Folk Duet: Writing Discord and Folk Music


“Apathetic,” he scoffs.
“Naïve and romantic,” I counter defensively.
These songs are so self-absorbed!”
“Those songs were so self-righteous!”

This is Pete Seeger-biographer David Dunaway and me debating the evolution of American folk music from our distinct generational perspectives, and we aren’t, technically, arguing. Beyond the pot-shots, we are engaging in academic discourse born out of the ever-shifting debate over purity, authenticity, and activism in folk music.

David presents the case that young people today are tuned-out technophiles singing only in the “key of me.” I rebut that the old peace-and-love folkies have gone soft, waxing nostalgic while Dylan croons from high-end speakers in their safe, shiny Volvos. We’re speaking indirectly of banjo-picking coalminers in Appalachia and guitar-toting folkstars in Greenwich Village, and we’re comparing it all to 2010: Why is no one playing anti-war songs about Iraq on the autoharp? Why is no one playing the autoharp? David and I have vying theories.

History written from a single, mysteriously objective, even omniscient vantage point is history, all but obsolete. Even personal history with its explicit, personified point-of-view can suffer from a shortage of counterpoints (David, for example, would write a very different story here). This is the argument for writing a history in many voices, for oral history, and for the braiding of accounts and interpretations into a multi-faceted, contradiction-ridden narrative.

In Singing Out, David and I took this multi-voice theory one step further: we co-wrote the book—a man and a woman, a child of the folk boom and a child of, well, Madonna and Nirvana, I suppose.

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