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‘Our general theory is to throw as many songs as we are possibly able to do out into the public air, so to speak, and let the people choose which they think are good and which they think are bad. Which method can you think of that would be more democratic than that?’
Pete Seeger, who performed as a young man with Woody Guthrie in the Almanac Singers, and who would go on to a long career as a singer, songwriter, journalist, activist, and general ‘elder statesman’ of the folk field, might seem to be an excellent example of the genre's nostalgic approach to communication. Seeger, for instance, is the one who allegedly exclaimed his desire to chop Bob Dylan's microphone cord on the evening in Newport in 1965 when the younger songwriter traded in his acoustic guitar for an electric Fender Stratocaster. If we believe Seeger's retrospective claim that his only problem was that the sound was poorly mixed during the set, and that Dylan's masterful lyrics did not come through, we can recognize a fear of one of rock music's characteristic messages, noise. Seeger's gesture has often evoked a fear of mediation and a desire for face-to-face communion. This apparent longing for transparency found its way into Seeger's own writings as well. The song ‘The Ballad of Old Monroe’, for instance, puts forward a critique of mass media as ideological apparatuses that might be remedied by the veracity of face-to-face communication: ‘The papers and the TV never told a story straight / So listen now, I will to you the honest facts relate’. Seeger often idealized the possibility of communicating outside mass-media channels, ironically often using media such as LPs to do so. In one of his most fascinating columns for Sing Out!, he even takes aim at Marshall McLuhan directly: ‘If any McLuhanites are listening, I challenge them to let me visit their mailbox every morning for a month, and remove the contents of all their letters, presenting them only with the empty envelopes. The envelope is not the message. Just a part of it.’
‘Books is all right. Far as books go, but as far as they go, they still don't go far enough.’
Of all the folkies covered in this book, Lomax was probably the closest we get to a scholar. He studied philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Texas, his favourite thinkers being Plato and Hegel, and he pursued graduate work in anthropology at Columbia University, though he did not finish his degree. For their part, the Almanac Singers did have an academic come to their house for weekly lessons on dialectical materialism, but it remains uncertain what and how much they read. As Dylan recounts in the documentary No Direction Home, though he was registered at the University of Minnesota, he did not attend classes. ‘I just didn't go’, he says.
Although my folk revivalists were not disciplined as philosophers or historians or political economists, however, they put their ideas into motion by building, doing, and singing. And what weird ideas. Sometimes simple, stark, like Seeger's awkwardly lit television show or Guthrie's machinic Hootenanny; at other times, muddy and cavernous, like Lomax's cybernetic folk circuits. The writings and songs joining up with Dylan give us less coherence than his elders, but they are no less vivid or rich. If Seeger's and Lomax's thinking straddled the strategic and the tactical (but only ever in the name of the tactical folk), Dylan's blows apart strategy entirely, if not always exactly in the way that liberal-romantic celebrations of his electrification would have us believe. Whatever their particular route, these folk revivalists take for granted the tactical media slogan ‘By Any Media Necessary’, but they do not stop there. Their tactical media, and/or their folk, and/or their time, open up the terrain of struggle and joyfully occupy it.
As acknowledged at the outset, this has not been an exhaustive search or history. Lomax, Seeger, Dylan, and Guthrie in part were chosen for their synergistic connections and for their stature, but there are other routes that might have been taken.
‘There is nothing that is major or revolutionary except the minor. To hate all languages of masters.’
Deleuze & Guattari
A group of docile, grey, passive followers are led into an auditorium wherein they are bombarded by the audiovisually induced ideology of an oppressive totalitarian society. The messages of ‘Big Brother’, projected to the masses via a cinema-sized and information-laden video interface, appear part of a vicious cycle through which their passivity is consistently reinforced. Yet, all is not lost. Into this positive feedback loop a colourful, flexible guerilla warrior bursts onto the scene, generating a symbolic disturbance within this mass-media architecture. Spinning like an Olympic athlete, she hurls a hammer (is this what Seeger had in mind?) directly into the screen. The seen-yet-unseen new revolutionary device, which the Super Bowl commercial mythologizes but does not show, is a new personal computer. ‘Macintosh: So 1984 won't be like 1984’.
The diagram of communication undergirding Apple's famous ad, and its powerful company and brand, did not materialize out of thin air. This common ‘topos’ (or recurring motif) in media history marked the Romantic movement wherein communication tools were understood as transparent, flexible apparatuses through which ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ of individuals, as William Wordsworth influentially put it, could be expressed. One strong, countercultural enunciation of it unfolded in July, 1965, on the main stage of the Newport Folk Festival. In opposition to a constraining scene wherein form and content had begun to ossify, a brilliant young poet with a shiny new tool (a Fender Stratocaster) stood back and apart, ripping out merely three defiant, expressive attacks: ‘Well I try my best / To be just like I am’, he sang on the first number, ‘Maggie's Farm’. Like the colourful, hammer-wielding Olympian in the Macintosh advertisement, Dylan stood above and apart, simultaneously generating a disturbance from within.
