When We Were Good: The Folk Revival

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Harvard University Press, 1996 - History - 412 pages
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When We Were Good traces the many and varied cultural influences on the folk revival of the sixties from early nineteenth-century blackface minstrelsy; the Jewish entertainment and political cultures of New York in the 1930s; the Almanac singers and the wartime crises of the 1940s; the watershed record album Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music; and finally to the cold-war reactionism of the 1950s. This drove the folk-song movement, just as Pete Seeger and the Weavers were putting "On Top of Old Smokey" and "Goodnight, Irene" on the Hit Parade, into a children's underground of schools, summer camps, and colleges, planting the seeds of the folk revival to come. The book is not so much a history as a study of the cultural process itself, what the author calls the dreamwork of history.

Cantwell shows how a body of music once enlisted on behalf of the labor movement, antifascism, New Deal recovery efforts, and many other progressive causes of the 1930s was refashioned as an instrument of self-discovery, even as it found a new politics and cultural style in the peace, civil rights, and beat movements. In Washington Square and the Newport Folk Festival, on college campuses and in concert halls across the country, the folk revival gave voice to the generational tidal wave of postwar youth, going back to the basics and trying to be very, very good.

In this capacious analysis of the ideologies, traditions, and personalities that created an extraordinary moment in American popular culture, Cantwell explores the idea of folk at the deepest level. Taking up some of the more obdurate problems in cultural studies--racial identity, art and politics, regional allegiances, class differences--he shows how the folk revival was a search for authentic democracy, with compelling lessons for our own time.


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When we were good: the folk revival

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Lay readers may be put off by Cantwell's sometimes rambling examination of the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, which was ushered in by the Kingston Trio's hit "Tom Dooley ... Read full review

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This is a jam-packed biography as far as they go on the subject of Pete Seeger. But Cantwell conflates several key facts in such a way that his biological mother, Constance de Clyver nee Edson continues to be a subject of mystery and misunderstanding. He states, for instance, that she 'was a self-conscious young woman, persistently anxious about matters of money and respectability'. In the next paragraph he states, 'Until he was seventeen, Pete saw his family only on school holidays, boarding in the only home he knew as a child, the barn on the family estate in New York.' He describes Pete's family as, 'strict, cooly formal, tightly controlled emotionally, with . . . no tears allowed at family at family separations.' He neglects to mention that this 'family' and the barn, was exclusively provided by his father Charles Seeger, (the barn was on his father's family estate in Patterson, New York,). This was due to the fact that after his father discovered that Constance had a bank account in her own name, he divorced her when Pete was seven, in 1926, and gained custody of all three sons. This was not unusual in those days when a man brought a divorce case to court.
As for Constance perhaps her persistent anxiety about money might have stemmed from the fact that his father had lost his job at Berkeley CA a year before their third son, Pete, was born in 1919.
Also misleading is Cantrell's statement that his mother 'never convinced Pete to play he classical violin for he had 'absorbed his father's contempt for 'fine music'. In fact, before Pete and Constance made a trip to North Carolina to bring 'good music to people,' as he described their purpose, he is quoted as saying that he thought folk music 'didn't exist . . . except in the minds of a very few old people, who would die shortly and then there wouldn't be any.' It seems as though the trip south undertaken by the couple on a mission to share classical music with ordinary people, was the first time Charles Seeger even considered the existence of music other than classical. His job at Berkeley, Ca several years earlier, for instance, had been to establish the music department at the university.
Finally, following this biographical material, Cantrell quotes Seeger speaking about his wife, Toshi, and his point is that Pete Seeger is referencing his upbringing in his response to Toshi:
'Toshi reminds me of something we've been through that's very unpleasant, but I haven't the faintest memory of the occasion. It's as if I have some protective device inside my brain; instead of causing grief by remembering it, I simply erase it.'
I would say that Pete Seeger is not the only one who endeavors to 'simply erase it.' The likely devastating loss of his mother is erased by historians in a way protective of the whole idea that his father was a hero who made him who he was. To those who might not fully understand this, it should be pointed out that after Charles lost his job, it was Pete's mother's family friend, Frank Demroach, president of the New York Institute of Musical Art, who helped them both get jobs there after Charles was fired from Berkeley. This was a period during which the financial interests of the family were in essence protected by her rather than by Charles and his family, and it was directly after this that Charles divorced her and took the three sons.


Tom Dooley
We Are the Folk
The New Minstrelsy
Ballad for Americans
Ramblin Round Your City
Wasnt That a Time
Smiths Memory Theater
He Shall Overcome
Happy Campers
Lady and the Tramp
Nobles Patrons Patriots Reds

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Page 402 - See Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp.

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About the author (1996)

Robert S. Cantwell is Adjunct Professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Ethnomimesis: Folklife and the Representation of Culture and the classic Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound.

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