What Folk Music Misses About Actual Folks
Brian Laidlaw on the Pastoral Fantasy in Music and Poetry
We were up on Minnesota’s Iron Range, where iron and taconite mining underpin not only the entire regional economy, but also seem to define the sense of identity, history and future for each of the boomtowns studded across the range. Our touring production of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People was both relevant and controversial there, because some of the chemicals and practices currently used in taconite mining also risk contaminating the Boundary Waters and the Great Lakes.
One of our cast-members there was the son of a miner, the grandson of a miner, and the father of a miner. He also happened to give tours at a now-defunct hard-rock iron mine, and midway through the run of shows on the Range, he invited our cast to join him on a tour. A half-mile underground, as he described step-by-step the mechanics of labor in an iron mine, it became clear that all the folk songs I’d ever heard about the lives of miners did nothing to capture the dimness, the loudness, the simultaneous danger and mundanity of the work; those traditional tunes were no more accurate representations of the mining life than were the original pastoral poems accurate in their portrayals of sheep-tending in Arcadia.
Our tour guide then expressed—to an assembly of tourgoers from all around the country, some from big cities and some from small towns—his bemusement that urban environmentalists would denounce rural resource extraction in posts and articles written on computers that relied on those selfsame raw materials, that they would criticize iron mining practices at environmental conferences to which they traveled in vehicles made largely of steel, and that they would rage against the yield-enhancing practices of industrial agriculture while dining on the very fruits of those labors.
Some of his points I agreed with, others I resisted, but I knew that the tensions I was hearing him express, and the ones I felt within myself, were tangled up in post-folk.
I was serving as the music director for An Enemy of the People, a production we’d branded as a “folk and bluegrass musical;” my collaborator Ashley Hanson and I had written a series of songs based on workshops, story circles and conversations we had with local community members in each of the towns where we would eventually perform. I’d been a devotee of folk music for decades prior to this project, and had called myself a professional folksinger for eight or ten years. My work has been featured on several online music review platforms, one of which is MusicCritic. But this tour forced me to reconsider the meaning of the term “folk,” and to wonder what role that label plays in framing the nature of rural experience.All the folk songs I’d ever heard about the lives of miners did nothing to capture the dimness, the loudness, the simultaneous danger and mundanity of the work.
Throughout the tour, I was also reading for my comprehensive exams for a Ph.D. in English and Literary Arts. One of my subject areas was “American Folk Forms,” and the other was “Post-Pastoral Poetics.” The readings, the songwriting workshops, the beautiful and contaminated landscapes, and the politics of urban and rural spaces inevitably began to overlap in my mind, and I started thinking of the terms “folk” and “pastoral” side by side. They bear some compelling parallels: each connotes an aesthetic space signifying a remove or “retreat” from the fast pace of city life, each carries a strong note of nostalgia in its rhetoric, and—crucially—each is a term that, as an aesthetic category, has historically been applied by urban onlookers and theorists, who inhabit “folk” and “pastoral” spaces only in passing, only as tourists, archivists and chroniclers.
The Arcadian shepherd, then, stands in relation to the “folk” figures first “discovered” by (urban, coastal, elite) archivists like John and Alan Lomax; like the city poets who used the shepherd as a vehicle by which to ventriloquize and extol the virtues and beauties of (an imaginary) rural life, so too did Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie become, in some sense, the mouthpieces that urban collectors used to shape a particular, romanticized narrative of rural life and labor.
In his book Romancing the Folk, Benjamin Filene describes that process, and the machinery of the early folk industry, as follows:
These folklorists, record company executives, producers, radio programmers, and publicists “discovered” folk musicians, recorded them, arranged concert dates for them, and, usually, promoted them as the exemplars of America’s musical roots. In doing so, they did more than deliver “pure” music: they made judgments about what constituted America’s true musical traditions, helped shape what “mainstream” audiences recognized as authentic, and, inevitably, transformed the music that the folk performers offered. They “romanced” the folk, both in the sense of wooing them as intimates and of sentimentalizing them as other.
