholarly and cultural agendas. Among the many historical revisions in this part of the book, Walkowitz draws emphatic attention to Maud Karpeles's vital role as Sharp's true collaborator, and rehearses some of the great struggles they overcame during their fieldwork together. Sharp's dance-related discoveries in Kentucky confirmed his beliefs about the survival of English peasant culture in the United States, and in this context, Walkowitz provides brief but valuable discussion of some of the dances themselves, along with more substantive examinations of Sharp's recordings for Victor and Columbia in the 1910s.

Part 2 of City Folk opens with chapter 6, which takes us to the beatnik and folkie scene around New York's Washington Park and describes the broadening of the ECD movement in the second half of the twentieth century with the influx of new ethnic groups from the folk song movement. …

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