A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, ATO Records released the two-disc compilation Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War. Like a lot of essays, books, museum exhibitions, and other materials of the past five years, it used the 150th anniversary of the war to foreground reflections on history. The album contains 32 tracks of both Union and Confederate origins (as well as some that long predate the war and a couple from long after). The vast majority feature banjo and/or mandolin. The piano, the instrument we might associate with the Northern middle class, is scarce, overpowered of course by the guitar, frequently played in a syncopated finger style. About half the songs were recorded in Nashville, and most of the rest — aside from several recorded in Los Angeles and New York — in South Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, and Missouri (a border state, to be fair). One exception to the Southern origins of the production was recorded in Athens, Ohio, but that one moves on Kentucky-style Travis picking and does not make a jarring transition into the next track, a pretty and non-martial rendition of “Dixie.” The iconic Union ballad “The Vacant Chair,” is adapted by the Virginia bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley. In the realm of “folk” music or “roots” or “Americana,” even on a compilation meant to commemorate the bloody division of the United States into North and South, the slaveholding states and their musical traditions triumph in a rout. Musically, the Lost Cause is not lost.
How did the South steal Americana? How were the many other traditions Americans might have looked to as their musical roots, a rich seedbed and nearly lost cause I will describe later, trampled or left untended as Southern traditions — both African-American and Anglo-European — spread like Miracle-Gro magnolias? These questions have been nagging me. The construction (n.b.: not “discovery”) of American folk music from the 1930s onward occurred in a context of severely curtailed immigration, and thus an unusual predominance of the English language in everyday American life. During the same time, great numbers of black and white Southerners migrated to the North and West, giving the whole country a Southern tinge. These and other conditions helped produce rock ’n’ roll as a national phenomenon in the 1950s and sent folklorists and critics searching for its ancestors. It has often been non-Southerners who have promoted the idea that the South holds the one pure, pre-industrial spring of Americana. One exemplary grandson of European-Jewish immigrants, from the Iron Range of Minnesota — home to rich Ojibwe, Dakota, Scandinavian, Irish, and other musical traditions — grew up to find his true America in the Nashville skyline and the Southern stretches of Highway 61.
I don’t dislike Americana music. I used to play a little bluegrass and DJ what came to be called “alt-country.” Okay, I feel an adolescent annoyance when Bob Dylan is hailed as a modern Shakespeare by old white guys like my dad. But I get why Robert Johnson is great, why the Carter Family is great, and so on. The problem is that a lot of other great American folk musicians, particularly those singing in languages other than English, had their records thrown away by the same collectors who polished and reissued country and blues gems. Southern folk music’s overwhelming dominance — for all its championing by non-Southern liberals — also subtly reinforces the “heritage not hate” defenses of the Confederate flag and other antebellum and pre–civil rights nostalgia. Celebrating Southern music and ignoring everything else suggests that what is best and most authentic in American culture is primarily Dixie, which can stand as an imaginary antidote to a world gone wrong. And perhaps more important is that the South-only soundtrack leaves us with a conception of “America” at its root as an Anglo-only, black-and-white-only nation. That was never the case, although the mid-20th century when folk was mostly invented may have come closest superficially to matching the illusion. It is certainly not the case now, when the percentage of foreign-born Americans is nearing the high point it reached in the early 20th century. We need a better conception of Americana, one that is polyglot and profoundly more varied than the dueling banjos of country and blues.
Greil Marcus may be the single most influential American music critic of the past half century. A compelling stylist and seemingly omnivorous listener, reader, and viewer of Americana, he teases out echoes of American art and of US history’s spiritual dimensions to find a depth in pop forms that few others seek as seriously. He convinces you that a given performance soars and another spirals into the dust, and explains why. Hailing from California (though with some Alabama heritage), he oughtn’t hold any profound allegiance to the region that, when he began writing about rock ’n’ roll, was recently a hell of firehoses and fire bombings.
