Over at UCLA Today they are featuring the work of one of their own — Bill Roy, author of Reds, Whites, and Blues: Social Movements, Folk Music, and Race in the United States. If you click through, you will be able to listen to exclusive music from their archives and view some archival material.
Here a quick sampling from the interview that captures the early days and looks to the future:
UCLA Today: What was the first progressive cause in America to use what you’d consider to be folk music?
Roy: That was probably the American Revolution with “Yankee Doodle” and other songs spread by revolutionary soldiers. But the abolitionists were the first to use music that was embraced as authentic and moving because it came from common people. Abolitionists would bring slaves up from the South and have them sing spirituals at big meetings in the North. Many northerners had never met African Americans. Abolitionists were trying to vividly demonstrate the humanity of slaves, who had been compared to animals in the race-baiting imagery of the day.
These concerts featured such classics as “I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” But even though slaves had sung these songs in church, in the fields and in their homes, the abolitionists didn’t call them “folk music.” That recognition didn’t come until later.
UCLA Today: What is the prognosis today for folk music and social movements?
Roy: Folk music today is just a niche market that has a handful of followers — mostly singer- songwriters. The music contains a fairly mild critique of modern life and a certain amount of nostalgia about how life was before cities, big industry and big corporations, but it’s pretty tame. Music plays a different role now that’s much less powerful. I don’t see that there’s much potential to return to anything like the civil rights movement. One reason is we no longer grow up singing together. We grow up with Ipods.