The Great Compromise
Arif Mardin, 1932-2006

"Old is the New New" is Old


While looking through a local Minnesota newspaper from 1927, I happened to notice the two-sentence "filler" article above, buried on page 9.

Sure enough, listening to reissues of the old "hillbilly" 78's from the late 1920's, you can hear the performers trying to appeal to this trend. They often seem to be trying hard — occasionally to point of absurdity — to sound antique and to project a feeling of old-timey nostalgia.

You sit down to listen to an obscure old recording from the 1920's thinking you're going to hear some of that real, authentic, genuine, old-time music just like the miners and moonshiners used to play way up in the hills when things were real ... and at the start of the recording the leader of the string band introduces the song with something like "Yessir, we're gunna play some of that real, authentic, genuine, old-time music just like the miners and moonshiners used to play way up in the hills when things were real!"

And you think ... wwwwwait a minute ...

Clearly, the companies who recorded southern hillbilly music in the 1920's wanted to meet a demand for music that felt old-fashioned. Luckily, in doing so, they went out and unwittingly preserved a lot of American musical traditions that would've been otherwise lost.

Although I was aware of such an "old-time revival" of the 1920's, it still surprised me to read about it in real newspapers alongside articles on the floods in Mississippi and Louisiana, and Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic. Another 1927 article profiles a local record store owner who even uses the word "revival" to describe the situation of his day:


To me, it seems Bernstein might be describing songs from Tin Pan Alley — commercial music written by professionals — more than the kind of ancient, anonymously-composed songs we associate with old folk and blues music. But remember that performers we today consider "authentic" folk or blues musicians recorded such songs all the time. Bernstein could easily be thinking of recordings by The Skillet Lickers, Buell Kazee, and the Carter Family.

Reading all this, I was reminded of Robert Cantwell's remark about Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music," which collects commercial recordings mostly made in the late 1920's:

The music reissued on the Anthology was already selectively, conscientiously, and conspicuously revivalist when it was originally recorded. This quality had recommended it, at the height of the Jazz Age, to its various parochial and provincial listeners. The Anthology recovered that music ... converting a commercial music fashioned in the twenties into the "folk" music of the [1950's] revival. [p. 190, When We Were Good]
Among other interesting things about this passage, Cantwell hints that the 1920's revival was a reactionary response against the popularity of jazz. Could he be right? It's an uncomfortable suggestion in our ecumenical age, but it's hard to deny there's some truth to it.

The most explicit proof I know of is that Henry Ford sponsored old-time fiddle contests with huge prizes to encourage the wholesome, clean-living values associated with old-time music. Such values made for good workers and customers, but I think Ford may also have wanted to disassociate — at least in the eyes of rural Southern folks — the Ford brand from the disruptive effects of the Ford product. To many, the auto stank of jazz, sex, alcohol, and economic turmoil, and Ford's support of an old-time revival helped to sanitize the auto's jazzy image.

Still, it's always easy to over-simplify history, and I distrust Cantwell's off-handed remark about the antagonism between these two musical trends of the 1920's. If Bernstein's customers listened to all the latest new musical fads, they'd be listening to BOTH jazz and old-time music, and I think there's some evidence that this is exactly what happened.

Dock Boggs, for example, drew heavily from female blues singers who would have been considered, at the time, intensely new, racy, glitzy, and commercial — and indeed, he built a brand-new style around them. The Harry Smith Anthology's "Moonshiner's Dance" by Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra is a promiscuous mash-up of red-hot American jazz and Scandinavian, French Canadian, and Mexican dance music. Neither Dock Boggs nor Frank Cloutier were parochial and provincial, and I wouldn't be too quick to assume their listeners were either.

In another wrinkle, the old-time recordings made during the 1920's weren't exactly academic preservation efforts, although we often listen to the Harry Smith anthology (etc.) as if it were a direct pipeline to the distant past. To sell music that your average 1920's (or 2006) record buyer would hear as old-timey and traditional, you can't just offer traditional music. It's often too unexpected, too weird, too racy, too contemporary. What you need is new music that sounds like an immediately recognizable sign that MEANS "traditional."

This is what Bill Monroe developed as he created the bluegrass sound in the mid-1940's. According to Cantwell's book "Bluegrass Breakdown," Monroe learned the trick of inventing a traditional music for a contemporary audience from one of the most popular old-time bands of the 1920's revival, The Skillet Lickers:

In the Skillet Lickers ... we hear the raucous, brilliant, and spontaneous sound of southern mountain dance music played by men who understood that in the recording studio they were at liberty to play as they might after the dancers had gone home — that is, with heightened vitality and energy [for] an audience who could attend more closely to the music than actual dancers and who could imagine a dance more gay and wonderful than is usually possible for ordinary self-conscious mortals. [p. 52, emphasis is Cantwell's]
It's clear that the old-time revival of the 1920's preserved older traditions, even as it reworked those traditions and created new ones. Although we should keep this in mind as we listen to old records from the 1920's, it's not so strange. We know that folk revivals always curate and create at the same time — this is what happened in the 1950's and early 1960's in Greenwich Village, and in Chapel Hill around 1970, and it's clearly happening again in the full-on folk revival we're witnessing today.

Sometimes it seems the revivals come around so often they blend into one another, to the point where I begin to doubt the very idea of a distinct revival. There is near-constant churning and re-invention of America's musical traditions, blending the mass-produced and the home-made, the new and the old, to the point where the distinctions between them become as imaginary as they are potent.



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