Forgetting the Roots: Does It Matter Who Makes Folk Music?

From PopMatters:

In 1946, a Jewish boy named Elliot Adnopoz was growing up in Brooklyn. Although his father was a surgeon at a local hospital and wanted his son to follow him into medicine, young Elliot had his heart set on a different profession: he wanted to be a cowboy. When Elliot was 15, he ran away from home with two friends to join the only professional rodeo east of the Mississippi. Even though it was a matter of months before his parents caught up to him and reeled him back to Brooklyn, the damage had been done—Elliot had developed a fascination with the singing cowboys of the rodeo. In other word, the music bug had bitten. Once back home in the big city, Elliot began to teach himself how to sing and play the guitar.

If this sounds like the beginning of a story about a misfit Brooklyn teen trying to escape middle-class angst through folk music, then you wouldn’t be quite right. But you wouldn’t be quite wrong either. (We’re heeding the famous dictum of the reporter Stoddard in the 1962 John Ford film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the legend becomes fact, we should print the legend.) In the case of this particular Brooklyn boy, generations of folk music enthusiasts have followed that principle. For while the name “Adnopoz” doesn’t mean much to the average folk fan, the name “Ramblin’ Jack Elliott” signifies a man who is more or less a demigod. The legend, it seems safe to say, won the battle. Elliott, of course, is Adnopoz, albeit transformed by culture, music, and the curious power of the public imagination. The name “Ramblin’ Jack Elliott” conjures a world of cowboy wonders and hobo life that could never have been conveyed by a Jewish kid from Brooklyn.

In considering Ramblin’ Jack Elliott as a cultural icon, it’s worth keeping track of that Jewish boy from the big city, not letting his ramblin’ life as a folkie overshadow his origin. The fact that a Jewish boy from the big city could grow up to become one of the folk icons of his generation is a feat. Perhaps more than other genres, folk music values the ‘authentic,’ somewhat suspicious of those things that are not the ‘real thing.’

I want to explore this approach to folk music ‘authenticity’—how and why some fans are uneasy about anyone but a good ol’ country boy being a folk musician while other fans are perfectly happy admitting that their favorite folkie got her start in a stable, middle-class home in an urban area. The phantom of Elliot Adnopoz in the Ramblin’ Jack story bothers some people and pleases others. How did folk music end up in such a paradoxical place?

It should be noted that the argument over musical authenticity is not a new one. It’s an old story that’s been told time and time again, one that has spilled over genre boundaries and across music cultures. It’s an argument that has been rallied back and forth over dinner tables for decades. There are dozens of artists whose musical journeys align with that of Ramblin’ Jack. Bob Dylan, raised in a middle-class Jewish household in Minnesota, is one famous case. A recent New Yorker article about Bruce Springsteen touched on the fact that rock ’n‘ roll’s blue collar troubadour never worked a day in his life. Popular music history is cluttered with issues of racial authenticity, in particular the practice of white musicians appropriating ideas from black musicians, ranging from white musicians like the Rolling Stones playing rhythm and blues to the rap of the Beastie Boys.

In our day and age, it’s almost safe to say that every musical community out there has struggled with its sense of ‘authenticity.’ Is it just about the music? Or does it matter who plays it? In Scotland, even as the Royal Scottish Academy of Music works to preserve Scottish folk music, there are those who worry that the whole effort of preservation compromises the idea in the first place. After all, putting fiddle students through a rigorous musical program isn’t the way that Scottish master Niel Gow learned the instrument some two and a half centuries ago.

Further complicating notions of authenticity is the way in which all musical forms and ideas are up for the taking in our globalized culture. That powerful sense of sharing is evident across the entire musical spectrum, especially in the burgeoning practices of mash-ups and samples, which can create extraordinary culture clashes—Sufi music and dubstep, Celtic music and electronica, even metal and flamenco. Those, obviously, are extreme examples of how music can be changed thanks to a more fluid cultural discourse. Far subtler is the way in which folk forms—thinking here of Americana music—can be blended together by the likes of bands such as Mumford & Sons.

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