Historians have had much to say about working-class culture in the 1930s, but our understanding of American workers and their music in these years remains sketchy. In this thoughtful and easy-to-read book, Ronald D. Cohen shows how American folk music reflected conditions and outlooks of occupational groups across the country, from North Carolina textile mills to California apple orchards. As Cohen emphasizes, songs about work and working-class problems served as rallying cries that sustained labor protests and organizing drives throughout the Great Depression. The author places folk music within the swirling controversies that engulfed radicals, liberals, and ultra-conservatives alike. This book might well have been framed as a story about the early life of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Born in Austin, Texas, in 1915, Lomax traveled far and wide documenting the music of ordinary people. He learned skills of the trade from his father, John, who secured a grant from the U.S. Library of Congress in the early 1930s to record African American work songs. As the nation’s economy contracted sharply, the Lomaxes traveled through dozens of small towns and rural communities of the Deep South, preserving music long ignored by major recording companies. Alan continued working with the library in the 1940s, by which time he and his father had compiled a wealth of songbooks and recordings that brought national attention to previously unknown musical artists. Lomax ultimately spent more than fifty years promoting folk music, an accomplishment that made him a legend among folklorists. Definitions of folk music vary widely. Cohen defines the musical genre in ways that encompass the world of sailors, hillbillies, cowboys, hoboes, miners, sharecroppers, and many other hard-pressed Americans. Buried within these songs were razor-sharp commentaries about the nation’s deepening economic crisis and the awful injustices of unbridled capitalism. “The Mill Mother’s Song,” for example, compared female textile workers to slaves and mourned the cries of their impoverished children (29). The “Soup Song” spoke poignantly to the problem of unemployment and hunger (35), and “Pick a Bale of Cotton” echoed the hardships of agricultural workers (46). Just the titles of songs reflected the emergence of militant grassroots movements. “On the Picket Line,” “Mount the Barricades,” and “Hold the Fort” were essentially calls to arms. The Communist Party assembled its own songbooks to capture this revolutionary spirit, and used the songs within them as recruiting tools (47). The songs were part of a “vernacular culture” (74) that contrasted sharply with the happy, romantic music captured in Hollywood films and “hit” records produced along New York’s “Tin Pan Alley” (18). The Lomaxes advanced the musical careers of many singers and songwriters, including the folk legend known as “Lead Belly.” The father and son “discovered” Lead Belly in a prison near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he was serving time for assault. After Lead Belly’s release in 1934, Alan’s father hired the gifted musician to drive him through the South on a new collecting trip. Alan soon joined them, and the three men formed a lasting relationship that served the interests of everyone. The Lomaxes scheduled Lead Belly to perform at universities and professional conferences as well as at radio stations and music festivals, where the artist typically wowed his audiences. Though Lead Belly is often described as a “bluesman,” his voice and lyrics captured the raw, gritty essence of folk music (69). In the late 1930s, Alan Lomax found himself caught up in left-wing social and political movements, which was unsurprising given his commitment to preserving the music of underprivileged people. Lomax’s association with artists like Aunt Molly Jackson and Woody Guthrie gave him deep insights into the Depression’s impact on “real people,” and helped him understand why so many Americans embraced tenets of socialism and communism as well as the progressive initiatives of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. By the 1940s, Lomax probably knew more about racial and economic injustice than did many of the artists he recorded. He remained a folklorist, however. The music he collected was more radical than the man himself. This work is relatively short, and readers may conclude that it glosses over important topics. It says little about America’s changing tastes in popular music, for example, or about how folk musicians made their livings. Though it mentions the cumbersome recording devices used by folklorists, it never explains how the devices actually worked, or how recording techniques changed over time. Despite the advertisements, Depression Folk is not really about radical thought or labor struggles, but it does approach these and related topics from a fresh perspective. The book draws on a wealth of primary and secondary sources, and its citations alone make a significant contribution to literature. Moreover, the book helps readers understand the revival of folk music after World War II. As its author rightly notes, singers and songwriters like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan owe much to the working-class culture of the Great Depression (157). © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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