Friday, April 16, 2010

Cultures of Folk Poetry

This week, the P&PC office took up a collection in order to send a repre- sentative to the 2010 meeting of the Western States Folklore Society taking place at Willamette University from April 15-17. There—suffering some serious jet lag from our 3.5 mile journey and thankful we weren't flying from Europe—we presented one of four papers as part of a panel titled "Cultures of Folk Poetry." Here's what that panel looked like:

1) “Yankee Doodle Dandy”: Popular and Traditional Song in the Early Republic—An 1813 Boston Collection

Dianne Dugaw
University of Oregon

The Isaiah Thomas Collection of ballad broadsides in the American Antiquarian Society offers an eye-opening glimpse of Boston and its people in the first decade of the 19th century. [That's Mr. Thomas pictured here.] As this paper will show, songs in the collection give voice to a formative early phase of the republic for which this seaport played a vital cultural and commercial role. Thomas compiled printed texts and tunes from the stock that printer Nathaniel Coverly had on hand in 1813 to sell to readers and singers in the Boston area. This paper will analyze through examples in this collection the mysterious process by which people create songs within and in response to particular events, influences, and sentiments, and then maintain some of these productions in song traditions remembered and borne along from generation to generation. The Thomas collection brings together vantages and modes—"high" and "low," commercial and traditional—in a unique snapshot glimpse of Yankee popular culture and sentiment in a newly forming United States of America.

2) Getting the News from Poetry

Poetry & Popular Culture

Less than a century ago, readers were accustomed to finding poetry in daily and local newspapers. Questions of abolition and women’s suffrage were hotly debated in verse form. Rival newspapers—like the Free Press and the News in Detroit—conducted their rivalries via their in-house poets (Edgar Guest [pictured avec chien to the left] wrote a poem a day for 30 years for the Free Press, and Anne Campbell wrote a poem six days a week for 20 years for the cross-town News). Some newspaper poets acquired national reputations. But despite its presence in the everyday landscape of modern America, most of this newspaper poetry goes unstudied today. Literary critics don’t study it because it was too popular or too local (Jan Radway and Perry Frank suggested newspaper poetry was, in fact, “a variant of American folk culture”). Folk scholars don’t study it because it was too commercial and oftentimes not local enough since it was often syndicated to papers across the country. This presentation will use a reception studies approach to newspaper poetry in order to suggest the potential for poetry studies within the field of folklore studies. Between the Civil War and World War II, American readers regularly kept poetry scrapbooks, and by presenting highlights from albums originally assembled in the West and Pacific Northwest, I hope to reveal how ordinary people appropriated commercialized or mass-produced poetries and used them—in their scrapbooks—as occasions for local, creative, and critical thought.

3) Logger and Cowboy Poetic Voices

Henry-York Steiner
Eastern Washington University

During the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States, poets appeared in a number of occupations involving physical but skilled labor in dangerous environments and using technology dangerous to its users (e.g., commercial fishing, railroading, mining, ranching, and logging). These dangers were understood by the workers and their families, who composed poems about them, primarily narrative in genre. The vocabularies of the poets are marked by use of the folk speech of the different occupations, making them fully comprehensible only to those who possess the same word-hoard, fellow members of their occupational folk group, which the poems have helped to define and extol. What would be called the values of the poetry favored and read by the formally educated members of the dominant economic and social classes are almost never in evidence in these poems from occupational folk groups. It is poetry of, by, and for the workers in these occupations, their families, and the suppliers of the tools of their trades.

4) "We Shall Overcome" is My New Ringtone

Kristen Grainger
Willamette University

Folk music’s role in American culture has changed over the past 100 years but quite dramatically over the last two decades. Historically, folk music was a central element of community and family cultures that, through the shared experiences of learning and singing songs, maintained connections between generations. Protest songs of early and mid 20th-century America delivered blistering indictments that demanded—and fueled—political activism. Today’s folk genre appears subsumed in the mind-boggling array of global entertainment offerings recently made accessible by mainstream technology. In the din of Twitter and YouTube; with the advent of services like Pandora and Genius that know what songs we will want to hear and buy before we ourselves know; in a culture that largely associates artistic relevance with commercial success, where music is increasingly visual and stylized; and an industry that engineers songs to sound best through a set of headphones, what is folk music for? My presentation explores, through song and narrative, the role and the power of folk music in today’s context; how the folk poetry of modern singer-songwriters continues to shape and influence the American experience, and how the next generation of folk musicians is getting their messages and stories heard above the din.