Benjamin Filene,
Romancing the Folk:
Public Memory &
American Roots Music

(University of North
Carolina Press, 2000)

A book titled Romancing the Folk, with the subtitle Public Memory & American Roots Music, can be expected to cover a lot of ground. And though it does, beginning with references to Herder's 1778 collection of European folk songs and ending with Irish band U2's search for a musical tethering point, the book enlightens and draws you into its historical and musical reveries.

Some of the terms are inventive. Filene speaks of vernacular music as a term other than folk music. He doesn't attempt to define the boundaries of folk music, but speaks of a collective American mindset and its interpretations of and principles for describing folk music.

Filene sells us a collection of stories, memories and actualities of the processes by which Americans came to know and remember and share their music. He covers the means by which rural music becomes urban music. He describes "vernacular" music as contrasted to music from the fine arts or classical training, as it requires only "minimal formal training and material resources to produce it." Though hip-hop, techno and grunge could be thus classified, he has purposely omitted them through his subtitle. He uses the word roots to "identify musical genres that ... have been glorified as the pure sources out of which the twentieth century's commercial popular music was created."

The story of the Lomaxes and their collections is intriguing. Recounting the musical steps of Muddy Waters and Lead Belly as they enter the commercial music world is both personal and objective.

Filene gives credit to "middlemen," even more than he does to musicians, for bringing the music into the mainstream of American consciousness. These are the collectors, promoters, producers, record executives and folklorists who searched out the musicians and the "folk" of rural America. Their motives are noted, but not judged. His aim as stated in the introduction is to "...tell illustrative stories more than informative ones."

Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan become folk stylists. This is partly because they don't come from the music tradition, but add to it and maintain it in their own manner. In a few cases, Filene expounds on the basic music structures, but only to show where forms are related, or where they have changed slightly, and leaves it up to the reader to determine how much this changes the "folksiness" of the music.

This book is a summary of the musical heritage that developed through recognition and appreciation of rural American music. It takes elements of a multi-layered cultural current and follows a few layers, identifying threads that weave through 1900 to 2000.

What I liked the best was the objective voice of the author as cultural historian. The book is written clearly and entertainingly, and for the most part, simply. I think he purposely maintains a folksy tone to his writing, while striving to maintain an academic integrity. (I needed the dictionary for only four words.) There are intriguing ideas presented and backed up with amusing and fulsome tales.

I was disappointed that the book did not expound more on the Appalachian and bluegrass culture. The author admits in his intro that he could have taken many avenues, but chose to follow those that resulted in this book. For those with a specialized interest in some of the artists named in the book, the bibliography and the index is probably worth the price of the book alone.

[ by Virginia MacIsaac ]
Rambles: 19 January 2002

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