Yet in his first sole-authored book, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music, published in 1975, Marcus accepted — nay, knelt and kissed — a canon of American folk that a generation of enthusiasts passed to him. In that book, the iconic “Ancestors” of rock are two Mississippians, one white and one black: Harmonica Frank and Robert Johnson. And in assessing the sound of The Band — three fourths of whom were from Canada — Marcus attributes their voice to a revelatory roadtrip on which the one American, Levon Helm, brought Robbie Robertson (half Mohawk and half Jewish by ancestry) to Helm’s home state of Arkansas to see and hear “a different world, with more on its surface than Canada had in its abyss.” This fantasy, of a weird country of wild-eyed preachers and virtually animate vegetation, contrasted with our supposedly sterile neighbor to the north, would be laughable if it weren’t so widely shared. (Marcus probably spent more time reading William Faulkner than the Jesuit Relations or the story of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, who comes to mind given Robertson’s heritage.) In his introduction to the third edition of Mystery Train, Marcus revealed his enchantment outright: “The comment on my book I value most came from a professor at the University of Alabama, who refused to believe that ‘a Yankee’ could have written it.”
Marcus’s newest book is Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations, delivered as the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard in 2013 and published this fall. Implicitly, through its brisk and brilliant 143 pages, the lectures reiterate the same theme of “the South is America” all these years later, the three titular nations ultimately being just one. The songs around which Marcus’s mind reels in this academic hoedown are Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown” (1963), Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues” (1930), and Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” (1928). The argument, if it’s not too deadening to call it that, is that such “commonplace, seemingly authorless songs” are “bedrock, founding documents of American identity.” Marcus continues, “These songs can be heard as a form of speech that, with a deep foundation, is always in flux.”
One of the key words is “authorless.” We cannot know the intentions, or even the identities, of most folk-song authors. (Dylan is still alive and could offer one answer for his song if he weren’t so cryptic and self-mythologizing.) Marcus leaps from this fact to the conclusion that certain songs give voice to a historically rooted yet timeless “bedrock” of America. Of course, in order to speak for America, these transcendent songs need to be recorded and then championed by a critic, preferably one with some clout. And we can indeed often find out how such a song was “discovered,” perhaps as important as how it was created. Almost all of the folk songs that have been championed as national treasures, and not ghettoized as merely regional or ethnic, have come from — or were, like “Dixie,” adopted by — the South.
Marcus is most fun to read as he poetically describes a specific record’s sound. He compresses a hundred listenings into a description like this one of Lunsford’s record:
Lunsford, a lawyer and song-catcher from Madison County, North Carolina, puts the song across in a flat, plaintive, aching tone that scrambles time. From one moment to the next he might be contemplating something altogether imprisoned in the past, an instant of fright, a face so blurred by time he has to reinvent its features. He’ll tip over into a metaphysical half-light where words must be dragged from the throat and pushed into the light, where human beings turn into animals and back again. He’ll jump into a different day, a different lifetime, and pull himself and whoever might be listening directly into the present, where all the choices are open, nothing has been settled, and danger is so close you can smell it, then hoist his voice up as if he’s pulling up his trousers to deliver a political speech at a county fair where no one is listening, then start all over again, retracing a circle, with the shadings of his singing making all signposts appear just slightly out of place.
Such thickets of allusion and image evoke the “different world” beneath the surface of modern America, but by and large it is a Southern one.
