Music for the People: The Folk Music Revival and American National Identity, 1930-1970
Donaldson, Rachel Clare
This dissertation examines a strain of Americanism, rooted in the civic ideals of cultural pluralism and democracy, that developed shortly before World War I and continued throughout the twentieth century. Among the key advocates of this view were members of the folk music revival—musicians, public folklorists, and record producers, as well as musical entrepreneurs and enthusiasts—who worked to popularize this version of nationalism through folk music. The revivalists used the music of racial, regional, and ethnic groups to illustrate the inherent cultural diversity of the United States. By providing outlets for members of these communities to present their musical traditions to a national listening audience, the revivalists did not merely speak for these groups of citizens, but also enabled these citizens to speak for themselves. Is so doing, the revivalists helped lay the groundwork for the rise of multiculturalism that emerged in the 1970s. Furthermore, the revivalists sought to help these groups, many of which were politically, socially, and economically marginalized, gain access to the political process. Acting upon a perceived moral responsibility to ensure that the nation lived up to its democratic ideals led many revivalists into social programs associated with the political Left beginning during the Popular Front era of the 1930s and continuing through the early years of the New Left. Examining these activists’ motivations on a grassroots level reveals that the Old and New Lefts shared a similar faith in American democratic ideals and thus were far more ideologically connected than has been historically understood. In interpreting the revival leaders’ efforts over the course of the movement, I challenge the rigid divisions between the American Old and New Left, explain the long history of multiculturalism in the United States, and contribute to the broader understanding of how Americans have struggled to construct a national identity.