"A Precipice Between Deadly Perils": American Folk Music and the Mass Media, 1933-1959.

Ek, Kirstin, Music - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Deveaux, Scott, Department of Music, University of Virginia

Although the folk revival has monopolized scholarly attention thus far, mass-mediated folk music was a huge force between 1930 and 1959. This dissertation addresses folk music in this era past that which strictly adheres to the traditional folk criteria as conceived through the frame of the folk revival, and instead reaches out to examine those folk expressions that permeate the mainstream, at times simultaneously contradicting and exploiting traditional folk ideals.

In order to demonstrate this split and illuminate the inherent contradictions of performing and constructing folk culture through technological and mainstream avenues, I examine how radio, television, film, commercial recording, and print media were used by American popular folk musicians, as well as larger commercial media companies such as Walt Disney between the 1930s and 1950s. My objectives are threefold. First, in order to demonstrate the need for a broader understanding of folk music and continue the scholarly evolution away from the establishment and reinforcement of folk music “canons,” I direct my attention towards understanding folk music less as a concrete musical style, and more as what Pierre Bourdieu would call a “field of cultural production” with a wide array of capital-value systems, processes, and products that are specific to the unique subject being created or beheld. Second, I attempt to constantly question and re-evaluate the term “authenticity” as it pertains to music, musicians, and practices discussed in the chapters that follow. Third, I attempt to expand the scholarly discourse of folk music to include more popular, mass-mediated, commercial folk music expressions by entities such as Harry Belafonte, the Weavers, and Walt Disney Studios.

In Chapter 1, I consider the shifting frameworks for understanding American folk music through the 1950s. In Chapter 2, I examine the Weavers’ “Goodnight, Irene” which was recorded for Decca in 1950 with Gordon Jenkins’ Orchestra. Popular folk singer Harry Belafonte and his label, RCA-Victor, capitalized on his simultaneously folksy and urban origin story, good looks, charisma, and popular sound in order to construct what I will describe in Chapter 3 as a “modern everyman persona,” someone who could both sell records (which appealed to the record label), and affect social change (as with Belafonte’s participation in the American Civil Rights Movement). In Chapter 4, I analyze Walt Disney’s construction of American folk culture as demonstrated by the Davy Crockett phenomenon and the animated musical shorts, “Johnny Appleseed” and “Paul Bunyan.”

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
folk music, mass media, 1950s, popular music, field of cultural production, Lead Belly, the Weavers, Harry Belafonte, Walt Disney
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