Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Pete with Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee

Pete Seeger and the Avant-Garde

In the autumn of 1986, readers of The Nation were treated to an intense debate on the state of “left culture” initiated by Jesse Lemisch, a professor of history at SUNY Buffalo. His article, “I Dreamed I Saw MTV Last Night,[i]“ attacked the music of Pete Seeger and Si Kahn as well as most left documentary cinema, notably Seeing Red and Union Maids, charging each with the crime of inauthenticity. Lemisch's language was inflammatory:
The whole guilt-trip associated with the notion that blue overalls, and only blue overalls, are where it's at is sexist, aesthetically retrograde and deeply out of touch with the realities in America today. (ID 374)
Lemisch ridiculed the North Carolinian Kahn's songs “of his ancestors' flight from the Cossacks...of the concentration camps the voice of a cracker” and took issue with Seeing Red's selection of 15 interviews out of a group of 400 from which the filmmakers could have chosen.
Beyond specifics, and ultimately more damning, folk music and radical film were alleged to suffer inherently from “the arrogance and condescension” of attempts at imposing a narrow aesthetic style on the left in the name of a mythic (and obsolete) populism. The irony being that such an approach no longer even remotely speaks to today's technologically-sophisticated media-literate audience.
Even progressive journalism was found guilty of this reverse elitism:
A direct-mail solicitation from a brand-new left magazine boasts that it “isn't slick,” has “no lavish color spreads” and is “printed entirely on newsprint.” (ID 375)
Except for “brand-new,” that could easily be a description of The Nation and Lemisch's critique seemed curiously placed on the front page of a weekly whose sole direct representation of art, neo-Victorian poetry, is more old-fashioned than anything in the repertoire of Pete Seeger.
            The piece generated some 75 letters, mostly negative, in reaction. Five of the six published took Lemisch to task, primarily for posing an either/or question that failed to acknowledge the inherent legitimacy and historic contributions of folk music and left documentaries. Unfortunately, debates set entirely in the terms of one party are limited by that side's categories and, in a follow-up essay in December, Lemisch took those responses and submitted them to his test for authenticity: any production that does not partake of the cues and vocabulary of contemporary media necessarily self-selects irrelevancy. To defend such work was to be guilty of collaboration.
            Lemisch's insistence on authenticity is worth noting, because it implies—indeed, requires—an authentic people, which, given his charges, suggests just how deeply muddled his analysis is. As if to underscore this, his follow-up piece (three times the length of his original article) now added a second argument[ii]. The motive for left culture's aesthetic self-censorship was to be discerned in its own never-ending search for an historic (authentic) agent of change:
an ill-defined but predominantly rural “folk” are the authentic and real Americans from whom change will come. (PLC 700)
By the time this second article appeared, however, history itself had intervened. Bruce Springsteen's 5-record set, Live/1975-85, had become the first album in a decade to enter the charts at number one and the most expensive “product” ever to top them. In addition to its first top-10 single, a cover of the 1970 hit “War,” Live includes two separate anti-war monologues plus Woody Guthrie's “This Land is Your Land,” complete with a pitch for Joe Klein's biography of Guthrie. Springsteen's work is not folk music, at least not by Lemisch's definition, but it is certainly unthinkable without that influence. From the Dylanesque lyrics of his early records to the acoustic narrative monologues of Nebraska, Springsteen has always presented rock as the logical extension (rather than a contradiction) of folk — as, once we expand our definition of folk to include blues and country, it decidedly is. Elvis' first sessions at Sun Records have as much in common with Cisco Houston as they do the Bee Gees.
Springsteen is just one example. During this same period, three members of the L.A. punk band X formed their own folk group, whose conscious patterning after the Weavers they acknowledged in their name, the Knitters. While the longest cuts on their album Poor Little Critter in the Road are the traditional “Walking Cane” and Leadbelly's “Rock Island Line,” more significant are their folk re-arrangements of songs from previous X albums. The sharpest retort to Jesse Lemisch might be an article on the folk origins of punk.