A similar critical narrative appears in Terry Gifford’s Pastoral. He first suggests that the traditional pastoral’s “discourse of retreat” provided either an “escape from the complexities of the city, the court, the present, ‘our manners,’” or an opportunity to explore those features of urban living from the critical distance of the countryside. Gifford then lays out the more recent critiques of the pastoral mode:
Perhaps the most comprehensive and succinct attack of this kind is contained in the political definition of pastoral by Roger Sales, which is summed up in his statement that pastoral represents the “five Rs”: “refuge, reflection, rescue, requiem, and reconstruction.” His view is that pastoral is essentially escapist in seeking refuge in the country and often also in the past; that it is a selective “reflection” on past country life in which old settled values are “rescued” by the text; and that all this functions as a simplified “reconstruction” of what is, in fact, a more complex reality.
I wonder to what extent archival “folk” releases from the likes of Smithsonian Folkways, and the output of “folk” bands born and raised in Portland, Brooklyn, and San Francisco (whether performing traditionals or writing original tunes in the same idiom) are participating in the same “selective reflection” in their music, the same oversimplification of “a more complex reality”.
And of course, I also wonder to what extent I’m participating in this trafficking of a sentimentalized rural reality. I had always felt like I’d done my due diligence as a folksinger, in that I had carefully studied the canon, mastered the forms and turns of phrase, learned what I could about the lived experiences of the performers I admire. But in some ways this all still amounts to a careful study of the shepherds of Arcadia; it remains far removed from the cold and early mornings, the stink and bleat of the sheep.
So this summer I began to see both “folk” and “pastoral” in relation to fantasy. By way of an example, one of the chapters in Annette Kolodny’s The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers begins with an excerpt from “A Michigan Emigrant Song.” The verse, dated circa 1833, sings as follows:
My eastern friends who wish to find
A country that will suit your mind
Where comforts all are near at hand
Had better come to Michigan.
Kolodny’s book explores the ways in which both city dwellers and actual pioneers, in the era of Westward expansion, fashioned the frontier as a “Prairie Eden,” and cast the pioneer woman as an “American Eve.” The tune above is one of many manifestations of that imaginative and constitutive work; the bountiful “virgin” plains became a dreamland onto which settlers could project (usually male, often urban) fantasies of conquest and dominion.
Kolodny cautions that the cultural productions of these fantasies can obscure the reality of the settings in which they operate:
The danger in examining the projections of fantasy is the temptation to construe them as unmediated models of behavior. In fact, what we are examining here are not blueprints for conduct, but contexts of imaginative possibility. Fantasy, in other words, does not necessarily coincide with how we act or wish to act in the world. It does, however, represent symbolic forms (often repressed or unconscious) that clarify, codify, organize, explain, and may even lead us to anticipate the raw data of experience. In that sense, fantasy may be mediating or integrative, forging imaginative (and imaginable) links between our deepest psychic needs and the world in which we find ourselves.
The principles of “post-pastoral” poetics have been central to my work for years; although I started out—when I was an aspiring poet in high school and into my time as an undergraduate—as an immensely naïve “Nature writer,” my widening reading of poetic and ecological material has allowed me to see the distinction between “the city” and “the natural landscape” as a fiction. As Gifford says, through a post-pastoral lens “it is difficult to pretend that the countryside is now anything more than an extension of the town;” I think I’ve fully internalized this observation, and I try to reflect it in the form and logic of my poems.In some ways this all still amounts to a careful study of the shepherds of Arcadia; it remains far removed from the cold and early mornings, the stink and bleat of the sheep.
But while I have interrogated “pastoral” in my work as many other writers have done, I realized that I had not until recently interrogated “folk” in the same way. Instead, through the aesthetic fantasy of this music, I maintained in my mind a division between “urban life” and “rural life.” In other words, while the ecosystems of urban and rural landscapes had merged in my mind, the cultures had not. So now I’m trying to wrap my mind around an expressive mode called “post-folk”, not in the way that such a term might be applied to the purely sonic characteristics of music (i.e. a mixture of acoustic and electronic instruments) but rather in terms of a compositional praxis. How would this type of post-folk music embody the full complexity of the interactions between urban and rural landscapes, cultures and economies?
As Pete Seeger says, “Folk traditions will change as the folk who inhabit this earth change.” Or, in the words of Willie Dixon: “As you change the time, it changes the blues. Every time you change the news, you got to change the blues because the news ain’t always the same.” Right now it feels like the news isn’t good. But in this political climate (and this climate-climate), finding some reconciliation between urban centers and rural areas seems like a vital type of healing for our country—and for me, at least, “post-folk” thinking seems like it can provide a framework for that process.