For Geeshie Wiley’s song, Marcus builds on the recent “heroic detective work” undertaken by the writer John Jeremiah Sullivan to reconstruct her biography. Heroic as this detective work was, Wiley (her given name was Lillie Mae Wiley and her nom de disque probably a nickname, “Gitchie,” misspelled by the Wisconsin record label that pressed “Last Kind Words Blues”) vanished from historical records after 1931, except for rumors that she may have gone to Oklahoma and West Texas in later years. The mystery liberates Marcus the writer: “we are free to tell any story we like.” Thus begins an eight-page fictional biography in which the Southern gal Geeshie, like a folk Forrest Gump, appears dancing in a Clarksdale, Mississippi, juke joint captured by a Farm Security Administration photographer, travels west and finds Frankie of the folk ballad “Frankie and Johnny” in Portland, Oregon, and then north to an Elvis Presley concert in Seattle, where she sits beside a young Jimi Hendrix and eventually teaches him “chords he had never been able to find.” This fiction is intentionally stylized to capture the historical and cultural tones Marcus hears in Wiley’s song, and the ways those tones carried forward into the kings of rock ’n’ roll. “When art reaches a certain pitch, the artist disappears into her song, and we don’t care who she was, where she went, what she meant,” he writes. All the same, there is something embarrassing about Marcus inventing who she was and where she went — “grabby” was the word a friend of mine used when she heard about an affluent white toddler named Sojourner. Grabbiness loiters awkwardly around the whole enterprise of comfortable people like Marcus (and me) celebrating folk music that was sung by uncomfortable people, even when we intend to honor them. There is no getting around this, and I believe it is worth the awkwardness to declare our respect and direct resources to preserving recordings and biographical details before they are trashed or forgotten. But some self-consciousness ought to be on display, and in this fiction Marcus’s grabbiness goes a bit beyond tasteful.
As for the third pillar of the book, if you are familiar with Dylan’s song, you might protest, “But ‘Hollis Brown’ is a desolate Dust Bowl ballad set on a South Dakota farm! And what about other Plains or Western songs, which are surely part of canonical American folk?” The fact is, in the realm of folk mythology, the South stole the West as well. The title of the first cowboy novel, The Virginian (1902), says a lot. The book’s nameless hero is a paragon of Southern manly honor, advocating vigilante justice — also known as lynching — where necessary, who finally kills, in a duel, a dastardly villain with a Spanish surname, Trampas. He then conquers the heart of an uptight New England schoolmarm. The high-noon duels of Hollywood Westerns didn’t derive from Quaker or Puritan culture. I was born and raised in South Dakota, and have always had a fondness for “Hollis Brown.” I even learned to play it in my folk-singing days. But the song is also substantially Southern. Musically, as Greil Marcus explains, Dylan built his song on the tune of “Pretty Polly,” rendered on banjo in 1927 by Dock Boggs, a Virginian. The desolate landscape might be South Dakota, but its tragedy is an Anglo one, and implicitly a transplanted Southern one — rather than, say, the tragic ending of O. E. Rolvaag’s South Dakota novel Giants in the Earth (1925), written originally in Norwegian, or the innumerable Lakota tragedies one might set in that tough landscape.
As for Dylan’s hero Woody Guthrie, from the borderland of Oklahoma, if there is any doubt of his Southern roots, one may remember that he was named for the first Southern president since the Civil War, months before Woodrow Wilson was even elected in 1912. More chillingly, Guthrie’s father had participated in a lynching of two black citizens, Laura and L. W. Nelson, in Okemah a year earlier. When the Ku Klux Klan was reborn in the wake of the film The Birth of a Nation, Charley Guthrie became a local leader. As my friend the historian Seth Archer has pointed out, Woody appeared to wrestle unsuccessfully with the Nelson lynching in three songs over the course of his career, but his biographers have chosen not to mention it. They prefer to focus on Woody’s noble renunciation of racial slurs and his embrace of a cosmopolitan America in his later years. We Yankees are charmed by cosmopolitanism in a certain regional drawl.
The famed folklorist Alan Lomax would have (like The Birth of a Nation) turned 100 this year. Lomax entertained a worldly sense of “folk music” — epitomized by his attempt at a “Global Jukebox” that would link virtually all human expression in a database, classified according to measures like “cantometrics.” This sounds foolhardy now, a pretended omniscience straight out of a Borges story, but it did grow out of a conception of the world’s traditions as more or less equally profound and representative of humanity. Yet scroll through the American Folklife Center’s “Iconic Song List” of the most “widely known and frequently performed” songs captured by the Lomax family. The gravity of romanticism around the South (broadly construed to include Appalachia and the “western South” of Texas, Missouri, and Oklahoma) pulls the full collection into the same twangy orbit as Divided & United. Two Finnish songs and two English ones from Michigan, a single Spanish song by some San Antonio children, and a handful recorded outside the United States — plus a substantial set of contributions from Captain Pearl Nye, who had grown up working on the Ohio and Erie Canal from Cleveland down to the border of the South — and beyond that the list of over 100 iconic songs is virtually all Southern. There are no songs from the West, from Native America, or from New England.
