Right wing folk music
May 26, 2012 12:27 PM   Subscribe

While there were a few attempts at right-wing folk music during the 1960's, most notably The Goldwaters, Janet "anti-Baez" Greene was the darling of the conservative anti-communist right. Her songs include Fascist Threat, Commie Lies, and her most (in)famous, Poor Left Winger
"I'm just a poor left-winger, befuddled, bewildered, forlorn, duped by a bearded singer, peddling his communist corn. In the cafe, espresso, sounds of guitars could be heard, twanging a plaintive folksong, spreading the communist word..."

The young Greene was originally a local TV personality on a Columbus, OH kiddie program "The (Uncle) Al Lewis Show", where she played Cinderella. Through some bizarre events she was noticed and recruited by Dr. Fred Schwarz, a professional anti-communist from Australia. His organization, known as the The Christian Anti-Communism Crusade, sought to counter the liberal leftist folk movement with a Joan Baez of their own design. Dr. Schwarz's red-baiting tirades were converted into eight pithy right-wing folk-songs performed by Greene and released between 1964 and 1966. Greene's strange career as a right wing propagandist is interesting and worth a read. As CONELRAD says, "the most remarkable and puzzling element of the Greene story is the fact that she remains largely un-rediscovered. How is it that those tone-deaf kitsch stalwarts, The Shaggs, have achieved respectability and worldwide fame with a New Yorker profile, tribute album and rumored film, while Greene's equally fascinating career has been ignored?"

The Janet Greene Songbook has the rest of her oeuvre.
posted by stbalbach (47 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
... I think I prefer Tom Lehrer's "Folk Song Army".
posted by Doktor Zed at 12:45 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

This inevitably brings to mind Tim Robbin's amazing, and not a little depressing, Bob Roberts.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:46 PM on May 26, 2012 [14 favorites]

Yep, beaten to the "Bob Roberts" punch by two minutes. Great flick, and depressingly, eerily, true to life.
posted by hincandenza at 12:48 PM on May 26, 2012

"Go On Home, You Foreign Communist"
posted by box at 12:50 PM on May 26, 2012

Root 'em out Joe!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:57 PM on May 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

Because The Shaggs are actually kind of compelling and weirdly influential, while Greene is just derivative, I'd say.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 1:03 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Because hate.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:05 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Please Please Me, Oh Yeah and I'll Please You...

(offered as evidence that folk singers are to be ignored, just listen to rock, R&B and country instead)
posted by jonmc at 1:39 PM on May 26, 2012

It's a well-known fact reality has a left wing Baez.
posted by Bromius at 1:43 PM on May 26, 2012 [36 favorites]

Metafilter: an echo chamber for left wing Baez
posted by MisplaceDisgrace at 1:52 PM on May 26, 2012

Little Jonah Goldberg and I were a bit too young to have encountered "Fascist Threat" when it first came out, but it's fun to imagine that he might have found it on mommy's shelves and played the living hell out of it, the same way I discovered mom and dad's Paper Lace and treated it with all the reverence the Yangs treated their copy of the Constitution in "The Omega Glory."

Difference being nothing I heard in repeat playings of Paper Lace ever turned into a book, but Lil' Jonah got Liberal Fascism out of his repeat listenings.
posted by mph at 1:55 PM on May 26, 2012

I think I prefer Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, or Johnny Cash.
posted by hydrophonic at 2:28 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Uncle Al Show, where Greene got her TV start, was broadcast from Cincinnati, and then she later ended up in Columbus. She couldn't stand being in the same town as the Reds.
posted by mean square error at 2:59 PM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

(offered as evidence that folk singers are to be ignored, just listen to rock, R&B and country instead)

I'm curious about why you think country music is not folk music.
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:14 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Country music (as the popular music of rural southern whites, among others) existed before the idea of 'folk music' with it's pretensions of 'purity,' did.
posted by jonmc at 4:24 PM on May 26, 2012

That may be true, jonmc, but you don't get much of that on mainstream "Country" media these days.
posted by sneebler at 5:13 PM on May 26, 2012

