Music and the Sociological Gaze: Art Worlds and Cultural Production (Music and Society)

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Culture is considered most aesthetic when it is the most pure and aesthetically compromised when it is intended for political, commercial, or other instrumental purposes. Comparative and historical studies have shown the peculiarity of the quest for pure culture. Other societies embed the arts in a variety of social forms—religion, work, political ritual, family, etc. This is not a question of motivation or intention. Even when people understand themselves as doing pure culture, they are doing other things. Small, for example, has ethnographically described how the classical music concert is a site of displaying and reproducing middle class respectability Other studies more explicitly have investigated the relationship between cultural objects and religion, politics, sports, relaxing, making love, education, and of course social movements.

While many of these studies focus on the content, others have analyzed how the culture is embedded in social relations Zolberg ; Reed ; Berezin ; Du Gay ; Leblanc ; DeNora ; Martin ; Ikegami ; Rosenthal and Flacks Analyzing the embeddedness of culture means suspending the distinction between pure and pragmatic culture or between aesthetic and social dimensions to focus on what people are doing when they are doing culture. The use of music by the Communist-inspired Left of the s and 40s, often called the People's Songsters, and by the American Civil Rights Movement in the s offers a vivid contrast of the social relationships within which culture can be done.

Both adopted American folk music as an explicit cultural project but embedded it in very different types of social relationships with very different effects. The Old Left used music as a weapon of propaganda, establishing a formidable cultural infrastructure to expound the ideology they wanted the working class to embrace.

While they succeeded in introducing the genre of folk music to American popular music, they failed to reach across the social boundaries they hoped folk music would bridge. In contrast, the Civil Rights Movement used music within collective action itself, singing freedom songs as they gathered, marched, rode busses, and endured jail. Abandoning conventional distinctions between performer and audience, content and form, with relative nonchalance about the political content of their music, their music helped bridge one of the most intractable social boundaries of American society, that of race.

Although the American Communist Party in the first half of the twentieth century is best known for heavy-handed political economy and a strongly materialist version of Marxist—Leninism, as the leading force in the American left during the s and s, it developed an elaborate cultural infrastructure that touched on all media of cultural expression Denning Many of America's most respected literary figures such as Langston Hughes, John Dos Passos, Malcolm Cowley, and Richard Wright were active in the left and belonged to organizations affiliated with the party.

3.1. What Is Culture?

Other party organizations produced drama, art, and criticism on a large scale. Beginning in the s, politically engaged musicians established foreign language choruses for workers and a Composers' League that included such distinguished contributors as Marc Blitzstein, Aaron Copeland, Charles Seeger, and the recently immigrated Hanns Eisler. Although the earliest communist-inspired music was found in popular choruses, mostly non-English, the composers, song collectors, and performers who promoted folk music in the s and s tended to fall back into a performance mode.

Music was taken to the people in union meetings, urban coffee houses, night clubs, concerts both large and small, and rent parties needed to pay the rent of movement musicians. To be sure, they did not foster conventional quiescence of classical music concerts. One of the reasons they embraced folk music was so that audiences could participate. The best-known leftist singing group of that period, the Almanacs, was self-consciously participatory. The group's bass, Lee Hays, had come from the folk-music-rich Appalachian region where he honed the skills of song leading.

He found an enthusiastic ally in the movement's most visible advocate, Pete Seeger. The Almanac singers intentionally refrained from becoming too professional, even to the point of abstaining from rehearsals and allowing participants of modest talent to participate. Prior to that time, American folk music had been known mainly to academics and antiquarians. Music that the academics labeled folk music was occasionally introduced to urban dwellers by rural musicians packaged as quaint, urban interpreters such as poet Carl Sandburg or concert versions performed in classical style.

It was almost always performed by individuals or occasionally by duos. The leftist movement invented the urban folk singing ensemble with groups such as the Almanacs and the commercially successful Weavers, typically quartets with accompanying guitar, banjo, string bass, and sometimes, a mandolin. It was hoped that the ensemble format would encourage the audience to sing along, to make a concert a participatory experience. They even invented a new concert format, the hootenanny, an occasion where a variety of musicians could perform, with audience participation highly encouraged.

But, they failed to foster the singing movement they had hoped for. Even though activists wholeheartedly embraced the music and energetically participated in musical activities, the broader movement, especially the unions, did not become a musical union. Some movements produced songbooks, and some union meetings invited the Almanacs or other performers to perform, but music-making was more performative than participatory.

The main problem was that the social roots of the music promoters conflicted with that of the workers. The people who indigenously do the music do not call it folk music, and those who do call it folk music are rarely very folk-like. The activists who adopted folk music as the music of the people were mostly college educated, either white Anglo-Saxon Protestants or second generation European Jewish immigrants sincerely motivated to reach across the cultural divide. However, the working class, mostly white, often upwardly mobile workers were unresponsive.

