"I HEAR AMERICA SINGING": Folk Music and National Identity

By Meringolo, Denise | American Studies, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

"I HEAR AMERICA SINGING": Folk Music and National Identity


Meringolo, Denise, American Studies


"I HEAR AMERICA SINGING": Folk Music and National Identity. By Rachel Clare Donaldson. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. 2014.

Many scholars and music enthusiasts alike use the term "folk music revival" to describe the popular ascendancy of performers like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in the early 1960s. Indeed, folk music experienced a brief period of commercial success in the United States after the rise of rock-and-roll in the 1950s and before the British invasion of the mid-1960s. By viewing the revival through a tight chronological lens and measuring its influence in terms of popularity, historians have convincingly argued that folk music-and folk musicians-played a critical role in popularizing and expanding a variety of social and political movements. Yet, narrowly associating the revival with the social and cultural movements of the early 1960s has truncated our understanding of the larger cultural significance of American folk music. Further, the over-emphasis on popularity as a measure of influence has made it difficult to recognize the way folk music has both shaped and reflected diversity as a consistent, if sometimes marginalized, aspect of American national identity.

Rachel Clare Donaldson has written an intellectual history of the American folk revival, I Hear America Singing, that addresses both of these shortcomings. Donaldson has made at least three important and intelligent choices about how to examine her subject. Rather than focusing on commercial success or other measures of popularity, Donaldson approaches the folk revival from the top down. She analyzes the work of a variety of leaders who shaped the way folk music was defined, collected, and disseminated. In turn, Donaldson's focus on folklorists, anthropologists, and other organized leaders in the field, allows her to expand the chronology of the folk revival. She identifies the roots of the revival in the first decades of the twentieth century and explores its full emergence in the 1930s. Finally, by taking seriously the motivations of a diverse-and often divergent- group of leaders, Donaldson can identify the core philosophy underneath their work. Taken together, these choices allow Donaldson to argue that the folk music revival is important as a window not only into American popular culture, but also into the formation of American national identity.

Donaldson's work provides a new context for understanding the significance of American folk music. I Hear America Singing makes clear that the folk music revival was not simply a brief and isolated phenomenon that emerged in tandem with 1960s social justice movements. Rather, the individuals who sought to collect, preserve, and disseminate folk music gradually gave form and content to pluralistic nationalism. …

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