Pete Seeger Biographer Reflects on Folk Music, Journalism, Democracy

David Dunaway, author of “How Can I Keep from Singing:The Ballad of Pete Seeger,” reflects on folk music and its relationship to journalism and democracy. Dunaway also produced a radio documentary on Seeger. Rhonda Miller talked with Dunaway at the Sonic Soiree, a listening lounge for independent radio producers, in San Francisco in April. Dunaway hosted the event.

DUNAWAY: Well, first let me say you’re talking to someone who spent five years in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit right here in San Francisco to obtain the FBI’s documents on the Weavers, “People’s Songs,” People’s Artists and “Sing Out!” the magazine. I was successful after five years and that material informed “How Can I Keep from Singing: The Ballad of Pete Seeger,” my biography. It’s just been revised to bring Pete Seeger up-to- date, such as we can, such as he is, such as he’s timeless. I’m David Dunaway and I’ve been writing about folk music for a while. I revisited some of the interviews, which I’d done several decades ago and came up with “Singing Out: An Oral History of America’s Folk Music Revivals.”

MILLER: So why did you first become interested in folk music? What initiated that?

DUNAWAY: Well, I grew up in Greenwich Village and that meant that I lived surrounded by unemployed writers, photographers, painters and what might be called folksingers. And it was a rich and unusual upbringing and I was rather well-positioned for the arrival of what I consider the second folk music revival in the United States, though how you number them I don’t know.

But the second one would be in the 50s and 60s when America began a popular culture look at folk music. It starts probably with the Weavers in Village Vanguard in 1950 and it continues a little bit through the 50s as Pete Seeger is recording his children’s albums and setting up a children’s camp-school folk music circuit when he couldn’t appear on radio or television with the Weavers, they were blacklisted. And then it blossoms, if that’s the right word, at the Newport Folk Festival and right there in Greenwich Village and in Chicago’s Old Town and out here in North Beach in San Francisco.

MILLER: So, why do you think you’re interested in it? What part of it interests you?HowCanIKeepFromSingingCover

DUNAWAY: I came to folk music because of a love of music in its many forms, but this one in particular, because it was associated, when I was growing up, with a certain do-it-yourself dress-down dig-where-you-stand lifestyle, as personified in the work of Pete Seeger.

MILLER: Do you have a definition of folk music? I know you’re saying that it’s hard to define, but do you personally have a definition of folk music?

DUNAWAY: Well, in the book “Singing Out” I decided that I would offer a variety of definitions rather than try and choose one. One thing we know about folk music is that it is simultaneously traditional and changing. Anyone who studies the field of ethnomusicology would probably give us those two points. For me, the functioning definition of folk music might have something to do with tradition, the idea that there is a community and a culture and a set of wisdoms which pass from generation to generation, community to community. And so, if I was going to take a stab at it, I would say it’s music which is both traditional, reflecting a culture from which it came and brand new, because we’re always remaking it.

MILLER: Do you think young people are interested in folk music? Do you see folk music still growing and changing and expanding today? Because some people think folk music is, you know, they go, oh, from the 50s or 60s. Do you think it’s current?

DUNAWAY: It’s hard to to answer a question about how current folk music is among young people without revisiting the definition of what’s folk music. I remember in the midst of the great folk scare of the 60s, walking down the street on a Saturday night, after I had been to a folk music concert in Central Park in Manhattan, and as I was walking back from the subway, I remember hearing the strains of 50s do-wop music coming from the steps of the projects near where I lived. And I said to myself, well now, there’s folk music new and folk music old.

MILLER: What do you mean the folk music scare? I’m not familiar with that word.

DUNAWAY: Well, that’s my friend Pete Seeger’s term for it. It’s this period when folk music got so commercialized that it was relentless and finally destructive of traditions. You know there are gonna to be kids growing up now for whom folk music will be Boyz n da Hood or Public Enemy, the stuff that their parents listened to as hip hop. I’m gonna call that folk music if their parents are singing it and saying it and they’re hearing it in the car. We can’t ignore the effects of new technology on the representation of music and it’s availability, both as producers based in a computer and as consumers based in portable, digital modalities. As technology changes, Marshall McLuhan taught us, it brings with it changes in the culture that surrounds it. In fact, he almost would say that it writes the culture surrounding it, and I think that’s affecting folk music today.

MILLER: My thesis focus is about the fact that folk music can serve as a voice of the people with the decline of the number of journalists and the shrinking of newsrooms and the decline of beat reporting, where reporters just go out and go to meetings and cover governments and actually request documents under Freedom of Information and just give information. Do you think folk music can have an effect on that, in light of what’s going on today with journalism?