Their music was more likely to be the popular commercial music of Benny Goodman than the politically charged folk music of the Almanacs.

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How our theories went astray! It was not just a matter of culture vs material interests.

After a union performance in which the Almanacs dressed casually in order to connect more easily to the workers, the union members were offended at the lack of respect. They attended union meetings in coats and ties and expected performers to look their best. The Communist Party from its earliest days self-consciously used culture as a weapon in the class struggle, creating art, literature, and music for, about, and sometimes, by the working class. In doing so, its creative practitioners also created culture by and for themselves, many of whom were not working class.

Beginning in the s, they were especially active in literature, reflecting the high culture orientation of many participants. The organizational infrastructure of left-wing folk music reached its peak after World War II, when the Communist Party was bearing up under assault from McCarthyism and expulsion from labor unions. At no point before or since has the organized left had such a significant presence in the musical culture of the nation.

People's Songs, Inc. PSI drew together progressive musicians from the party fringes, New Deal activists, unions, and college campuses.

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Chapter 3. Culture

By publishing books and magazines, sponsoring events, creating forums for interaction, and linking to other producers and distributors of left-wing music, they gave folk music a greater presence both in the media and movement at large. While American folk music had been given a radical tinge during the era of the Popular Front and the Almanacs, it was indelibly stamped as pink in the PSI era. Power: The vanguard strategy of the Old Left manifested itself in a hierarchical party structure, contrasted with the leadership and empowerment orientation by which the Civil Rights Movement did culture.

Though the artists and musicians associated with the party exercised considerable autonomy from the formal hierarchy overseen by the Cultural Division, the party did authorize the broad parameters of cultural form and content.


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Most importantly, the party inculcated in them the use of culture as a propaganda weapon Lieberman A vanguard is a group that takes responsibility for educating masses. Under party guidance, culture is a means to communicate its understanding of truth. So, the Almanac Singers, who were hardly Party stalwarts, reversed their earlier anti-war lyrics after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, parroting the party's fresh pro-Roosevelt belligerency. As educated urbanites, the institutional form they knew to achieve anything was to form an organization, elect officers, develop a program of activities, put out a newsletter, forge links with other organizations, and mobilize a constituency.

With the Communist party as the major leftist organization in the country during the s, even those not initially affiliated would gravitate in that direction. When People's Songs, Inc. It was not top down in the sense of fealty to the party, which was at best indifferent to their activities. In contrast, the Civil Rights Movement was always highly decentralized, both organizationally and culturally. Song leaders were accountable only to other organizers. They were trained at transitory events such as workshops at the Highlander School and communicated with each other through mimeographed song books and gatherings at demonstrations.

Thus, the music could more easily serve to create solidarity among people than having to carry a message from a central leadership. Tuning in. And virtually all social movements that use music are attentive to its ability to create solidarity as well as carry a message Eyerman and Jamison But, the social relations within which music is enacted affect the ways in which people are connected to each other and thus what is political about the culture.

Culture, Heritage, Art: Navigating Authenticities in Contemporary Hungarian Folk Singing

For the Old Left, politics was first and foremost in the lyrics. So tuning in took the form of frame alignment Snow et al. To extend the metaphor of tuning in, resonance was defined in terms of political agreement. In contrast, for the Civil Rights Movement, tuning in was based more on common participation in making music. They were able to achieve what the Old Left had aspired to, creating a singing movement.


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So, he taught them how to join arms, sway, and harmonize, binding the participants into a collectivity Reagon Embeddedness: Music for the Old Left was embedded in a political party aspiring to change people's consciousness. When activists became performers, they thus distinguished between their political songs and their popular songs, as the Almanac Singers did when they intentionally balanced their repertoire with political and folk songs Lieberman When they tried to embed music in other forms, such as unions, they found little success.

They did find a ready audience when they performed for Progressive candidate Henry Wallace in the presidential campaign, although the effort bankrupted the sponsoring organization, People's Songs, Inc.

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For the Civil Rights Movement, the music was embedded in the collective action itself, in meetings, picketing, riding on busses, sitting in, and passing the time in jail. These were activities in which a crowd of people, often confronted with hostile authorities, engaged in drawn out activity that required tight coordination and communal movement.

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Their repertoire of collective action was ideal for making music together. And music was the ideal medium for reinforcing and empowering these forms of collective action. Tellingly, when the movement abandoned non-violent civil disobedience and its related repertoire of collective action, they also abandoned music in the movement and, like the Old Left before them, embraced music for its content. American folk music developed from a category comprehensible mainly to academics and antiquarians into a mainstream genre.