Ron Briley reviews Robert V. Wells's Life Flows On in Endless Song (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009).
In this most recent title from the University of Illinois Press series Music in American Life, Robert V. Wells, Chauncey H. Winters Professor of History and Social Sciences at Union College in Schenectady, New York, places folk songs within the context of American social history. Wells describes himself as attracted to folk songs through the music of the Weavers which encouraged him to pick up a guitar. Although history rather than music proved to be the career choice for Wells, he discovered that he could incorporate his passion for folk songs into some of his American history lectures. In 1997, the historian was selected for a Fulbright in Denmark, where he developed an elective course on American folk songs and history. After meeting with enthusiastic reviews from his European students, Wells incorporated the folk music course into his teaching load at Union College. The folk music history curriculum provides the foundation for Life Flows On in Endless Song.
Wells employs four criteria to identify folk songs. First, the song has to be transmitted orally, even if it has an identifiable print origin. Wells also insists that folk songs must include a forthright and unaffected style as well as be performed for enjoyment rather than commercial purposes. Finally, folk songs should have a traditional element rooted in the past, but they also should be recognized as evolving in the hands of current performers to address contemporary problems and concerns. Wells concludes, “An essential element of folk songs is that they should grow out of or resonate with the lives of common people. As such, they should address emotions and basic values, helping people get through life by expressing, enhancing, or altering a mood” (8).
This definition leads Wells into a somewhat conservative approach to his subject matter, often associated with more left-wing political movements of the twentieth century. Thus, Wells tends to dismiss some labor organizing songs of the 1930s and 1940s, along with much of the Vietnam War era protest music of the 1960s, as too topical to adequately be described as traditional folk songs. In addition, the qualification that folk songs need to be non-commercial negates the contributions of artists such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen to folk music. Such restrictions also limit the attention given by Wells to such contemporary urban music as hip-hop and rap, which certainly contain a grass-roots element.
On the other hand, Wells certainly does not imply that folk songs are the exclusive property of the white working class. The origin of much folk music in the African-American slave experience is acknowledged by Wells. In fact, Wells uses the work of W. E. B. DuBois to develop how songs from the cotton fields of slavery expressed the sorrow of the black experience and subverted the masters’ depiction of happy and contented laborers. But the continuity of these attitudes into the civil rights era receives less attention from Wells whose history tends to be rooted more in the nineteenth century. In his final chapter, Wells, nevertheless, credits Huddie Ledbetter and Woody Guthrie with combining black and white folk traditions into their lives and music. Wells argues, “Both men were sons of Middle America, with a Southern flavor; both suffered enough hard times for several men, some of it their own making; and both did more to preserve, promote, and expand folk songs in the twentieth century than any other singer-songwriters” (176).
Wells credits Ledbetter and Guthrie with embodying traditional folk values and music which reassured common people during difficult times. This more conservative orientation leads Wells to eschew the more radical implications of critic Greil Marcus that folk songs allowing people “a heretic’s way of saying what never could be said out loud, a mask over a boiling face.” The more subversive aspects of this counter narrative are undermined by Wells’s traditional interpretation of folk music as a way to cope with the vicissitudes of daily life. Wells organizes his volume thematically rather than chronologically, and this approach works in this readable volume--although there is some repetition. Among the key themes examined by Wells are courtship, marriage, and children; religion and patriotism; work and the labor movement; ships, trains, and transportation; migration and separation; and the impact of hard times on hard men, both black and white. Although much of the music provided comfort for those whose loved ones were killed in war or train accidents, as well as warning those preparing their souls for the train to heaven to avoid drink and promiscuity, Wells concludes that there was a hard edge to songs which extolled the social banditry of a Jesse James or the African-American bad man, Stagolee. While most singers were not willing to engage in active resistance, Wells, nevertheless, insists “a pointed song would serve as modest defiance against an all-too-imperfect world” (174).
While one may quibble as to whether Wells adequately conveys the more radical possibilities of folk music, there is little doubt that he has devoted considerable thought to the traditions of English-language folk songs. Wells establishes connections among Captain William Kidd, Stagolee, John Henry, and Jesse James, while providing fresh insights into such traditional folk texts as “Amazing Grace,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” The Ballad of Tom Dooley,” and “Pretty Polly.” Mature readers of Life Flows On in Endless Song will enjoy revisiting the folk songs which Wells is introducing to a younger audience in his Union College classes. Music of the people, whether traditional ballads, contemporary hip-hop, or the corridos of Mexican Americans, offer valuable insights into the way common people live, work, die, and sometimes rebel.
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