I don’t think I need to press this case — that what we think of as folk or Americana is overwhelmingly Southern — much more. But consider one other recent work of folklore scholarship, Stephen Wade’s book The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience (2013), another collection of heroic detective work. Wade selected 13 of the 30 tracks on his 1997 compilation A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings and investigated the biographies of their 12 key performers (12-year-old Ora Dell Graham of Drew, Mississippi, has two short songs included) and the lives of their most iconic songs. The book’s title comes from a quote by Fisk University music professor John W. Work III celebrating local folk traditions around Nashville in 1941, and though Wade’s book claims the “American Experience” as its subject, it is really about a Southern “us.”
Yet here is where the biographical-historical approach to folksong can correct damaging myths. Greil Marcus says we should give the song itself “more weight,” dismissing the natural but superficial “impulse to know who and why.” The singer is not a historical actor but a vessel, from this perspective, which resembles that of many early 20th-century folklorists and ethnomusicologists, who didn’t even bother to write down the names of many performers. It is a political position — often an exclusionary one — to say a song that lived in a particular time and place feels timeless, part of a national bedrock. “Forgetting and disappearance are the engines of its romance,” Marcus writes of folk music. But forgetting often allows those with disproportionate cultural power to make of the past what they will. Think of the common belief that the Pledge of Allegiance is a founding American text and has always included the phrase “under God.” Historicizing the pledge to its Gilded Age composition and McCarthyist augmentation is an important part of the debate over whether the United States should be an officially Judeo-Christian nation. Marcus’s spinning of “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” as a national anthem seems so offbeat as to be harmless, but his ahistorical argument is not harmless — beyond the elevation of Jim Crow Southern culture above all others, there is also the issue of powerful men like Lomax and Marcus himself grabbing at the public domain. Yes, contemporary musicians should remix, cover, and adapt old songs, but not without some notion of the songs’ histories.
Wade’s research — like John Jeremiah Sullivan’s — balances fantasy with the stubborn complexity of real life. The fact that Geeshie Wiley recorded her songs for the label of the Wisconsin Chair Company reflects a kind of spectacular mobility and cross-cultural transaction that long predates 1492 and has accelerated ever since. While The Beautiful Music All Around Us is myopic in its choice of only English-language, and almost exclusively Southern subjects, Wade uncovers details that smudge the clean lines of folk fantasy. For instance, he reports that Bozie Sturdivant, singing the now-iconic and seemingly ancient spiritual “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down” in the Mississippi Delta, reflected the influence of big band and swing records that chimed from the region’s plentiful jukeboxes. Bill Stepp, the fiddler who first recorded the now-ubiquitous melody “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” was the essentially fatherless child of a half-Nottaway Indian and half-white mother, and lived the first five years of his life in a Kentucky cave before becoming a foster child.
Jess Morris, the final artist Wade discusses, is most famous for the song “Goodbye, Old Paint,” a cowboy waltz set in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Though conceivably heard as an Appalachian fiddle tune transplanted to the West like The Virginian, Morris’s biography reveals the cosmopolitan nature of folk in the wild, and perhaps especially in the West. Though a Southerner — a Texan and son of a Confederate veteran — Morris studied classical violin as a child under a Norwegian immigrant teacher and later at Valparaiso University in Indiana. But he simultaneously learned folk and fiddle tunes, particularly from some African-American horse breakers who worked on his family’s ranch in the Texas panhandle. When he returned to Texas as an adult, he toured the region as part of an orchestra, often including Mexican-American guitarists and singing plenty of Spanish songs like “Masubiana” and “Sobre las Olas.” “In the Southwest,” Wade writes, “blacks, whites, and browns all danced to these rhythms,” especially waltzes like “Goodbye, Old Paint.” Morris’s classical bow-strokes and multicultural milieu are easily erased if one listens to this iconic song with Greil Marcus’s style of “forgetting and disappearance,” especially during the midcentury heyday of the Western genre.