True? It's nonsense. Country music owes its origins to folk music from Europe and Africa. That goes back hundreds of years.
posted by njloof at 5:30 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have problems with the term 'folk music.' It conjures up notions of artistic 'purity that haven't existed since the dawn of recording technology. Plus, it conjures up images of stuff like the Kingston Trio.
posted by jonmc at 5:54 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Eh seems like in order to have that view about folk music you have to kind of be an old or have some kind of educational training in music history. As it stands now the term "folk music" is associated with a genre rather than a type of music.
posted by You Guys Like 2 Party? at 6:18 PM on May 26, 2012

I have problems with the term 'folk music.' It conjures up notions of artistic 'purity that haven't existed since the dawn of recording technology. Plus, it conjures up images of stuff like the Kingston Trio.

So, basically, your concept of "folk" music is equivalent to the one that existed from roughly 1956 until the Newport Folk Festival in 1965? Alan Lomax would like a word.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:21 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Claims of 'purity' are not endemic to folk music as far as I'm aware, though I wouldn't argue that there aren't pseuds among its fanbase who would claim it. But show me a genre of anything that doesn't have pseuds among its fanbase who ascribe some dumb property to it.

In any event, wearing ones like or like of a thing as a badge or signifier of the way one wants to be perceived is not only not an interesting property of the thing; it's not a property of the thing at all.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:40 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

i nominate this album cover as worthy of being included in any website's bad album cover collection - she looks drunk, her exhibition of cleavage is tacky, not sexy, and that expression on her face indicates that she is about to tell a dirty joke that will make you wish you were far, far away from the bar you met her in

also, i think she curled her hair by using a rolling pin that had been heated in the oven
posted by pyramid termite at 6:44 PM on May 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

I have problems with the term 'folk music.'

"All music is folk music; I ain't never heard no horse sing a song."

-- louie armstrong
posted by pyramid termite at 6:46 PM on May 26, 2012 [13 favorites]

I pretty much stopped using the term "folk" in my work because it is so problematic, in that it means something so specific to so many people, and what it means to them is often "commercially produced and distributed original compositions by professional singer-songwriters." There's something fundamentally at odds with the kinds of composition, instruction and distribution that you generally find in world people's music in that attribution.

At the same time, I completely agree that American country music is a folk music. In fact, rock music, as a genre, is a folk music. As a genre, it did not arise from elite music. Jazz is a folk music.

Of course, elite forms of rock music, "folk" music, and so on have developed. Kids going to a "School of Rock" summer camp are participating in elite training in music which has made a formerly folk genre the subject of study and codification. Students taking jazz band for credit in high school are participating in elite forms of what originated as a folk music.

Some people use the term "vernacular music" to get around the hairsplitting, and I like that, because it allows for original composition as well as community repertoire.
posted by Miko at 7:45 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Interesting post, too; she had a good voice.
posted by Miko at 7:46 PM on May 26, 2012

"I've lost my harmonica, Albert"
posted by symbioid at 9:53 PM on May 26, 2012

OK, can we all at least agree that Karlheinz Stockholm is not a folk music?
posted by symbioid at 9:54 PM on May 26, 2012

...hausen. STOCKHAUSEN.

Fuck me, I'm going to bed. Night all!
posted by symbioid at 9:56 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

If there's any musical genre which is self-obsessed with "purity", it's country music, where your essential rite of passage into the establishment is to complain that today's stars aren't really country.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:47 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

OK, can we all at least agree that Karlheinz Stockholm is not a folk music?

What we do know is he served imperialism!
posted by Abiezer at 12:36 AM on May 27, 2012

If there's any musical genre which is self-obsessed with "purity", it's country music, where your essential rite of passage into the establishment is to complain that today's stars aren't really country.

