Some more discussion about Beth Towle's "Affected Folk" post

by on Jul.17, 2013

[There was some good discussion on Facebook about the Beth Towle’ post I linked to yesterday, so I thought I would post some of it here:]

Kim Göransson great article. reading an interview with mumford in rolling stone it was interesting how he was mostly just inspired by the brother where are thou soundtrack. there’s like this idea of genuine roots music that disqualifies too much awareness, not to mention dressing up in borrowed full bluegrass getup!
21 hours ago · Like

Johannes Göransson There’s a great quote in the Greil Marcus book I mention in my post – where Bob Dylan says he can’t understand why people distinguish between his surrealistish songs and his folk songs because folk music is full of this weird shit.
21 hours ago · Like · 2

Kim Göransson ballad of a thin man’s got nothing on ancient mythology, hello
21 hours ago · Unlike · 2

Daniel Tiffany a poetics of “affectation” inevitably raises questions, as it does in this essay, about fakery and fraudulence. These questions go all the way back to the beginning of elite appropriation of folk poetry (archaic ballads) in the 18th century. Rather than trying to run from the question of fakery, let’s try to think about it as the key to a crucial, but still reviled and misunderstood, aesthetic category: KITSCH. Modern authenticity (of which “affected folk” is a variant) is always counterfeit (or cunterfeit)–in thrilling ways! *My Silver Planet: A Secret History of Poetry and Kitsch* (due out from Johns Hopkins University Press this fall) looks hard at the beginning of folk poetry in the 18th century, its relation to forgery, and how important these issues are to many kinds of poetry since.

Kim Göransson the blues album im writing recording sort of treats blues as kitsch, zoning in on specific blues elements, like say, a loved one drowning in a river, or using familiar blues phrases and words. a lot of these old blues songs are pretty fragmented and obsessed, endlessly stolen rewritten variated to point of little discernible ownership, like the words don’t even matter, they’re just there so you can wail because shit is fucked

Daniel Tiffany the language of a blues lyric written by a Black poet is just as artificial (a matrix for ornamentation and performance) as it is for any white poet that covers it. For both poets, it’s a synthetic vernacular–with different motives and effects–a symptom of kitsch from the start.
19 hours ago · Edited · Unlike · 1

Johannes Göransson Also, Kim Göransson, Swedish poetry is a really interesting case study for this because of all the modernist poets who wrote ballads, and all the folk singers who are considered poets etc:

Kim Göransson in sweden there seem to me to be the cherished ‘public’ poets entwined in all kinds of national ceremonies, karin boye martinson froding and older ones who seem to connect through the tradition of folk music, from bellman to vreeswijk to thastrom to lars winnerbeck, even quite weird types. while the postmodern poets hang sort of away from all of that, or so is my impression. its hard to bring erik beckman to a midsummer party…
19 hours ago · Like

Lara Glenum Daniel, yes, I totally agree. Seeing African-American art as somehow more “authentic” paints a very condescending picture, doesn’t it? That a black poet/musician isn’t capable of/interested in creating a “matrix for ornamentation and performance.” They’re just “naturally” effusing art, the way women menstruate. We “natural” creatures can’t help but secrete.
19 hours ago · Like · 1

Daniel Tiffany Lara: Exactly!
19 hours ago · Like

Johannes Göransson More so the current postmodernists who are very us influenced – ie not populists! But even someone like öyvind fahlström can be super corny kitschy in a way that actually reminds me of abe smith.
19 hours ago via mobile · Like

Ross Sélavy Brighton This is really interesting, in the way that it relates to NZ poetry in a totally contrary manner – “folk-ness” in NZ is inextricably bound up in ideas of authenticity, and, while being “affected”, that affected-ness is almost exclusively occluded. Partly because of two things – the relative ‘newness’ of NZ poetry (a ‘canon’ was only really established in the 20th C) and how the cultural nationalists who built said canon (as an intentional exercise) reified as ‘authentic’ (which conflates with “New Zealand”) the pakeha ( white) South Island rural man (generally a farmer or someone similar, ‘taming’ the feminine-coded land). Which means that most ‘rural’ or ‘folk’ poetry in NZ is both heavily affected (the premier example of which, Dennis Glover, was middle-class and had a university education, and lived in a city, and was a printer by trade – which also established him as a literary gatekeeper), but also tied really heavily to ideas of authenticity (which are in turn tied to ideas of nationhood). Which, since the 30s-50s (ish) has become more entrenched with a kind of anti-intellectualism, generally represented by poets like Sam Hunt and Brian Turner, who implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, condemn cities and universities as seats of inauthentic, fake ‘culture’, as opposed to their authenticity, which is very much couched in whiteness and masculinity, as much as it it rural-ness – all of which is tied to the idea of a ‘real New Zealand’ (even though the vast majority of NZers live in cities, and, of course, half of the population is female).

However there’s a whole resurgence, musically, not just of folk music, but explicitly country music (or ‘alt-country, in some cases at least), complete with the trappings of Americana. Which seems to be almost exclusively played by white, mostly university-educated, city-dwelling men. Which is an interesting thing, as it also draws on a kind of fetishization of the rural, but in a far more explictly affected, far more kitschy way (and also drawing on the Southern Gothic tradition, which has its analogue here in “the South Island Gothic”, which is primarily a literary phenomenon – I’d be interested in seeing how much these musicians are familiar with that stuff). Though there seems to be a lot of rejection of “NZ-ness” in that music, as it draws so heavily from Americana….

It’s also worth noting I think, that, aside from The Eastern (the personal background of whom I don’t know much about), who are kind of at the forefront of this country resurgence, the vast majority of these musicians are decidedly middle-class – though often they affect a kind of working-class-ness. There’s an element of class tourism at work here I think. That probably goes for a fair bit of “affected folk”, and probably bears more exploration.

2 comments for this entry:
  1. Beth T.

    I’m really excited about the discussion that’s come out of this, considering it was mostly just me trying to work some thoughts out about some of the art I love. Folk is such a strange category, and I really like Ross’s point about the ways in which it feels like “class tourism” and “draws on a kind of fetishization of the rural.”

    At some point, I need to write about Gogol Bordello (one of my favorite bands), who describe what they do as “gypsy punk” and who have done some really interesting things with fetishizing and making showy performances out of blending the regional (the accordion, the fiddle, the melodies they pick up from Eastern European dances) and the non-regional (the punk aesthetic, etc) so that they bleed into each other. The aesthetic clichés of the genres become the entire point of their music. To play simultaneously with and against Eastern European stereotypes are part of their game. I think there is a genre of music that is essentially made of artists making art out of musical punching bags, which is what I see some of the affected folk practitioners doing, and what I see Gogol Bordello as doing, too. It’s all about performing the expected but having the knowledge/control to know that that’s what you’re doing and then play inside that strange space.

  2. James Pate

    Really interesting discussion. I think the title of that Bob Dylan film from a few years ago, Masked & Anonymous, relates to a lot of folk and blues. It’s not about “self-experession” but about plugging into a sensibility, the world Marcus describes so well when talking about “that old weird America.” The train stations and hell hounds in Robert Johnson, the dire letters in Son House, the towns Furry Lewis passes through while proclaiming his refusal to work — those are creative spaces being carved out against the world these singers found themselves in, and in this way the songs are both occult and political.

    There’s a great scene of Furry Lewis singing with incredible intensity in William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton. For me, that scene really shows the power of blues, of art in general: it’s theater in the best sense, a performance that seems to be evoking whole new worlds…

    James