It may be difficult to pinpoint where our Southern folk romance comes from. There are the factors related to mid 20th-century America — the Southern migrations, the near absence of new immigrants, and the fear of foreigners — to which we could add the way the civil rights movement focused national attention on the South. But a lot of other old records were available to “discover.” Hawaiian music had sold tremendously well in the 1910s. The major American record labels issued hundreds of discs in Italian, Spanish, Yiddish, Ukrainian, Greek, Turkish, and other languages before World War II. One significant individual contributor to the Southern definition of American folk was inarguably Harry Smith. In 1952, when he was 29 years old, Smith released his Anthology of American Folk Music on Folkways records, an odd and prophetic three-LP compilation of 78 rpm singles from the early 20th century. This anthology became a talisman of the folk scene, introducing singers like Bob Dylan to “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” and “Pretty Polly,” among other fascinating performances. But the anthology is almost entirely Southern, with the exceptions of the Minnesotan “Moonshiner’s Dance Part One” and a semi-Southern cowboy song, “The Lone Star Trail.” The only non-English songs were French songs from Louisiana (a wrinkle in Southern music beyond the scope of this essay, but a substantial one). Never mind that Smith was himself from Washington State, had recorded songs from the Lummi Nation and other nearby American Indian tribes as a youth, and later kept a collection of Native American Church (peyote) music in his room in the Chelsea Hotel, according to Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids. These evidently did not fit the particular mystical agenda Smith envisioned for his America. In yet another book focused on Bob Dylan, Greil Marcus characterized Smith’s anthology as the soundtrack to the “old, weird America.” But there were other Americas, some even older and weirder than Smith’s.
Let me be clear: folklorists like Lomax, Smith, and Wade, critics like Marcus, and institutions like the American Folklife Center have done great work. I only wish that other traditions of American folk music had champions as fervent and persuasive. Engaging with folk music can be difficult — Marcus quotes Dylan saying, in 1965, “folk music is the only music where it isn’t simple.” And it is no doubt even less simple when not only the imagery and English patois are exotic to a bourgeois listener, but the singers’ literal language is not the nationally dominant one, when their historical context is not the familiar one of slavery, Civil War, and Reconstruction but instead the variousness of immigrant enclaves, the Pacific world economy, the internal colonies of Indian Country, or the American borderlands that remain culturally Latin American. Yet outside the Southern-dominated folk canon there appears to be emerging a patchwork of reissued recordings and related writing that, taken together, vastly multiply the “three nations” of Marcus’s title. I have to wonder if, in the same way that Marcus’s generation looked to folk for the roots of Elvis and Dylan, younger music fans (my contemporaries, more or less) are looking for “Ancestors” of more recent pop music: the folk of rap music with roots among urban blacks as well as Caribbean immigrants (from DJ Kool Herc to Nicki Minaj); the Armenian-inflected Dada thrash metal of Los Angeles’s System of a Down; the indie-norteño and spaghetti Western soundtrack of Tucson’s Calexico; and we could name thousands of others.
One of the most exciting enterprises I have learned about recently is Canary Records. Run on a shoestring by Baltimore’s Ian Nagoski, Canary re-releases select non-English-language records from the early 20th century. These are the records Harry Smith and the other post-World War II collectors ignored and often threw away. Of the American-recorded songs Canary has reissued, many were composed by immigrants, but rather than being simply “old country” songs recorded here, they bear traces of their communities’ displacement. That is, if one wants to insist that real American music means music authored in and about the United States — and this is a fallacy, belied also by folklorists’ delighted encounters with English ballads that haven’t changed since the 17th century — many immigrant songs are still specifically American. Nagoski cites as one of his favorites an Armenian record from 1917, “among the most stunning vocal performances made in the United States or elsewhere,” by Zabelle Panosian. The lyrics of “Groung” translate as “Crane, where are you coming from? I am servant of your voice. Crane, have you not news from our country?” This is a cry of exile, looking back helplessly at a genocide unspooling back home. It is not surprising that Nagoski’s heroic detective work into Panosian’s obscure biography recently appeared in the Armenian Weekly, while John Jeremiah Sullivan’s work on Geeshie Wiley appeared in the New York Times Magazine. (Granted, part of the reason is that Sullivan is a transcendent writer in addition to a folk detective.) In the same way Greil Marcus hears strains of Geeshie Wiley in Jimi Hendrix, I hear something of “Groung” in System of a Down’s Serj Tankian wailing, “Can… you… feel… their… haunting presence?” and then shrieking: “Liar! Killer! Demon!/ Back to the River Aras!”