In that, it's no different to any other genre. Hip hop people will tell you that Little Wayne isn't really hip hop. I'd bet money that metal fans have exactly the same arguments.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:17 AM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd bet money that metal fans have exactly the same arguments.

they do; i was recently informed here that some believe that korn is not metal
posted by pyramid termite at 4:51 AM on May 27, 2012

Conversely, that Chuck Eddy heavy metal list has folks like Funkadelic and Last Exit on it.
posted by box at 6:09 AM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

funkadelic's early 70s albums were metal as hell at times
posted by pyramid termite at 6:47 AM on May 27, 2012

Yum. I love when Metafilter shows me obscure new delicious things. My god, the research that went into CONELRAD's investigation - don't miss that they actually found her and did an interview - is so wonderfully obsessive. Anyone ever asks you what good internet reporting looks like (ok, feature reporting, but still) just show them this.

mean square error: She couldn't stand being in the same town as the Reds.

Or the station manager who sexually harassed her, then had her arrested and tried to blackball her with local advertisers when she refused to sleep with him. Take your pick.

Dr. Fred Schwarz introduced his musical discovery by saying "You'd be amazed at how much doctrine can be taught in one song."


Great voice, though, for sure. And who can't appreciate the lyrics to "Poor Left Winger":

We led the march on the White House
And forced the cops to come in
We claimed each one was brutal
As we kicked him in the shin

It was all so intellectual...

Ouch. Thanks, stbalbach; this is getting sent to a bunch of folks who are going to adore it.
posted by mediareport at 6:49 AM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and:

I don't write jazz. I write Negro folk music. - Duke Ellington
posted by mediareport at 6:50 AM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

His organization, known as the The Christian Anti-Communism Crusade, sought to counter the liberal leftist folk movement with a Joan Baez of their own design.

Well, of course, if the commies got to craft Joan Baez, then the anti-commies ought to have the same right.

It astounds me that the body politic hasn't caught on to the notion that the right wing needs AstroTurf organizations because they have no organic roots in the culture. It all has to be forced down the public's throat, like the bad medicine it is.
posted by Mental Wimp at 7:15 AM on May 27, 2012

Great post, and she has a nice voice—why didn't I go see her when I was hanging out in Long Beach during my college years?

> And who can't appreciate the lyrics to "Poor Left Winger"

Yeah, but "Commie Lies" is catchier; just try not tappin' your foot to "Be careful of those commie lies—swallow them and freedom dies!"
posted by languagehat at 9:06 AM on May 27, 2012

I ::heart:: Chuck Eddy.
posted by jonmc at 9:30 AM on May 27, 2012

At the same time, I completely agree that American country music is a folk music. In fact, rock music, as a genre, is a folk music. As a genre, it did not arise from elite music. Jazz is a folk music.

I see what you're saying, but from a musicological perspective this is a contradiction in terms, because "folk music" is defined in such a way as to exclude country, rock, and (all but the earliest) jazz. All of them have origins in various folk musics, but by virtue of being commercially mediated and commercially distributed they are more adequately classed as popular music (that's a positive judgment, not a normative one). It's reasonable to make a case that the boundaries are porous -- the communities that have sprung up around bluegrass are a good example because it's a genre that, despite its obvious folk music origins, was born in the recording studio, but you nonetheless see people appropriating and transmitting it in ways that are characteristic of folk music. Still, I think using "folk" as a synonym for "non-elite" elides some useful distinctions.
posted by invitapriore at 10:51 AM on May 27, 2012

"How many boot straps must a man pull on... before you can call him a man."
posted by smithsmith at 7:31 PM on May 27, 2012

I see what you're saying, but from a musicological perspective this is a contradiction in terms, because "folk music" is defined in such a way as to exclude country, rock, and (all but the earliest) jazz

By whom is it so defined? I ask because I would call mine a musicological perspective.

And what exactly is this definition that would exlude country, rock, and jazz?

The use of the term "folk" to describe a certain swath of musical expression has been problematic from the start. When the term first arose around the late nineteenth century, the "folk" were mostly pictured as European peasantry. They were rural, pre-industrial or existing outside the industrial system, and relatively poor. Studies of "folk" customs, including music, excluded huge geographical areas of the world and also most American expressions to focus on this population of scholarly interest. The original definitions of "folk music" applied to this group only.