Still, to dismiss his position because it's empirically flawed fails to recognize it as the symptom of a deeper, more serious issue: the uneasy relation between contemporary mass culture, thoroughly commodified, market governed, chock full of bourgeois and technical mystification, sexist, racist, you name it, and any art forms that aspire to offer an alternative experience of life. For Lemisch's argument is, in reality, a traditional complaint, although one aimed more often at what seems to be the furthest end of the spectrum from Si Kahn and Pete Seeger: those incomprehensible formalists of the avant-garde.
From the French symbolists and impressionists of the 19th century, through surrealism, dada, atonal music, abstract expressionism, happenings and performance art, to the metafiction and new poetries of the past decade, aesthetic avant-gardes and self-conscious “high art” culture have been the usual recipients of this sort of elite-bashing. Here, for example, is Carol Duncan, writing in Socialist Review of “Cézanne, Cubism, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Miro, [and] the Abstract Expressionists” as represented in the collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art:
art given the highest value is art that renounces common experience and the language and visual modes that evoke that experience.... In effect, the new art reminds “the average citizen” of his inferiority to the privileged few.[iii]
Duncan's citizen closely parallels Lemisch's caricature of anyone who feels out of place in overalls:
The rest of us, morally and politically of a lesser sort, will get a little closer to the real thing if we sing the songs of the folk and, sometimes, wear their clothes and dance their dances. Left folk culture has involved a laying on of culture in which most of us are trained in the culture of some of us. (PLC 700)
Such symmetrical critiques tend to cancel one another out. “Why,” Lemisch asks, “at a time when so much of avant-garde culture is crossing over toward a mass audience, does the left...intentionally remain so isolated?” Duncan's solution, a variation on the folk art model, is an exhibit by Vietnam Veterans.
Ironies and contradictions abound in this region. Lemisch himself notes that the Weavers were criticized in Sing Out! for compromising their art in order to make hit records. Peter Guralnick, in his savvy Sweet Soul Music, admits he was drawn to soul by the purity of its status as an expression of black culture and pride in the 1960s, compared to Motown or rhythm and blues, only to discover once he began his research that his subjects not make such distinctions, and that several also happened to be white.
Such is the problem of boundaries within attempts at social definition. People's culture was not always market culture. The dawn of mass culture, however, can be traced to the herding of peasant populations into urban centers with the rise of capital, a process still accelerating in this century. Even where rural peoples have not yet been converted into proletariats, media has reached out to envelop them, the influence of James Brown on African musicians returning to the U.S. via Fela and King Sunny Adé.  As capital has organized the world, borders between cultures have become both blurred and colonized. Just as rock and roll began as a peripheral, even oppositional form, success internationally has also meant its transformation, beginning even before the “British invasion” of 1964 — the origins of surf guitar are Mexican.
Distinctions exist for a reason. From Charles Baudelaire, Parisian dandy and inventor of the prose poem, to Mussolini-worshipper Ezra Pound to Clement Greenberg, whose first writings were offered as Trotskyist analysis, the concept of a “high” culture was intended to preserve certain pre-capitalist genres from the rapidly encroaching market organization of the aesthetic realm. The dime novel, Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers and the newspaper doggerel of Edgar Guest threatened to swamp their fields from below. This same expanding market culture did, in fact, obliterate important folk traditions “from above,” such as friendship quilts and acoustic rural blues.
It is this ever-advancing, all-absorbent market culture—like the Blob from the old Steve McQueen movie—within which we have all grown up, and with which we are all too familiar and comfy, that Jesse Lemisch is ultimately defending. It is, after all, a terrain where opposition is possible. Bruce Springsteen is also ample evidence of that.
So where do Si Kahn and Pete Seeger fit? As drawn by Lemisch, the boundary around market culture excludes folk music and if, as he implies, only the market is pertinent to the life of the masses, picking up a banjo would indeed be a self-isolating gesture. But if these borders are permeable, or if folk music and other oppositional genres actually fall within the circle, then what is needed is a radically different conception of their place, their role and their politics.
Here the history of the avant-garde has a lot to offer. If “folk” is an ensemble of practices centered around musical genres that, because they were originally rural, preceded market culture, then a major, if not primary, political function of folk music is, by its very opposition to commerciality and commercial technique, to foreground those same institutional structures in which it refuses to partake. Like the avant-garde with which it shares so many of these features, folk has a politics implicit within its form.
