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english race

imagined conversation between Benjamin Filene and Ruth Glasser on "authenticity"

Yongho Kim
Labor’s Story through Music
May 10, 2004 (due April 15 – 3 weeks late)

[DJ plays “We shall not be moved” by the Almanac Singers]

Glasser: I like how the band uses the banjo, which gives it a more folk feel. Were the instruments made in the east coast before being sold to the singers? (G 18)

Filene: I think you are right in that it was made in the east coast through the producers.. but I look more into the intention of the singer behind using “traditional” instruments. Pete Seeger was always torn between wanting to speak out for the working class and only being able to do so through a commercial distribution process. He faced the contradiction and expressed it overtly. (F 201)

G: Did he? Still, that sounds a bit hypocritical – if you do not come from a middle class background, why would you pretend to sound like one, and then “apologize” for doing it? Pete should have worked along with singers from true working class background – those who worked partly in music and were dedicated in daytime to mining and other working-class jobs. (G 93)

F: It can’t be that easy… he had to negotiate with the industry in order to be heard – we could most likely not be able to discuss his music had Pete not gone commercial. (F 203)

G: Maybe.. what about the lyrics, though? What does he mean by “we” in “we shall not be moved”, “the union is behind us”, and “we’re black and white together”, when the Almanac Singers does not come from a working class background, is not really related to the union, nor is racially diverse? Puerto Ricans bought the discs made by Puerto Ricans about Puerto Rico, not because they expected people to imitate their accents and present a self-image intended to represent them, but because they knew that these were their brothers and sisters telling their stories. (G 124) Why cannot we expect a similar background for American “folk” singers?

[Music shifts to “Casey Jones”]

F: With folk musicians it’s a bit of a different story – people needed to work together for common causes. Civil rights activists, for example, didn’t mind a white guy singing the struggle of African-Americans – we could say that they didn’t expect him to represent the cause, but rather to draw middle class, white sympathizers to be able to identify with the movement. (F 201) The story of Casey Jones, for example, is a case in point. Pete also brought the folk music back to the folk with his sing-alongs. (F 195)

G: That sounds more like a transitional way of negotiating the limitations of the music industry. Shouldn’t Pete’s goal to change the fact that singers cannot reach audiences unless they are abiding by commercial demand?

Kim: Ruth! Hello! What are you people talking about? I heard you mention Pete Seeger.

G: It’s that Ben annoys me because he says that all musicians face contradictions by their involvement with commercialized music industry and that Pete did what he could – highlighting the limitations of folk music, without really trying to do anything about it.

K: Oh, you should check Tricia Rose! I guess you read her.. doesn’t she say in Black Noise that hip hop’s relationship with the commodity market does not necessarily mean that hip hop is being absorbed by the system, but rather an appropriation of the conditions of production. (Rose 40). Take women graffiti writers, for example – they use colors and shapes set by society (pink color, landscapes) but not as a way of reinforcing preconceived notions, but in order to gain visibility in an area often known as male-dominated (R 44). Rappers also encourage audience participation (R 54), which is not the focus but could be seen as a continuation of Pete.

F: Thanks for the help, Yongho. Indeed, singers to subvert commercial structures – for instance, Lead Belly sued the Lomaxes, his former [scrip] employer, for the control of revenues produces from his concerts. (F 62) It’s just that during Pete’s times the industry was very complex.

[Yongho plugs “The Message” with Dr. Dre]

G: But it’s still not authentic – granted, judging authenticity by merely the country the artist is from is quite silly (G 155) But what if a white, suburban, middle-class singer claims a share of black hip hop identity while hiding his backgrounds?

F: Dylan would be a good example. He concealed his background but his songs were consciousness-raising in a number of ways.

G: No. You don’t just justify racial masquerading by saying that the singer was trying to face contradictions in a creative way, in the same way you would do it along class lines.

Y: [silence] I think it’s about how we’re locating the artist within society – is the artist going to merely become part of the music industry, or is the artist conceive as an active agent working with the given tools and environment? (R 63) That’s how we could see some hope for the working class people who have to deal with societal structures of exploitation on a daily basis.

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