The "discovery" of roots music traditions surviving from Europe in the US in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was mindblowing to many folklorists, such as the lyric collector Francis Child. Such expressions were almost always presumed to be "survivals" from earlier cultures, having degraded in the course of their journey, not changed or new constructions originating in a new, American context. As interest in song collecting grew, people looked to establish genealogies of song that would, it was presumed, trace directly back to points of origin outside the US. Folklorists and folk music collectors considered their problem to be finding and recording folk musical expressions before they would, inevitably, be lost to increasing urbanization and industrialization as the "folk" modernized and joined civilized, elite society.

Even after the growing body of collected material began to indicate that new music did originate in the US, and that communities other than those descended from Europeans had complex musical traditions and shared repertoires, the idea was still that "folk" music was dying out. John and Alan Lomax and less famous collectors were keenly interested in correcting the cultural record and demonstrating the richness of non-European musical traditions, and in establishing the foundations of American traditional music aesthetics, but they didn't consider that you could find "folk" music anywhere but rural, less-civilized, isolated, non-urban-in-origin communities.

It wasn't until the 1950s and 60s that scholars and observers started challenging this view. In a seminal essay, folklorist Alan Dundes laid down the gauntlet by declaring that pretty much everyone was the folk. That is, he redefined "folk" as a type of communicative practice, more than as a quality inherent in a group itself. A folk group could be occupational, ethnic, religious, economic, regional, temporarily composed, interest-based, or whatever. "Folk" wasn't who you were, or even what you did, so much as how you did it. You did it through shared practice.
The term ‘folk’ can refer to any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor. It does not matter what the linking factor is- it could be a common occupation, language, or religion- but what is important is that a group formed for whatever reason will have some traditions which it calls its own. In theory a group must consist of at least two persons, but generally most groups consist of many individuals. A member of the group may not know all other members, but he will probably know the common core of traditions belonging to the group, traditions which help the group have a sense of group identity. (Source.)
Dundes' basic argument was that "folk" expression couldn't be dying off, because it never dies out. It's always with us, and it appears constantly in new situations as we form new groupings, though we are slow to recognize it because we don't understand ourselves as "the folk," and tend to overlook people in urban, "civilized," industrial, moneyed groups. Dundes and some of his contemporaries really prodded everyone to see the inherent mistaken bias in the construction "folk;" by earlier definitions, it was always someone else, and usually someone poorer, more isolated, more rural, older, and browner than you. By the new definitions of the 60s and 70s, the "folk" suddenly became everybody. That was a bit of Rubicon for the field.

Through the 80s and beyond, the world of folk music scholarship had its own set of culture wars, with one group on one side flatly refusing the Dundes approach, refusing to consider any popular musics, country, polka, rock, jazz, Native American, African, etc, as "folk" music, and the other advocating for the expanded definition of "folk" that attended to ways in which communities formed around these particular musics, and how they shared information and taught one another using transmission processes previously thought only to exist in peasant communities where informal teaching was unnecessary or unavailable. It was not hard to demonstrate that many communities use folk processes and have informal expressions.

So the second group pretty much won, but it came at the cost of striking serious blows to the fields of folklore and folk music. If we can't agree who the "folk" are, how do we look at what they create? So it happened that over the last two decades or so, much serious study of the phenomenon of musicality and musical communities has retreated into fields with a much narrower disciplinary lens than folklore was ever able to bring to bear: ethnomusicology, history, anthropology, ethnology, ethnography, performance studies, art history, network theory, communications, linguistics.

Where things stand today is that people who study folk culture tend to identify folk communities everywhere, in every stratum of society, and instead of identifying "the folk" only by who they are based on outward signs of group membership, "folk" activities are most often identified as such by their modes of creation and transmission. The Dundes revolution has been pretty complete.

