In 1938, in Pick Britches Valley, North Carolina, a young mountaineer sang a ballad about an infamous murder for a visiting singer and collector of folk songs. Twenty years later, nearly every American within range of a radio was hearing about Tom Dooley from the Kingston Trio - and a folk tradition dating back to the days of the minstrel show had intersected with the emergent youth culture of the late-50s. How did "Tom Dooley" get from Pick Britches to the top of the charts in 1958? "When We Were Good" traces the many and varied cultural influences on the folk revival of the 60s from early 19th-century blackface minstrelry; the Jewish entertainment and political cultures of New York in the 1930s; the Almanac singers of 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 labour 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 analysis of the ideologies, traditions and personalities that created a moment in American popular culture, Cantwell explores the idea of folk. 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 lessons for our own time.
Buy When We Were Good book by Robert Cantwell from Australia's Online Independent Bookstore, Boomerang Books.
(235mm x 155mm x 22mm)
Harvard University Press
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Country of Publication:
Author Biography - Robert Cantwell
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.