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Bill Staines's Bridges and the Art of Meta-Folk

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 November 2007


Folksinger-songwriter Bill Staines came of age at the height of the mid-twentieth-century American folk music revival and has spent the years since then writing and playing music that seems impelled by the conviction that this vanished era's core stylistic premises and clear-eyed optimism remain as alive and available as they were at the revival's peak. Through this exploration of his 1984 album Bridges, I seek to show that Staines accomplishes this fantasy of the revival's continued vitality not, as his commentators frequently suggest, by clinging fast to decades-old stylistic practices but by introducing a dimension of reflexivity into his craft. What comes to matter is not music's political or social meaning but the self-conscious celebration of the idea of music having such a meaning.

The article's first section explores Staines's self-mythologizing enfolding of his own persona into Woody Guthrie's in the Guthrie ballad that opens the album. The second section examines Bridges' poetic weaving of music into narratives of social redemption and personal self-actualization. The third section examines Bridges' many moments of diegetic song, which effectively collapse the worlds of Staines's poetic subjects into that of his immediate audience. The last section explores how melodic choices in the traditional song that closes the album have the effect of bringing many of the songs that precede it directly into the fold of traditional music.

Copyright © The Society for American Music 2007

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