Song & Voice by Casey Watson

 

I’m smack dab in the middle of my research into Woody Guthrie’s iconic “This Land is Your Land,” arguably one of the most recognizable songs in the American folk song catalog or the whole of American music for that matter. We all know it. It is as pervasive in our culture as it is catchy. And while I dig and sift through biographies of Guthrie and articles addressing the dissentious message of the song, I’m reminded of something Scott Nelson mentioned in his John Henry piece: “Historians tend to regard music as background rather than raw material. Appropriated for book titles by countless historians, music itself is seldom seen as a primary source.”[1] I believe he is right. But obviously the role of music in memory is more complex, permeating almost all of our lives.

A friend of mine, a pop-music critic, made this observation in her article reconsidering Kanye West’s Yeezus earlier this year: “…music…[is] always in the air, always ready to sneak up on you, sometimes when you least expect it. There’s no telling, especially not on first listen, how many times you’ll hear a given song or album over a lifetime, or which listen will be the one when it finally clicks with you, if it’s to click at all. Maybe it’ll be the first, or third. Maybe it’ll be the thousandth.”[2] She’s pointing to the fact that a piece of music, more so than any other piece of artwork, can be consumed and internalized over and over in huge numbers. I believe that this unique ability of a song is precisely the reason that it is so easily considered “background” by historians or other researchers. Because a song can be replayed seemingly ad infinitum, coupled with the tendency for the listener to develop a personal connection and interpretation of said song (it’s art, right? It’s can be whatever you need it to be), we as listeners are able to retrofit it with new significance and personal meaning. In doing so, the song is slowly removed from its origins and in some cases, such as “This Land is Your Land”, transformed into an icon; a useful, malleable cultural tool.

Now then. Why does this matter? While doing my research, it occurred to me that perhaps a song’s ability to take on so many meanings while burrowing deeper and deeper into our cultural subconscious with each replay is the reason that songs are so often marginalized by some historians. In my opinion, this is foolish particularly when the subject is a folk song. Folk songs are stories and stories are seldom created for leisure. They come from specific circumstances and are sometimes the only traces the voice of a particular group. “This Land is Your Land” has taken on a life of its own since Guthrie penned it (as icons are wont to do). But we must not forget that his voice was that of the disenfranchised during the Dust Bowl. His words are telling and must not be forgotten as the song is sung by children at camp or Presidential hopefuls.

[1] Scott Nelson, “Who was john henry? railroad construction, southern folklore, and the birth of rock and roll”, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 2 (2): 54-55.

[2] Lindsay Zoladz, “Reviewing Yeezus in 2016 to Better Understand Kanye West and The Life of Pablo.” Review of Yeezus. Vulture, February 14, 2016. http://www.vulture.com/2016/02/kanye-west-the-life-of-pablo-review-yeezus.html.

 

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