DUNAWAY: I don’t where we want to start to get to the question of folk music and journalism, but I can tell you that in the 13th Century the goliards traveled across central and southern Europe singing the news of the day, very soon after a process which the balladeers took up in the 15th, 16th , 17th, 18th Century, maybe not the 15th, but probably in the 17th and 18th Century you could hardly walk the streets of London or Dublin without encountering people selling long broadsides they were called that told the news of the day. The famous political and journalistic folk music magazine of the mid-60s was also called “Broadside” with that tradition in mind. We have always, though, turned to music to express the political events of the day.  DunawayFlyer08I was recently reflecting on the decision of an early governor in the state of New York who, during a hard-fought campaign decided to have a public burning of broadsides on Wall Street because he couldn’t find the balladeers, he tried to burn their songs. And that is reflective of the way that songs in a pre-digital age were a common currency of cultural expression and tradition.

MILLER: Do you have any personal thoughts about the state of politics and sort of, freedom and democracy today in relation to journalism? Because I’m thinking Phil Ochs did “All the News That’s Fit to Sing” and then, of course, there were all the protest songs, but I’m just wondering if you think there’s any concern about that today, at all, in your opinion.

DUNAWAY: Well, I’m not quite sure what you’re asking, but if it’s the question of what has happened to media and broadcasting, my specialty which I teach here at San Francisco State University in the spring, I do have some thoughts. Way back in the early 1980s I found myself writing a series of articles for the New York Times about the concentration of media, in the context of its first stab, which was so called de-regulation, media de-regulation, and there I predicted, in part, this was at the moment when, and people will be amazed to hear this, when the FCC decided that it was no longer necessary for every radio station to carry a five-minute newscast at the top of the hour. Longtime radio listeners will remember you always heard the news at 00:00. Well, that was ended, and when that happened I suggested, look, in the long-run what we’re seeing is the emergence of a two-tier system of citizenship, in which we have the information “haves” and the information “have-nots.” And I think that that tendency has accelerated over the last decades. And it has been complicated by two factors. One is the arrival of digital technology with its infinite replicability of original and nuanced text. And another is the successful economic domination of media, which was highlighted in the 1980s and 1990s with a corresponding continuation of the deregulation movement, finally maximizing this in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which essentially eliminated the Fairness Doctrine, the doctrine which requires that broadcasters present both sides of a subject. A lot of people don’t know that is long history. It’s still a part, more or less, of the journalistic ethic, but consider the fact that the highly polarizing presentations that we receive on cable news would not have happened in the same way perhaps, if they had had a requirement, granted that cable is less susceptible to such requirements, for balance, we wouldn’t have a one-sided newscast and proud of it.

MILLER: The one thing that concerns me, too, is I find that people have this idea of media, and they tend to throw journalism and TV and radio and all kinds of things into media, with podcasts and, you know, Tweets and things on Facebook. You teach this, do you think there’s a confusion about what media is and whether or not it’s different from journalism?

DUNAWAY: Well, media is simply the plural of medium, And so either we look at it from sort of a philosophical, phenomenological perspective, in which we try and understand what it means to be an interlocutor, to sit between an audience and an event, or we look at it as a system of communication and perhaps then a product, once it’s monetized.

MILLER: Well, I’m thinking in terms of the general public, of the public perception. This is just what I’m finding, that people get information and they don’t seem to know if it’s documented, if it’s researched, where it came from. It’s just picked up and broadcast on the internet and from what I’ve talked about with people, you know, especially people who are not journalists, media includes a whole range of information and they lump journalism into that and that’s what concerns me, that they don’t realize that journalism is, you know, is researched and checked. It’s carefully done.

DUNAWAY: Perhaps people who confuse journalism and the media of delivering it are like what Gertrude Stein once said, confusing the container for the thing contained. What we see is a process of commercialization of communication and each new advance in technology simply furthers that. As Tolstoy famously said, each new development of technology in a society which is unequal can only further that inequality.

MILLER: So I guess to wrap up, I’ll just ask you if you think folk music has a value, has an importance in democracy, you know, related to journalism, but most of all, in democracy, as a voice.

DUNAWAY: Folk music can be said to be inherently democratic in the sense that it represents in various ways. First, it represents the smaller more rural roots which have created traditions which continue over into our urban dominated landscape. So we live in a time of urban culture, but folk music has always had the effect of reminding us of the folks back home. That’s the origin of the success of the barn dances, of WLS back in the 20s and 30s.


DUNAWAY: A broadcast station that carried, I think, for a while the Grand Ole Opry. What is happening is that the southern diaspora up to the northern industrial cities meant that when radio was invented what they wanted to hear was the music from home, the music that was traditional music in that sense. And it united them. And then after World War II the African Americans had the same thing ‘cuz they weren’t going back to the south, they were spreading out. But they wanted to hear the juke joint, they wanted to hear the blues, they wanted to hear the black versions of ragtime and other forms. So the democracy of folk music may be said to reside in its tradition, its multiple and non-commercial context in which it has flourished, and in its way of bringing all of us folk to a simple and common plane.

MILLER: I like that. Thank you very much.


(Broadcast history: Posted on Public Radio Exchange April 8, 2013)

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