FDR’s Folk Revival



excerpt from “FEASTS OF UNNAMING,” by Robert Cantwell (http://xroads.virginia.edu):

The New Deal brought the most concerted and multilateral documentation of American life and culture we have ever known. The Federal Writers’ Project sent reporters into every state to record cultural life as it was actually lived, to collect not only what Ben Botkin, director of the project’s folklore section, called “living lore,” but also to take the testimony of living European immigrants and former slaves, as well as to depict, journalistically, the entire sense of life in given regions and urban districts.

The Farm Security Administration sent writers and photographers into stricken agricultural areas to record the lives of men and women and children, and the circumstances in which they lived, in literary and photographic documents such as James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which remain touchstones of America’s image of itself as an agricultural, popular, and folk society.

The Resettlement Administration engaged musicologist Charles Seeger to find ways, through the encouragement of indigenous musical resources, to foster the consolidation of communities around the project of economic and social self-help. Muralists glorified the working life in countless public buildings, and a vast pictorial record, in photographs and drawings, of American folk crafts, The Index of American Design, was initiated under government auspices.

The Roosevelts themselves opened the White House in a series of nine concerts between 1934 and 1942, on one occasion with the king and queen of England in attendance, to traditional singers and musicians, including the North Carolina Spiritual Singers, organized by the Federal Music Project; a mountain string band called the Coon Creek Girls; an old sailor from Virginia, Dan Hunt, who sang sea chanties; and, because he and his father were the foremost collectors of them, Alan Lomax to sing cowboy songs.

The folk revival began in the 1930s, then, under “the man who couldn’t walk around,” as his friend Josh White called him in a blues song.  Well, not really. The Roosevelt administration had simply reached out into what by the 1920s had already become a brisk trade in the representation, as well as the commercial, political, and social exploitation, of folk culture.

Pioneer record-company advance men such as Ralph Peer and Art Satherly, beginning in 1923, had begun to tap the immense resources in nineteenth- century social and display music, folk and commercial, still flourishing in southern folklife: now-familiar figures such as the Carter Family, the Stoneman Family, and Jimmie Rodgers won fame as performers and recording artists playing and singing traditional songs, of which they were both collectors and creators, to regional audiences.

A parallel development was occurring on the vaudeville circuit, where singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith supplied the urban and rural African American marketplaces with a newly introspective blues and jazz music, opening the way for many black rural singers and guitarists such as Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson who left behind them on “race” records documents of prodigious musical and poetic genius.

Commercial broadcasting, with its institution the radio barn dance, initiated by Nashville newspaper humorist George Hay’s “Grand Ole Opry,” brought traditional dance fiddling, minstrelsy, and the Saturday night play party, in performers such as Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Uncle Dave Macon, and Dr. Humphrey Bate and the Possum Hunters, to parlors urban and rural throughout the South and Midwest, recalling, with gentle satire, the old times before the First World War. This was a “folk revival” too.


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