In both the documents of the mid-century American folk revival and the tactical media ‘movement’, distinctions are consistently eroded between expert and amateur, theory and practice. For both Pete Seeger and (for instance) Geert Lovink, the point of singing or writing is so that others might in turn put the art and ideas to work—into their own concerts, songs, interventions, or disturbances (a process that might happen quickly or take a long time). There is thus an energetic and DIY hastiness to issues of Sing Out! and Broadside, magazines that published songs with an eye to their utility for the voices of their readers; we see this open spirit of generosity in the works of Lovink and the Critical Art Ensemble as well, the latter of which included instructions on Game Boy hacking in one of their books. Of course, a ‘tinkerer’ impulse has also been evident in media-archaeological approaches to media history, wherein the generation of artworks and/or impossible technologies has been considered as intellectually valuable an endeavor as scholarly publication.
While Media Artist in Residence at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, Canada (20142015), I attempted to allow these apparently divergent but in fact fellow-travelling tributaries to converge into a single organization, which I called ‘The New Brunswick Laboratory of Imaginary Media Research + Design’. Inspired by the Hootenannies and sing-alongs but also by the distributed-in-solidarity networks, databases, and writing machines generated by this complex tradition, my intention was to map the creative utopianism of the long American folk revival more directly onto the problematics of media-archaeological design, in a perhaps tactical way. Instead of swapping songs, or writing topical ballads, what if we got together and sang new channels? Might the collaborative act of discussing or sketching impossible communication technologies be conceived as a tactical media manoeuvre? Would we need to cover new territory, like solitary artists and scholars are obligated to do, or could we just find value in the ‘singing’ together itself?
As Jussi Parikka observes, the laboratory is a site of imagining that ‘[shifts] the coordinates of what is possible’. Several scholars of imaginary media history have similarly looked to the design of communication technologies (which all, at one point in time, were mere fictions) and the relationship between such designs and sociocultural pasts, presents, and futures.
American folk music has long presented a problematic conception of authenticity, but the reality of the folk scene, and its relationship to media, is far more complicated. This book draws on the fields of media archaeology, performance studies, and sound studies to explore the various modes of communication that can be uncovered from the long American folk revival. From Alan Lomax's cybernetic visions to Bob Dylan's noisy writing machines, this book retrieves a subterranean discourse on the concept of media that might help us to reimagine the potential of the networks in which we work, play, and sing.
‘Record grooves capture the vibrations of real bodies whose stupidity, as is well known, knows no boundaries.’
‘The modern computer, with all its various gadgets, and all its wonderful electronic facilities, now makes it possible to preserve and reinvigorate all the cultural richness of mankind.’
A Cybernetic Song Collector
‘Cybernetics’ describes a diverse collection of research and debate happening in the United States after the Second World War that pointed, in several respects, beyond previous research paradigms. ‘Cybernetics’ derives from a Greek word for ‘governor’ or ‘regulator’, and the work of Norbert Wiener and other ‘first-order’ cyberneticists was, in this initial moment, concerned generally with ways in which networked assemblages, involving both human and machinic contributors, can achieve order or stability despite potentially ongoing threats to the system, a state of being that these thinkers referred to as ‘homeostasis’. From thermostats, to automated weaponry, to maze-running mice, to human beings, to self-reproducing automata (all experiments generated by the scene), exemplary organisms were able to receive data from their environment and act accordingly.
How is it that a machine and a human could come to cooperate on a project? A key concept in the early waves of cybernetics was information, which famously received competing definitions in the work of the two most influential contributors. Claude Shannon defined information as a measurement of the possibilities within a given communicative situation, thus tying the concept to the earlier thermodynamic notion of entropy (the more information, the more possibilities). Wiener, on the other hand, defined information as the negentropic condensation of disorder into a concrete set or unit of transmissible data: ‘Information is a name for the content of what is exchanged with the outer world as we adjust to it, and make our adjustment felt upon it.’ In Wiener's definition, we see the more influential version in digital culture more broadly – information as message, as content – a conception that ‘reifies’ information, as Katherine N. Hayles has argued, which thus moves it away from a total situation and towards an weightless object that can be exchanged, controlled, bought, or sold.
‘A properly administered electronic system could carry every expressive dialect and language that we know of, so that each one might have a local system at its disposal for its own spokesmen. Thus, modern communication technology could become the prime force in man's struggle for cultural equity and against the pollution of the human environment.’
‘Songs have proved a wonderful, flexible art form, going from one person to the other. It doesn't have to be written down; it can be memorized. And whereas mural painters need walls, dancers need floors, sculptors need warehouses, novelists need printers, and composers need symphonies – songwriters are lucky.’
‘I also failed out of communication class for callin’ up Every day and sayin’ I couldn't come.’
