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On the Road to Folk America

Ben Whalley | 17:06 UK time, Thursday, 12 February 2009


LP Hartley famously wrote that "the past is another country". Making the third part of Folk America, about the 60s folk revival, the past felt strangely familiar to me.

This series was made throughout 2008 as America worked itself into election frenzy. I travelled to the USA in September with talented assistant producer Luke McMahon. Our whistle stop-tour would take in New York, California, Arizona, Florida, Connecticut and Rhode Island- all within two weeks.

That's a lot of driving. Fortunately we wouldn't have to rely on the radio for entertainment as we would be accompanied by our own election-fever barometer. Californian Daniel Meyers' personal mission was to make sure every single American voter was going to put an X next to Barack Obama. He was going to win the election singlehandedly, on an individual-by-individual basis. To relax Daniel would also perform series cameraman duties.

Like all good journeys, this trip would be full of epiphanies. On a 300 mile pre-breakfast slog to film with Pete Seeger, Luke was incredulous to discover that he was a capitalist. I too was equally amazed to find out I was a nihilist. Before I could shout, 'I'll cut off your Johnson, Lebowski' we were discussing the Middle East crisis and then it was all too late...

Crossing the country on our mini-crusade reminded me of the attitudes of many involved in the 60s folk revival. There are many resonances between the Kennedy and Obama generations. For example, Obama's rhetoric has often conjured up the figure of Martin Luther King Jr - the key figure in the Civil Rights Movement that many young 60s folk revivalists patronised.

The 60s folk revival itself is a bit of a curate's egg. Between Elvis joining the army in 1958 and The Beatles' American invasion of '64 a generation of liberal-minded youth managed to get something called folk music into the charts and onto television.

These well-intentioned college kids could sometimes make excruciating music. The charts were constantly filled with ersatz, preppy folk trios. Luckily there were many notable exceptions, including a certain Bob Dylan who would float the early stage of his career on the revival.

As well as some great individual talents, I think the 60s 'folk scare' had two intriguing legacies.

The revivalists fostered an interest in the work of old southern musicians, bringing some of them into the commercial spotlight - many for the first time and in their dotage. It could be argued that without the folk revival the world would never have heard of these figures.

For instance, on the back of the resurgence Columbia Records chose to release King of the Delta Blues, an amalgam of Robert Johnson's scant recording career in 1961. He'd been dead since 1938 but the album would go on to inspire countless generations of musicians.

Secondly, the interest in America's roots music that the folk revival re-ignited went a long way into broadening the church of what would become known as rock music. In everyone from Neil Young to Fleet Foxes, Canned Heat to Kings of Leon you can find traces of an unfamiliar old America.

Working on a series like Folk America has thrown the power and depth of the musicalachievements of this fascinating country into stark relief. It has been a real treat to delve into the absolutely mind-blowing cornucopia of what comes under the term of 'American folk': Ernest Stoneman, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Robert Johnson, Dock Boggs, Bukka White, Leadbelly, Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters, Roscoe Holcomb, The Carter Family, Earl Scruggs, Jimmie Rogers, Skip James, John Hurt, Woody Guthrie...

Amazing. We just don't make them like that.

Ben Whalley is the director of episode 3 of Folk America.



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