Such parallels are worth noting. In addition to their essential preservationism and mutual distrust of bourgeois mass culture, the experience of historic time for each is dramatically slowed compared with genres closer to the center of the market. While this seems obvious enough with regards to folk music—Pete Seeger's only major stylistic change in the past 40 years has been his setting aside the 12-string guitar after a stroke in the early sixties— such a claim may seem bizarre in the face of avant-gardism's constant insistence on “making it new,” a commitment so deeply ingrained in our society that we call booklength fictions novels. Yet how else are we to account for the fact that the archetypal contemporary avant-gardist, the composer John Cage, who first brought chance techniques to the arts in the 1940s, is the same age as Frank Sinatra? Or that poets still debate the work of Gertrude Stein, a woman born in 1874, while The Nation publishes verse that consciously abstains from any innovations more recent than those of Wordsworth's?
Similarly, folk's sense of transpersonal community and the anonymous composer is closely aligned with the avant-garde's various assaults on romantic individualism, ranging all the way from modern (and postmodern) literature and painting's fragmentation of the subject to the role of improvisation in jazz, in which performance is so contextually determined as to deny the possibility of repetition, let alone authorial copyright.
Folk music is an “avant-garde” with a difference, with all of the problematics this implies. Whereas those movements that Peter Bürger calls the historic avant-garde[iv] placed their trust in the potentiality of art to transcend market culture and its inherent instrumentalization of aesthetics through a full exploration of the formal capacities of various media—a program based on a utopian belief in the powers of aesthetic literacy and social progress— folk puts its commitment in the idea that people already were fully culturally literate prior to the rise of markets. It's a distinction not unlike that between writing and oral literature. What differs here between folk music and the avant-garde is the latter's conception of the cultural worker as a specialist, a role that brings with it a new model of literacy.
This is an argument that can be traced back to the middle ages, when Provencal troubadours quarreled over a difficult poetry called trobar clus intended primarily for other poets. Yet already in the 11th century troubadours were specialists, writers and performers of the feudal court whose stylized literary language differed markedly from the “common” tongue of their contemporaries. Pete Seeger is also a specialist, whose output as a musician, composer, historian and organizer over the past 50 years have made him an overwhelming influence within folk music, comparable in impact on his field perhaps only to Picasso, Charlie Parker or Ezra Pound in theirs, someone with whose work decades of later artists have had to come to terms. Yet even the most inexperienced folksinger, if they are to perform at all (let alone record and tour), needs to master the social requirements of a profession.
As an avant-garde, folk thus poses itself a doubly difficult problem: how to create a specialization whose political function is to convey to audiences some sense of what music was prior to the rise of the professionalizing market culture of capitalism. At least the traditional avant-garde is able to embrace its specialization, although it has done this in terms ranging all the way from declaring itself to be “the revolution of the word,” to the most reactionary defense of elitism imaginable. Folk, by comparison, has been consistent in its sense of political orientation and commitment.
Given that the ultimate dynamic of both tendencies lies in their attempts to separate themselves out from an always advancing and never satiated, absorptive market culture, promising as it does “success” in the form of incorporation and homogenization, hubris and hyperbole in defense of their projects seems an inevitable (albeit problematic) side-effect. The difference between having a “crossover” hit and being co-opted is often one merely of perspective: “Little Boxes,” Pete Seeger's one top-40 single since the Weavers, fell neatly into the mainstream radio category of “novelty records,” more akin to Ray Stevens' racist “Ahab the Arab” than to the folk-rock of the Byrds. It is easy for someone like Lemisch to cite an instance of purism, such as Seeger's allergic reaction to Bob Dylan's electrified “Maggie's Farm” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and from this to infer a more generalized elitism.
This is also a sticking point for aesthetic theorists such as Bürger, who argue that, since history has made it quite evident that (at least in the absence of a larger political revolution) the avant-garde will never be fully capable of escaping the orbit and gravitational pull of the market, it therefore collapses back into being just one more sideshow in the larger cultural circus, as compromised as the rest. What that line of reasoning ignores is a fully differentiated view of the market. This logic presumes that internal resistance is essentially impotent, reducing Springsteen's politics to a matter of a good career move, and failing even to recognize that folk and the avant-garde might both be internal modes of resistance, rather than simply delusional attempts to somehow escape the closed circle of bourgeois culture.