Nagoski partly builds his own kaleidoscopic view of Americana on the musicologist Richard Spottswood’s 15-LP compilation Folk Music in America, compiled in honor of the American bicentennial in the late 1970s. This set is a bit daunting, and less enchanted than Smith’s — but with the payoff that it corrects Smith’s illusion of, in Nagoski’s words, “an America where there were no Indians, no immigrants, and no Jews.” By the 1970s, immigration restrictions had been relaxed, McCarthyite blacklists had mostly expired, and freedom struggles had been waged by Latinos and American Indians, as well as African Americans. All this fractured the consensus. Spottswood also compiled an astounding eight-volume discography of “ethnic music” recorded in the United States between 1893 and 1942. His work, in turn, harked back to the multifarious character of the Works Progress Administration music projects, as recounted in a new history by Peter Gough, Sounds of the New Deal: The Federal Music Project in the West. But such a vision never captured the imagination of collectors and mainstream musicians as Smith’s had. Maybe we are ready now.
Elsewhere, the label Dust to Digital, based in Atlanta and famous for reissuing old Southern records like so many others, recently released Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937–1946, which includes recordings by Finnish-American lumberjacks and Swedish-American farmers, among many other performers from Bob Dylan’s home country, compiled by the folklorist James P. Leary. And other independent labels have recently reissued out-of-print Indigenous rock and jazz records, including Creek-Kaw saxophonist Jim Pepper’s remarkable 1971 record Pepper’s Pow-Wow and the rock and folk collection Native North America, Vol. 1 (largely from the very northern tier of the United States, and Canada, Alaska, and the Arctic), compiled by Kevin Howes.
A recent book and in-progress website offer us another genre of uniquely American folksongs, the Japanese-language holehole bushi — combining the Native Hawaiian word for dried sugarcane leaves, holehole, with the Japanese word for tunes. These are “authorless” songs composed and adapted by issei migrant laborers who arrived in Hawai‘i beginning in 1885 to work on sugar plantations. The plantation owners were in the process of conquering the islands with the aim of being annexed by the United States in a process rather similar to the recent history in northern Mexico and Indian Country in the American West (not to mention unsuccessful attempts in Cuba and Central America). Much of this body of song was recorded and preserved by Harry Minoru Urata, an archipelagic Alan Lomax born in Honolulu in 1917, whose life ranged from Japan to Korea to the Honouliuli concentration camp during World War II to Minnesota and back home. In Honouliuli, a Hawaiian journalist of Japanese descent convinced Urata of the value of the holehole bushi, and in 1960 he began to record elders singing them on tape. Historian Franklin Odo’s 2013 book, Voices from the Canefields: Folksongs from Japanese Immigrant Workers in Hawai‘i, and the “Canefields Songs Project” website have brought some of those recordings and translations of their lyrics to us. “Glorious Hawai‘i, Hawai‘i,” one translation goes, “Came and found hell on earth/ The boss is the devil/ His lunas are demons.” Urata heard echoes of what W. E. B. Du Bois called the “sorrow songs” of slavery in this description of a plantation and its overseers (lunas). The Japanese language allowed these singers to be more blunt and acerbic than Southern slaves, who mostly shared a language with their devils and demons.
