The last thing that Rock and Roll at its origins sought was the essence of authenticity. Yet today, the early era of this idiom is perceived as being the very essence of authenticity. Rockabilly was comedic, low culture and a travesty of country and blues music. It sought to entertain, emote with formulaic sincerity and the performers chose songs without any sense of who they were supposed to be – i.e. there was no introspection but simply the desire to entertain.
As we look back at, say, Buddy Holly, we have the notion that he was an artist of deep conviction and high artistic goals. Not true. Historically, there is a difference from the pioneers such as Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent and Dale Hawkins versus Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Sal Mineo and the other ‘teen idols.’ (Ricky Nelson remains caught between the two factions.) The difference has to do with how Rock and Roll in the Fifties moved from wild abandon to corporate plan.
It was easy to see at the time and easier now; however, this does not mean that the pioneers of Rock and Roll were intent on portraying themselves as authentic – they sought to entertain.
But entertainment is by 2008 the antithesis of authenticity. An authentic performance can have entertainment value but pure entertainment does not have authenticity even as a trace element.
Folk Music was the force that brought authenticity to Popular Music in America. But was Folk Music as we are beginning to define it always in an “authentic status” when introduced to Popular Music?
No. As an example, there is a ‘folky’ quality to our “man in black,” Johnny Cash, while in reality he was on the fringes of true Rockabilly as being too old and way too hillbilly, and never was a Rock and Roller, and as time moved on his music was the stuff of county fairs and schlock lounges. The Grand Old Oprey was never hip. That it is perceived of as being the home of ‘roots music’ in some capacity now is revisionist. --That Johnny Cash is envisioned as ‘an extreme individual’ today is revisionist history altogether. Obviously, there is something noble about Cash’s latter recordings. (Very obviously, the Oprey is still a schlock palace intent on entertaining the masses but has moved from short hair and exquisite boots to shaggy, torn rhinestone outfits; tight jeans for men and, for women, cleavage and not a finely decorated cowgirl hat and matching skirt. It is American Idol in camouflage.)
The brief relationship between Cash and Bob Dylan is overplayed because of Dylan’s increased status as the purveyor of hip authenticity during the Sixties. Dylan is a unique case in point.
He, too, fell into a very inauthentic period but because of his absolute brilliance up to and through 1967 remains as the industry of authenticity today. (It is interesting to watch how his work now is overexposed to the extent that it is becoming a cartoon based on what once was.)
American Folk Music at a certain time was Popular Music in America. It moved into this status and then moved out of it.
But before this era, from “Goodnight Irene” in the Fifties through “Tom Dooley” in the Sixties, to cite bookends that typify the trend, something rather strange took place: there evolved two Folk Musics, as it were, with one in uncharted territory and one on the expected charts.
The latter sure was American Folk Music as Popular as it gets. The former was the beginning of a revolution that forever altered the course of American Popular Music.
It was the same youth culture that took to Rock and Roll now taking as its own the traditions of people with whom there was nothing in common but the uncommon notion that truth exists in lyrics and music that defies the entertainment value of Rock and Roll in favor of autobiographical reality that, countering the Folk tradition itself, resulted in New Folk. This was the period known as the Folk/Blues Revival or, rather, its ultimate outcome. At its inception, it was the revival of music that was seen as non-commercial; at its conclusion, it was commercialized non-commerciality. Confusing? Authenticity is.
American Folk Music interferes with and becomes American Popular Music and changes what is Pop while in and of itself does not so much change as re-define what is Folk and what is not…. Authenticity is the music as well as its process. “Process” is that which condones a singer/songwriter’s efficacy. It is not enough to write the material one performs in 2008: one must be the song itself in order to contain its truths that seek an entertainment value as secondary to the art of the material. It was always that way to a degree but that way is always what brings Folk Music to bear upon American Popular Music’s status. There is an archetypal difference between The Kingston Trio and The New Lost City Ramblers in the Sixties. There is also a difference between the song and its singers. And then there are different songs that are traditionally original.
These are songs that have specific folk as their popular singers. Belief becomes the beat, integrity the melody for lyrics.
Originality is not authenticity. Authenticity may or may not be original. The performance is where what is authentic becomes visible. New or old, Folk Music remains the source but its resultant impact is not as invisible. The more it is seen the less it is heard.
Dr. Martin Jack Rosenblum
Peck School of the Arts
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
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