Well, what if? In spite of the fact that the folk song movement was a Popular Front creation aimed at supplying a product for a left market, Lemisch draws his boundaries so that folk falls outside the circle, and thereby declares it irrelevant. Bürger draws his so that the avant-garde falls inside, and on that basis alone declares it a failure. Carol Duncan is distressed to find visual folk art outside the circle she draws while politically ambiguous modernist painting has been placed by museums virtually at the center.
From such discrepancies, we can extract a few lessons. One is that participation in “the circle” is not voluntary, or at least not meaningfully so. That decision is made by the privileged construct of capitalism, the market. Even today, there remain genres of people's music, primarily in rural areas of the third world, that have yet to be reorganized into market forms performed by professionals. Like acoustic delta blues before them, these musics appear to have two choices when confronted with the still-advancing world economic (and cultural) system: to disappear entirely or be incorporated and transformed by the market. Some forms, such as the Balinese choral ritual of the ketjak, have been preserved through conversion into a folk commodity, performed as a ceremony for tourists. Others, like the South African township jive that animates Paul Simon's Graceland, were already unabashed transformations into market culture even before being mined for display in American record collections.
A corollary of this is that if participation is not voluntary, then neither is withdrawal or exclusion. Neither the music of Pete Seeger nor the work of any of the avant-gardists has ever been beyond the boundary of market culture. On the contrary, their larger political importance has been that they have been the only modes from within the circle to consciously direct our attention to the existence of boundaries at all. It is not an accident that the arrival of “camp,” pop art and the first serious examinations and inclusions of kitsch and market design into “high” culture came precisely at the peak of abstract expressionism in the '50s and early '60s, and in settings like New York—an awareness of borders is the first step in a process of questioning, challenging and transcending such limits.
But what folk is not is an attack on the instrumentalization of culture. If anything, folk's origin within the Popular Front was predicated on turning the instrumentalizing element within capitalism on capital itself. And this has not been a notable success. Although Lemisch doesn't cite it, the most damning evidence against Pete Seeger's aesthetic integrity is to be found in the ways that the pre-Weaver Almanac Singers' songs of war and international struggle turned and twisted in the late thirties to parallel the tortured path of Stalinist foreign policy. Yet it is the instrumentalist presumption, that the politics of a folk song are to be found only in a politically-correct content, and that all other aspects of the music must be subservient to this level, that offends Lemisch and undermines far too much of left cultural practice.
Here the avant-garde's equation of market culture with instrumentalism per se has a pointed value for folk and left culture. And yet this alone is not enough either. Avant-gardes can be successful only to the degree that they are explicit in their politics, not simply in their commentaries but in their products as well. It was a failure at that level that enabled the Museum of Modern Art scene to capture the abstract expressionists, many of whom had been cultural radicals, offering them as prime exhibits for America's imperial destiny. This has been, and continues to be, the dimension in which folk music has been an important achievement, if an incomplete one. Left culture is explicit that its definition of success is not a market definition. If the avant-garde needs to understand that any critique of instrumentalism must be political and that all form is social, folk has still to learn that any attack on capital must address instrumentalism per se, and that its politics must be simultaneously a politics of form.

Ron Silliman

Socialist Review, March-April 1987

[i] The Nation, October 18, 1986, Front Cover, 374-376. Future citations from this article are noted parenthetically in the text as ID.
[ii] "The Politics of Left Culture," The Nation, December 20, 1986, pp. 700-714. Future citations from this article are noted parenthetically in the text as PLC.
[iii] "Who Rules the Art World?" Socialist Review 70, Vol. 13, No. 4, July-August 1983, p. 109.
[iv] Theory of the Avant-Garde, translated by Michael Shaw, foreword by Jochen Schulte-Sasse (Theory and History of Literature, Vol.4; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). Bürger's theory, which has proven central to the recent postmodernism debate, is constructed around a distinction between the avant-garde and modernism proper. Only those attempts which fundamentally assault the institutionality of art (for example, the status of the object which enables visual art works to be bought and sold, and thereby submitted to the controls of a market) are deemed avant-garde. Thus cubism, for example, is excluded from his definition. The number of exceptions to Bürger's rule, however, suggests that his boundaries are nearly as problematic as Lemisch's. My use of the term is much broader.