This fall I assigned myself a beat: folk music. It wasn’t an official requirement, but one of my professors suggested that I might find the discipline useful once he figured I haven’t a fucking clue where my life is headed. It was incredible: I’m no closer to a Plan, but I wanted a footloose semester and by the gods I got me one. My beat led me several interesting places and down a few dubious alleys, but I certainly felt supremely professional. Even when I used it as an excuse to escape deadlines, or (arguably) stalk people. I went to some amazing gigs; from Keb Mo’ at BB King’s to Jalopy Wednesdays out in Red Hook to a Dominican dance-box up in Harlem.
I met some beautiful people, of whom the 198 String Band described below are indisputably the most respectable. I met them at the “Imagining America” conference; attending that was an official requirement. This was one of the longer pieces I wrote off my beat — most of my “reporting” consists of squiggles and squeees. I had fun writing this, tight word-count and all, and it is (you might notice) a new style for me. I call it my school voice, because bogey wouldn’t be caught corpsified assumin’ y’all need this much explainin’.
But that’s why bogey’s dead, see.
We’d rather not be on the rolls of relief.
One friday in early fall, a small band of Occupy Wall Street protesters were busily organizing Columbus Day insurrections in Zuccotti Park. They were planning rallies and writing protest music, oblivious to the minor miracle underway in the Westinghouse Building a few steps across Broadway, where an equally tiny tribe of genteel New Yorkers were gathered for an evening sponsored by the New York Council for the Humanities. There, in offices that shared space with bankers and accountants, the 198 String Band resurrected Woody Guthrie.
The 198 String Band began in tribute to the “other” Guthries, the forgotten minstrels of the Great Depression. “Unlike Guthrie and Steinbeck, these people didn’t choose to be in the Dustbowl” one member of the band said, “they just picked up the family banjo and played from the land”. Alongside each song, they curate photographs from the Library of Congress archive, choosing images that chronicle the lives of migrants during the depression. The inspiration behind the presentation is to provide audiences a textured history of the folks that the late, great historian Eric Hobsbawm would have called “uncommon people”.
The 198 String Band is Tom Naples (banjo and guitar), Peggy Milliron (guitar, vocals and photographs) and Mike Frisch (fiddle and vocals). All of them are lifelong musicians, though none of them played professionally before they started the 198 String Band five years ago. Tom, who could fool anyone into believing he misspent his youth on the hippie circuit with his dimples and his untidy ponytail, is a retired businessman. Peggy and Mike are both historians, and claim they’re still learning stagecraft. “Only recently I began playing the fiddle close to my chest,” Mike said, “and I can’t sing when I do. But I keep at it, because it feels like I’m at a barn dance in the middle of the city.”
The 198 String Band isn’t a live band in the traditional sense. Though Tom argues that “we follow the music” their passion for education is equally obvious. The day after the concert opposite Zuccotti Park, they held a workshop for teachers at the Imagining America conference. They played the same songs and displayed the same photographs, yet the energy in the room was very different. Friday’s show had been a relaxed wine-n-cheese gig in a room flowing with friendly laughter; on saturday, the band fielded eager questions about everything from high school historiography to the ethics of the Farm Safety Act to the authenticity of Woody Guthrie wannabes in the year of his centenary. They answered them all with the easy elegance of professors long accustomed to the dispensing of wisdom.
It’s certainly true that the band’s fascination with the Depression lends itself easily to earnest then-and-now conversations. Only a person with a wooden imagination wouldn’t leap eighty years when they sing “we thought we were intelligent before that fateful fall/but now we’ve come to realize we didn’t know it all.” Yet the chorus to that song remains utterly removed from current experience: “Was the fall of 50-50, you lost yours and I lost mine/but it made us all the more human since the fall of ’29”. Who would claim today that the recession has been either a humanizing or an equalizing experience? If the Depression was a time when America came together, this recession has been a time of epic polarization, and popular discourse in the 21st century is emphatic about the one percent versus the rest.
At times it can feel like old folk songs are describing our planet with an entirely new cast of characters. Many of them combine radical politics with a genuine affection for the President and his government. There are songs about elections and President Roosevelt and even specific policy proposals. One song, written in praise of the Townsend Plan for a revolving pension plan, is cheeky propaganda (life will just begin at 60/we’ll all feel very frisky); another, “Sylvester”, is a blues staple that describes a man who calls President Roosevelt about his lost mule. “Democratic Donkey” is about the election that made Roosevelt, a patrician from the north, a beloved President for farmworkers in deep south.
“We have songs about the NRA, about the WPA, about pensions and presidents… really, who writes songs about government agencies these days? This is optimism squared.” Tom jokes, but at the heart of the levity is a serious observation about the changing nature of social upheaval. People sing about the things they care about. In the ’30s, that was politics, and these songs had power: it was popular agitation for the Townsend Plan that forced social security legislation into fruition. These days even a disaster on the scale of Hurricane Sandy is unlikely to inspire songs about FEMA or climate change. It isn’t only that ordinary people were different “back in the day”. The establishment was as well, Peggy pointed out. Would President Obama dare suggest that public money be spent to record and archive poverty? That the art so collected defy copyright and remain public domain, so that later generations can access them and interpret them? In a cultural economy obsessed with individual copyright, is it futile to retain hope for a creative commons?
Folk songs, like computer viruses, are version nightmares. They disperse through populations, until no one plays the same song twice. The very act of recording them, of sealing them in time, is counter-intuitive: how do you know you have the “authentic” or the “original” song? A famous example of this gap is Lead Belly’s farewell homage to Charles Todd in certain versions of “Careless Love”, where he inserts the lyrics “I may be right, Mr. Todd, and I may be wrong/ but you know we’re going to miss you for the time while.”
Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin were the most influential of the federal recorders working in migrant camps. They collected hundreds of songs, yet, Peggy notes, the relationship between the urban “outsiders” recording music and the sharecroppers making music was sometimes hostile. The folklorists were employed by the federal government and eager to collect positive reactions to camp conditions, but they were facing an insular community knitted together by deprivation and homesickness, a community that was rarely trusting of strangers from the cities. The people in the camps wanted to portray themselves as independent, while the people recording them wanted to tell stories about the generous government.
“The camps were a real laboratory for democracy” Mike suggests “not the welfare handouts people now think they are. They organized committees and unions and got real things, like sanitation and repairs, done. We call our show We’d rather not be on the rolls of relief to reflect their complicated attitudes to these camps. They were grateful for the help but they were also working very hard to get into real homes and real lives.”
A lot of the despair migrant workers felt living in tents far away from their homes is channelled into humor. Plenty of the songs performed by the band are lyrically hilarious, even when the mood and the instrumentation are melancholic. One of the biggest challenges the 198 String Band faces is to retain this contrast. This they do by juxtaposing Peggy’s thin, wry, “almost Appalachian” voice against the photographs. In the funniest of their songs, the chorus of which goes “doggone, the panic is on!”, the imagery depicts decrepit buildings and woebegone people. The effect is stark and often startling. It forces listeners to realize just how grim conditions were, as well as to marvel at the resilience of people who could still find things to laugh about while they survived them. It’s enough, indeed, to make you echo the Democratic donkey and cry Hee Haw Hallelujah!