My own current research is about American Indian music and speech recorded from 1890 onward. The first commercial releases by a Native artist were sung by Ho-nü-ses, a.k.a Jesse Lyon, an Onondaga musician, in 1904. Lyon later became a political advocate for Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) sovereignty, even presenting the Six Nations’ independent declaration of war against the Axis powers to Vice President Henry Wallace in 1942. But no avid collector sought out rare copies of these records (single-sided, 7-inch discs) to reissue, and it remains to be seen if any copies survive. Folkways Records released various American Indian records in the 1950s, and in 1952 the ethnomusicologist Willard Rhodes tried to sell New York Times readers on Native “songs of here and now, and yet so firmly rooted in the music of the past, that one can only regard them as the continuation of a musical tradition centuries old.” He quoted a Navajo woman’s song, composed in English: “I don’t care/ If you’re married sixteen times/ I will get you just the same.” Canary Records recently released online a compilation, An Unseen Cloud, of American Indian 78s from the postwar era.
We could jukebox through more particulars, but my point is that we need to rethink and somehow unify the grand pluribus of American folk. Scholarship and reissues are a start. But the polyglot chorus of Native music, Mexican-American music, immigrant music, the holehole bushi, all alongside Southern traditions, awaits its Greil Marcus to make more poetic and populist sense of it. To sell it, culturally speaking.
To return finally to the Civil War, that haunting memory we cannot escape, how might a more proportional historical compilation than Divided & United sound? “This record,” writes John Cohen in a liner-notes essay, “aspires to erase the legacy of segregation and through music seeks reconciliation instead.” But reconciliation is political: The historian David Blight has powerfully demonstrated how post-Civil War regional “reconciliation” was achieved at the expense of African Americans and most of the rights they had legally gained after the war. There are of course black musicians on Divided & United but not very many, and a greater presence of the sorrow songs was surely in order. More broadly, the sounds of the North — of Victorian parlor piano, of choirs, Irish or German rhythms, accordions, brass bands — might have been reimagined in modern ways. And expanding even further, the Civil War was fought over the expansion of slavery into the West and the massive changes the nation faced during what another historian, Elliott West, has called the “Greater Reconstruction,” from roughly 1844 to 1877. Many northern Mexicans suddenly became Americans in 1848 when their region was conquered by a grabby neighbor bent on its manifest destiny. Scores of American Indian nations were, like Mexico and somewhat like the Confederacy, forced into the United States against their will — with their property frequently dispossessed amid gold and silver rushes before, during, and after the war.
How about including a new rendition of a Spanish-language ballad about the folk hero Joaquín Murrieta, killed in the incredible state-sanctioned violence that followed the California Gold Rush? Why not a work song of a Chinese miner or railroad builder, since the funding and planning of the Pacific railway was a direct result of the Civil War? The discs might also include the so-called “death song” sung by 38 Dakota men as they walked to the gallows in Mankato, Minnesota, after their own war against the United States in 1862. In an oral history available online, Albert Taylor (Dakota) says their “beautiful song” translated as “Okantanka, God, I’m going home, I’m going home.” There is a remarkably parallel yet opposite Navajo song that translates “I’m going home, it’s a long way, but I’m happy I’m going home,” about returning from their Civil War–era imprisonment (1864 to 1868) at Bosque Redondo, an internment camp hundreds of miles from their homeland.
Going home. That is, perhaps, what listening to folk music is about. In America going home can mean returning grateful and tired to the spectacular red-rock and sheep country from which you were marched away at gunpoint. It can mean walking to your death in a grisly mass hanging on the orders of the Great Emancipator. It can mean sailing back overseas to Europe or Asia or Africa or South America, which you or your ancestors left willingly or not, perhaps to find a horror you barely escaped. It can mean raising a fresh new home and trying to forget all that. It can mean going from bondage to freedom, whether a spiritual freedom or a literal one across the Canadian border — as in “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” evidently composed by Wallace and Minerva Willis, who were slaves of a Choctaw family (American Indians were not only victims, of course) brought to Indian Territory on the Trail of Tears. Yes, it can mean returning to the holler or the farm or the old plantation or the small Southern town. But not only that. With apologies to Greil Marcus, there is no “bedrock” or “deep foundation” to American identity, only a bed of rocks and rubble that can be eerily beautiful but will never be as stable as our folklore has imagined it.