Review: The North American Folk Music Revival: Nation and Identity in the United States and Canada, 1945–1980

This review originally appeared in Popular Music 27:2 (2008): 320-21.

The North American Folk Music Revival: Nation and Identity in the United States and Canada, 1945–1980. By Gillian Mitchell. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007. 222 pp. ISBN 0-7546-5756-6. £55.00 (hb)

Gillian Mitchell introduces her study of the 1960s folk revival in North America by referring to Martin Scorsese’s documentary about one of the key figures in the later stages of the revival, Bob Dylan, which had been recently released while she was writing. The time of writing this review coincided with the release of another Dylan film, Todd Haynes’s biopic I’m Not There, where aspects of Dylan were portrayed by six different actors. Haynes’s film called attention to the multivocality and contradictions within Dylan’s life; Mitchell does the same for the folk revival itself, stitching together developments in the United States and Canada and questioning how the meanings of ‘folk’ and ‘revival’ were debated.

Mitchell traces the revival from the fieldwork of John Lomax and the Federal Writers’ Project before World War II and the involvement of young people in the early 1960s, through the coffee-houses of New York and Toronto and into the social unrest later in the decade. The revival’s turning-points as retold by Mitchell are the release of The Kingston Trio’s song ‘Tom Dooley’ in 1958, which gave folk music its first commercial hit (to the predictable dismay of early revivalists concerned with authenticity) and Bob Dylan’s separation from the movement to pursue an individual creative ideal after performing with an electrified blues band at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. (The Canadian sections of the book contain nothing so dramatic, but analyse how far the Canadian movement’s background and development differed from that further south.)

Title notwithstanding, this is a book about the Sixties, with a capital ‘S’. Mitchell’s best evocation of the decade is her chapter on the coffee-house scenes of New York’s Greenwich Village and Toronto’s Yorkville, which is richly detailed and raises important caveats to the scenes’ ‘image of inclusivity’ (p. 124) – not least the impact on women of the ‘culture of promiscuity’ (p. 126). However, it seems a little disconnected from the book as a whole (the only connection is the ‘sense of place’ which appeared in an earlier discussion of regionalism). We do not hear how the Greenwich Village and Yorkville scenes conceived of the nation, or how the nations to which they apparently belonged included or excluded them.

The title’s reference to ‘1945–1980’ is somewhat arbitrary: the first chapter on folk-song collectors has much to say about the cultural significance of images of the North American South and West during the Depression, and the last chapter on the folk revival/s of the 1970s explores new paths rather than concluding old ones. The revivals of ‘ethnic’ musics (e.g. Jewish klezmer or Irish singing and dancing) are linked to the ‘escapist and nostalgic fascination with the past’ which emerged during the Bicentennial (p. 177) and used to look forward to the ‘world music’ discourses of the 1980s and thereafter. Much of the final chapter, indeed, reads like an introduction to some forthcoming book.

The two innovations of Mitchell’s study are supposed to be the ‘trans-national focus’ on both Canada and the States, and the fleshing out of existing work on the folk revival by Benjamin Filene and Ronald Cohen by relating it to the nation and national identity. The comparative aspect is clearly structured and illuminating; the focus on the nation begins promisingly, yet tails off somewhat. Mitchell’s introduction of Benedict Anderson’s theory of the ‘imagined community’ and Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s idea of ‘the invention of tradition’ (pp. 4–5) raises expectations of a theoretically informed work which might continue to engage with other scholars’ perspectives on the construction of national identity. In the event, there is one reference later on to the early 1960s folk revivalists viewing North America as an ‘imagined community’ which was defined in times of cultural variety, community and the spirit of ‘ordinary people’ (p. 69).

Other instances where conceptions of national cultural identity were at stake – the Festival of American Folklife during the US Bicentennial in 1976, or the ‘Canadian Content’ legislation in 1971 which mandated a 30% quota of Canadian popular music on Canadian airwaves – are set in the context of North American and Canadian social history (instantly making the book far more accessible to non-North-Americanists), but not related back to the theoretical framework of the introduction. Ideas of historical memory and commemoration, meanwhile, make no appearance at all, even though one of the key arguments in Mitchell’s narrative is that the political contexts of the Canadian and North American revivals diverged in the late 1960s because the American movement was characterised by protest against the Vietnam War while Canada was experiencing the ‘positive outlook’ of the 1967 centennial (p. 14). Her material would therefore seem an excellent basis for dialogue with research on commemoration along the lines set out by John Gillis and others.

This book is a welcome read, not least for researchers of folk revivals in other regions. The construction of authenticity in country music as discussed by Richard Peterson (whose work is not referenced here, although the edited public personas presented by Woody Guthrie and others are reminiscent of the ‘identity work’ Peterson recounts on the part of country musicians) has been drawn on for some time by ethnomusicologists from the former Yugoslavia to illuminate the interaction between folk music and the entertainment industry in their own contexts. Mitchell’s clear, non-essentialist account of a particular moment in North American music would be worthwhile reading for teachers of popular music inside and outside the region – and for their students.


Gillis, John R (ed.). 1994. Commemorations: the politics of national identity (Princeton,NJ: Princeton University Press)
Peterson, Richard A. 1997. Creating country music: fabricating authenticity (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press)


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