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When We Were Good: The Folk Revival

6 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674951327
ISBN-10: 0674951328
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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Lay readers may be put off by Cantwell's sometimes rambling examination of the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, which was ushered in by the Kingston Trio's hit "Tom Dooley." Expanding on his essay of the same name in Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined (Univ. of Illinois, 1993), Cantwell (American studies, Univ. of North Carolina) covers the revival's lineage from 19th-century blackface minstrelsy through the demise of folk's Socialist politics in the early 1950s to the impacts of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Cantwell loses focus when he emphasizes his own interpretation of events. More effective are the relatively straightforward narratives on Woody Guthrie, the Almanac Singers, and the seminal Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music recordings. Complete with copius references, this serious treatment of the folk revival is recommended for larger music and social history collections.?Lloyd Jansen, Stockton-San Joaquin Cty. P.L., Cal.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Kirkus Reviews

Jargon-rich but provocative study of the folk-music craze of the '60s. Cantwell (American Studies/Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) is typical of a new school of academic critics combining personal memoir with sociocultural analysis and writing in a highly specialized language understood only by its practitioners. He believes that the original folk revival of the '30s and '40s, as embodied in the work of performers like Woody Guthrie and the young Pete Seeger, failed because of its ideological links to left-wing politics, making it anathema to the postWW II generation. In the late '50s groups like the Kingston Trio created a new folk resurgence by reviving the music without the political message. He also argues that folk music appealed to urban, young, middle-class listeners because it enabled them to act out a mild rebellion against their upbringing and build at least imaginative ties with a purer American culture, nostalgically linked to the past. Cantwell outlines these theories in dense prose that will be barely comprehensible to the uninitiated; for example, he describes Mike Seeger's life work as that of ``cultural cathexis, dreaming the felt but untheorized political urgencies of the present into historical memory.'' Moreover, his theories oversimplify the many strands that went into creating the folk revival. While the Kingston Trio were an apolitical and largely commercial group, the young Bob Dylan was deeply engaged in expressing a social message through his music. Moreover, Cantwell can't seem to decide how he feels about these folk revivalists. While ostensibly praising their lives and work, he slips in many negative remarks about them; he compares Mike Seeger to a blackface minstrel, dismisses Pete Seeger as a person who is ``basic[ally] sad,'' and describes Dylan as possessing ``gallant fraudulence.'' An odd hodgepodge, which will be of interest primarily to the academic folklore community. (17 b&w photos) -- Copyright ©1996, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (April 1, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674951328
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674951327
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,193,597 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 33 people found the following review helpful By DJ Joe Sixpack HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on August 9, 2001
Format: Paperback
I approached this book with high hopes, and found myself sorely disappointed. It had gotten such great press when it came out -- with big write-ups in the "New York Times" and elsewhere -- but frankly, I found the style and grammar so convoluted that I could hardly understand it. Cantwell's overly-academic prose is so dense and thicketed that halfway through I realized I had absolutely no idea what his book was about. Something about the American folk revival... but what exactly was he trying to say? Cantwell, a former '60s folkie who teaches American Studies at UNC Chapel Hill, applies a nearly impenetrable acadamese to his history(?)/analysis(?)/deconstruction(?) of the folk revival, but seems unable to rise above the terminology and crowded syntax he's adopted. His writing has a piled-on, house-of-cards style, full of incredible run-on sentences and needless verbal transpositions that make practically every sentence, paragraph and chapter difficult to follow. In short: arrrrrrgh!!! The most frustrating aspect is the boggling lack of narrative skills: Cantwell sets out to tell stories and convey experiences, but inevitably gets balled up in unreasonably convoluted, digressive rhetoric. Maybe I'm just a big dummy and can't understand all that smart-feller, egghead stuff... or maybe this guy needs a more forceful editor.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Lewis Shiner on March 18, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I agree with some of the other reviewers that this is not a speed read, but it's not because of academic jargon, of which there is very little. Cantwell is fond of long, twisty sentences, many of which I had to read twice, but it was worth the effort. If the prose is complex, it's because there are plenty of meaty, complex ideas behind it.

Reading this book set my brain on fire. Cantwell makes lots of non-obvious but convincing connections between the folk song revival of the 1960s and:
* The IWW of the 1930s
* Summer camps in the northeast US in the 1950s
* The McCarthy witch hunts
* The growing power of consumer culture
and much, much more.

This is a very political book, and unashamedly so. Cantwell relates popular culture to economics and history with powerful arguments that show how the lessons of the Great Depression of the 1930s were deliberately distorted and finally lost through the efforts of the military industrial complex that needed to perpetuate itself after World War II.

He describes the longing of the 60s folk generation for authenticity, justice, and national identity with great sympathy. I was there, and it all rang true for me. And Cantwell was there too--his description of the effect that Pete Seeger had on his life is especially moving, and gives the book a personal depth that enriches the entire narrative.

This is the best book about music I've ever read that Greil Marcus didn't write. If you liked INVISIBLE REPUBLIC or LIPSTICK TRACES, I think you'll really go for this one.
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7 of 10 people found the following review helpful By E. L. Oneill on June 11, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Cantwell is an academician but sometimes even scholars can put together a fascinating book. The music we call "Folk" music more or less surfaced in the folk revival of the late 50s and early 60s but what was its prehistory and how did "Folk" music come to be what it is perceived to be today? In a music inherently archival and conservative, why is it generally aligned with the left end of the political spectrum when it gets political? Why is a solo singer with a guitar a "folk" musician but a solo piano player not?
Cantwell traces the music and events that led to the Folk Revival from the first commercialization of non-academic music (minstrel shows, for example) through its contacts with Broadway and concert singing (Paul Robeson, John Jacob Niles, etc.) through and its affiliation with communists, campers, beatniks and folklorists. The writing is dense and Cantwell doesn't always provide clear enough landmarks to help you follow his arguments, but his conception of the complexities that lay behind the folk revival is remarkable.
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