The American Folklore Society offers this characterization:
"Folklore is the traditional art, literature, knowledge, and practice that is disseminated largely through oral communication and behavioral example. Every group with a sense of its own identity shares, as a central part of that identity, folk traditions–the things that people traditionally believe (planting practices, family traditions, and other elements of worldview), do (dance, make music, sew clothing), know (how to build an irrigation dam, how to nurse an ailment, how to prepare barbecue), make (architecture, art, craft), and say (personal experience stories, riddles, song lyrics). "
This page from the NY Folklore Society, one of the US's oldest and best, has a good set of quotes that give some idea of this:
Ellen McHale: "These traditional forms of knowledge are learned informally within a one-to-one or small group exchange, through performance, or by example." Richard Dorson: “The hidden submerged culture lying behind the shadow of official civilization." Barre Toelken: "Its primary characteristic is that its ingredients seem to come directly from dynamic interactions among human beings in communal-traditional performance contexts rather than through the rigid lines and fossilized structures of technical instruction or bureaucratized education, or through the relatively stable channels of the classical traditions."
When I spoke about the "elite," this is what I mean: that "folk" processes occur mostly independently of "elite" contexts such as schools of formal instruction, textbooks, classrooms, official organizations, contests, conservatories. They can, of course, occur within those contexts, but they aren't dependent on those contexts for their own creation, survival or dissemination.

Folk transmission is informal and unofficial, not requiring official sanction and sometimes knowingly rejecting it. Toelken again: "…modern American folklorists do not limit their attention to the rural, quaint, or "backward" elements of the culture. Rather, they will study and discuss any expressive phenomena–urban or rural–that seem to act like other previously recognized folk traditions. This has led to the development of a field of inquiry with few formal boundaries, one with lots of feel but little definition, one both engaging and frustrating."

In current scholarship, a lot of attention is paid to economics and capitalism as they interact with folk processes of creation and transmission of cultural knowledge. Because what gets really interesting is acknowledging the ways that folk transmissions are commodified, turned into products or saleable experiences and bought and sold in commercial contexts, such as festivals, CD collections, and concert series. If I learn to play Irish mandolin tunes from a recording of a guy playing them in 1935, have I learned a "folk" song? Through a "folk" process?When I play it out in the Irish session at the local pub, is that a "folk" performance? And it's quite the case that specific expressions transition back and forth across this formal/informal, commercial/noncommercial divide with relative freedom. Is folk music definitely always counterhegemonic, always a process beyond the commercial domain? Can folk processes co-exist with commercial activities, or must they always remain outside of commercial contexts in order to be considered as "authentically" folk? I'd say most contemporary scholars reject this idea of noncommercialism as the central hallmark of authenticity. Artists can and do make a living presenting to the public or recording and still participate in folk communities transmitting and creating and sharing new folk material. There are plenty of problematics in this discussion, especially now that we're all obsessed with intellectual property and in many cases rightly concerned about fairness and attributions for creations and performances taken from a folk context into a commercial one - but it is pretty broadly agreed that just making money at your music (or other folk expression) doesn't make it not folk.

In the end, a lot of scholars have avoided the complicated history of the word "folk" by avoiding it, either concentrating on specific kinds of music ("I study San Joracho music," "I study American sea chanteys") or using alternate terms such as "traditional music" or "vernacular music" which are more about communities than genre divisions.

In the end, by a contemporary definition of what "folk" music is, much jazz, hip-hop, rock, and many other popular genres do qualify, and are studied as such. The emphasis today is often on context. Jazz can be studied, taught, and shared in very formal contexts, with charts, musical directors, concert halls, planned programs, and advanced musical theory. But it can also be shared informally and studied as a folk form of musical expression shared and developed in communities - something the brilliant John Szwed has made a career of. Same kind of thing with rock music. Kids learning to play lead guitar in the basement from the kid next door, breaking down chord progressions and demonstrating fingerings, and performing a repertoire shared amongst their community can be meaningfully said to be engaged in a folk process, even if the songs they are performing were originally heard in a commercial context, performed by professionals, and will eventually be performed by the kids for money. And certainly, rock developed as a folk music, in informal, first-person contexts not overseen by elite professional musicians or producers. That context evolved as it developed, but it isn't rock's only context even today.