Of Signs and Singing
The film Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), the Coen Brothers's missive to the mid-century American folk revival, is not exactly of the loving variety. Our titular hero, Llewyn Davis, is capable of competent if not compelling performances of traditional ballads and blues, but he is also hip to the scene's hypocrisies: ‘If it was never new and it never gets old, then it's a folk song’, he says while finishing up a set at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village, halfheartedly genuflecting towards one of his community's peculiar understandings of authenticity. The night before, at the same venue, the flailing folk singer had launched insults at an earnest auto-harpist from out of town, an outburst for which he will now be punished by the performer's husband in an alley out back just as a young Bob Dylan takes the stage. (We can hear Dylan during the scene, singing his own song ‘Farewell’, as Llewyn crumbles to the ground.) ‘Where's your corncob pipe? Are you wearing gingham panties?’ Llewyn had yelled, drunk with sudden fury.
By the film's end, which is tragically also its beginning, it appears that, for now, poor Llewyn has taken to heart his encounter with the junkie jazzman he met en route to Chicago (masterfully played by John Goodman).
‘[A]ttach yourself to what you feel to be true. Begin there.’
The Invisible Committee
The synergies moving across the histories of American folk music, digital culture, and (tactical) media theory particularly coalesce in a few of the moments that have appeared above: Dylan getting noisy on his typewriter, Lomax plugging in his soon-to-be-forgotten ‘Global Jukebox’, Seeger calling for a hammer and for a bell, the members of the New Brunswick Laboratory of Imaginary Media Research + Design grabbing pencils and attempting to generate new channels. In these diagrams of connection, conflicting desires and anxieties have sounded out, and persistent questions have been posed if not definitively answered. What does it mean to ‘be real’? How can one become ‘real’, not alone, but rather in conjunction with the ‘becoming real’ of others? How are we to understand, and indeed nurture, the material media ecologies that have defined and sustained such projects?
Some readers may find all this reference to ‘the real’ alarming, and rightfully so, for the concept of ‘authenticity’ has had a troublesome history. Much of this trouble has stemmed from the concept of ‘the folk’. Connections between racist and sexist notions of authenticity and the rise and more recent recombinations of fascism need not be recapped in detail here; suffice it to say that ‘authenticity’ has often been wielded as a dehumanizing weapon, a history that many scholars in the humanities and social sciences have attempted to critique and to trace. Participants in the folk revival were well aware of the problematic legacies of their traditions as well. In a short piece written around 1942, entitled ‘Progressive and Fascists Both Sing Folk Songs’, Pete Seeger considers how the Nazis relied on ‘static’ and ‘naïve’ folk visions, whereas the progressive movement of which he was a part ‘responds most keenly to the expanding, militant side’.
Despite Seeger's demonstrable openness as a folk theorist, however, his own approach famously appeared stale to the burgeoning counterculture that he had helped to form.
‘The story of American arts in the twenty-first century might be told in terms of the public reemergence of grassroots creativity as everyday people take advantage of new technologies that enable them to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content. […] [T]his creative revolution has so far culminated with the Web. […]Once you have a reliable system of distribution, folk culture production begins to flourish again overnight.’
‘The theatre where Justin [Bieber] had his first brush with stardom was relatively small and had limited seating. Consequently, when Justin sent sparks flying with his performance of ‘3 AM’, a lot of his family and friends did not see it. That is when, in the spirit of sharing, Justin and his mother entered the YouTube age. […] Justin has acknowledged, “I just did that for my family and friends”, and that he was not expecting anything more to come of it.’
Marc Shapiro (from Justin Bieber: The Fever!)
‘Sing. Play. Create. Share. Let's make music social.’
Better World A-Comin’…Online
In his introduction to Singing Out: An Oral History of America's Folk Music Revivals, David Dunaway divides the history of folk music revivalism in the United States into three periods. His first wave links a wide range of collectors, researchers, and activists from ethnographers in the late 19th century to the more overtly political and propagandizing efforts of Alan Lomax and others in the 1930s and 1940s; next is the ‘folk boom’, which featured the mass-commercial success in the 1950s of the Weavers and then the Kingston Trio. Happily, the folk revival has returned again in a third wave, according to Dunaway, beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the World Wide Web has been a key source of the new varieties of folk expression recently on offer: ‘They are pulling out songbooks or warped records from their parents’ folk revival, learning to play an instrument or two, and then performing for their MySpace friends or the virtual audience […]’.
What does it mean for someone or something to be Hungarian? People in Hungary grappled with this far-reaching question in the wake of the losses and transformation brought by World War I. Because the period also saw the rise of cinema, audiences, filmmakers, critics, and officials often looked at films with an eye to that question, too. Did the Hungary seen on screen represent the Hungary they knew from everyday life? And-crucially-did the major role played by Jewish Hungarians in the film industry make the sector and its creations somehow Jewish rather than Hungarian? Jews, it was soon decided, could not really be Hungarian, and acts of Parliament soon barred them from taking major roles in cinema production. This book tells the troubled story of that period in Hungarian cinematic history, taking it up through World War II.