“The Never-Ending Revival”: A History of American Folk Music

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As Americana Music Director, I of course have an interest in increasing my knowledge about the American folk music tradition. Today I discovered a book by Michael F. Scully called “The Never-Ending Revival: Rounder Records and the Folk Alliance,” which looks fascinating.

The press summary says:”In recent years, there has been an upsurge in interest in ‘roots music’ and ‘world music,’ popular forms that fuse contemporary sounds with traditional vernacular styles. In the 1950s and 1960s, the music industry characterized similar sounds simply as ‘folk music.’ Focusing on such music since the 1950s, The Never-Ending Revival: Rounder Records and the Folk Alliance analyzes the intrinsic contradictions of a commercialized folk culture. Both Rounder Records and the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance have sought to make folk music widely available, while simultaneously respecting its defining traditions and unique community atmosphere. By tracing the histories of these organizations, Michael F. Scully examines the ongoing controversy surrounding the profitability of folk music. He explores the lively debates about the difficulty of making commercially accessible music, honoring tradition, and remaining artistically relevant, all without ‘selling out.’

In the late 1950s through the 1960s, the folk music revival pervaded the mainstream music industry, with artists such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez singing historically or politically informed ballads based on musical forms from Appalachia and the South. In the twenty-first century, the revival continues, and it includes a variety of music derived from Cajun, African American, and Mexican traditions, among many others. Even though the mainstream music industry and media largely ignore the term ‘folk music,’ a strong allure based on nostalgia, the desire for community, and a sense of exclusiveness augments an enthusiastic following connected by word-of-mouth, numerous festivals, and the Internet. There are more folk festivals now than there were during the original boom of the 1960s, suggesting that music artists, agents, and record label representatives are striking a successful balance between tradition and profitability. Scully combines rich interviews of music executives and practicing folk musicians with valuable personal experience to reveal how this American subculture remains in a ‘never-ending revival’ based on fluid definitions of folk and folk music.”

The issue of commercializing an “authentic” genre is a concern for every true music appreciator; all the more so when the music is so tightly tied to community and culture. I’m excited to check this book out – I’ll let you know what I learn!

For more info and to buy the book, see the University of Illinois Press site.

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