So that should give some idea why saying something "is folk" or "isn't folk" is a pretty challenging project. There are folk forms and elite forms in almost every genre of music. Outside the layperson's world, or the world of people whose job it is to assign easy-to-remember genre names to records and radio station formats, "folk" isn't a genre. It's a set of processes for creating expressions within cultural contexts. So all these musics we've been discussing can be folk, have partially arisen from folk contexts, can be shared in folk contexts, and will be developed into yet new forms and genres in folk contexts, as well as in professional, official ones.

Bluegrass, as a specific genre, actually has demonstrably fewer folk origins than some of the other genres I mentioned. So named, and with a specific aesthetic, it was created by a specific group of people for a specific commercial audience at a specific moment in history. If anything, over the course of its lifetime, its contexts have moved from mostly commercial/professional toward mostly folk, rather than the other way around, thanks largely to revival culture. Most players hold it distinct from old-time country music, Scots/Irish music, African-American banjo music and its other antecedents.
posted by Miko at 9:35 PM on May 27, 2012 [8 favorites]

Miko, I am humbled. Thanks for your historical rundown of the field, and sorry if I was overreaching with my definitions -- I'm a composer, so I sometimes fool myself into thinking I know more about what's going on in musicology than I actually do. Anyway, I'd gleaned that particular taxonomical scheme from reading popular music scholars like Richard Middleton, who makes that distinction so he can focus on recorded music (because, like you say, "folk music" is also recorded, this is also a slippery definition, but I think the idea is that "recorded music" culture considers the recording to be the canonical form of a work). Anyway, I'm very much on board with the idea that the basic units of what we're talking about here aren't genres so much as behaviors, it's a very elegant conception. Any recommendations for what to read so I can get a better picture of what's out there?
posted by invitapriore at 10:04 AM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

No no, I looked at your profile afterward and I realized I probably didn't have to go to that level of detail, but glad if it was interesting to you. It's a fascinating set of questions. I agree that studying recorded music is a different ball of wax.

I wish I had tons more current names to give you but I'm headed in a slightly different direction these days and really know mostly the foundational stuff, not having kept super current on who's writing now except as it touches the world of events and festivals, which is part of my work. One of my absolute favorite thinkers on the topic is Christopher Smith - I've learned a lot from reading his blog and hearing him talk a couple times. Maybe someone else here can recommend some others to watch. It seems to me that popular culture scholars are the best ones to read on this topic, because they're particularly interested in the idea of commodification and because of the splintering of the folklore field I mentioned above.

Definitely read Dundes' whole essay, "Who Are the Folk?" and Richard Dorson's "Is There a Folk in the City?" You might especially like the Dorson because he started to attempt to define what kinds of practices actually create and maintain folk communities.

You may want to read up on the anthropological idea of "Communities of Practice" to learn about how these behaviors of transmitting culture are observed and documented.

And some good reads on the construction of "folk" music are:

Segregating Sound: Inventing Pop and Folk Music in the Age of Jim Crow

Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music

Journal of Country Music and Journal of American Folklore are good to look for stuff like this. Columbia has a journal called Current Musicology.

The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress publishes a quarterly newsletter that usually contains a couple good articles.
posted by Miko at 11:02 AM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Wow, Chris Smith's blog has gotten a lot less...content-rich, I guess, lately. I suggest navigating by the tags to find some good stuff! Also, I just noticed him recommending this book - Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainments: A Communications-centered Handbook" - which also might be an interesting read.
posted by Miko at 11:09 AM on May 28, 2012

Oh, wow. The older entries in Christopher Smith's blog look great. Segregating Sound, too. Thanks!
posted by invitapriore at 12:36 PM on May 29, 2012

« Older Calcium supplements, not so good.   |   Genital Banquet: A Once in a Lifetime Opportunity Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments