Swans Commentary » swans.com May 31, 2010  



Ronald Cohen's Work and Sing


by Paul Buhle


Book Review



Work and Sing: A History of Occupational and Labor Union Songs in the United States, by Ronald D. Cohen, Crockett, CA: Carquinez Press, distributed by the University of Illinois Press, 2010. 189pp, $24.95 pbk.


(Swans - May 31, 2010)   No scholar is better suited to tell the story of US folk music, a story across the generations leaning heavily to the left, than Ronald Cohen. He has been a tiller in these fields for decades, digging through archives of various kinds, interviewing old-timers, attending conferences with fellow scholars and folkie devotees, and just plain listening to music. Here we have, in addition to a scholarly treatment, some wonderful color plates and a great bibliography.

Work and Sing has too few pages to be exhaustive, but it does what Cohen sets out to do: providing a sympathetic, well-written overview of the genre, characters, and their music, how they did it and why. Cohen's method follows the work of the late Archie Green, folklorist of the music folk and a mentor to a generation of scholars (speaking personally, more than that: he led the Folksong Club at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign during the 1960s and encouraged my interest when I was a mere townie highschooler, then campus fan). Archie had peculiar likes and dislikes that we followers mostly put aside, but he had a focus on the human data that would not quit, and that's Ron Cohen to the T.

Perhaps I should have written that Cohen was also a disciple of Archie Green's predecessors, because one of the most valuable aspects of this book is how the story goes back all the way to the first years of the twentieth century when Howard Odum, then a graduate student at the University of Mississippi, did his fieldwork with a cylinder recorder in hand and set about recording African-American work songs. The story goes on from there, sometimes the work of professors, just as often the effort of autodidact left-wingers (usually, not always, in the proximity of the Communist Party). The collecting surged forward in the 1930s, and not only because of the real-world activity of the labor movement and the left (or because of the Depression). A sort of "discover American culture" movement had been afoot since at least the 1920s, with folklore becoming almost respectable (rather than proof of American inferiority to European imports). Figures like Alan Lomax did not have to be particularly left-wing personally. But they were likely to be surrounded by left-wingers in almost every phase of folksong "discovery," recording to performance.

The Second World War, the Popular Front (with immense if brief influence in Hollywood), Broadway, and now forgotten "labor schools" East and West all boomed with folkie notes during the 1940s. Then came the Cold War, blacklists, and banned concerts or recordings, and the odd 1960s recovery that at once brought folk music a la Joan Baez (and old blues singers on college campuses) to millions of youngsters and also buried it beneath Bob Dylan's rejection of folkie sincerity/authenticity. Perhaps the closure of Folkways Records and the moving of the archives to the Library of Congress was the final word, or perhaps no final word is possible (or desirable) after all. The institutionalized labor movement has all but collapsed...but political music will be heard at every immigrant rights demonstration. Life goes on and so does the tune.


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About the Author

Paul Buhle retired from college teaching to produce radical comics fulltime. His latest include Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation [reviewed in these pages], The Beats, A People's History of the American Empire (aka an adaptation of Howard Zinn's classic) and a pictorial biography of his childhood hero, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. Buhle is working on his ninth comic book.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 31, 2010