Art and Belonging: The Fusion of Folk and Rock & Roll and the Dominance of Cultural Forms
I propose a new thesis or a new interpretation of the events of the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, or, at least, of its symbolism. It was then and there, as it has been commonly asserted or understood, that Folk Music was betrayed and given over to the forces of Rock & Roll. Yet, anyone listening to popular music as it evolved in the decade after Bob Dylan’s electrified version of “Maggie’s Farm,” and, in many cases, as it was evolving before this event, could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that there has been a misidentification of the bodies, that it was Folk Music, not Rock & Roll, who walked away from this collision.
Though it could be legitimately argued that the Folk-Rock fusion, as it came to be called, of the mid ‘60’s was a disaster for those Folk forms that had gained huge popularity in the ‘50’s and early ‘60’s, a more useful argument is that this fusion was a result of the musical forms of the larger, dominant culture reasserting themselves.
Of course, this fusion was not the first, nor the last, of the fusions that Rock & Roll had, or would have with other musical forms. Rock & Roll began as a fusion of Jazz forms (Swing, Boogie, Syncopation, Jazz Instrumentation) with the Country Blues. Although Disc Jockey Alan Freed simply renamed the music he was playing to White teenagers from the Rhythm and Blues charts, the essence of this new form or category lay in the eight or twelve or sixteen bar patterns, the repeats, the calls and responses and the improvisatory genius of the Country Blues. Rock & Roll was, in fact, another wave in a series of adoptions or expropriations of Black, or, in the context of the day, Negro or Colored cultural forms by the dominant culture. It was the second significant fusion of the Country Blues, the one with White Country in 1954 known as Rockabilly, that preceded Rock & Roll’s move from a regional phenomenon to a national craze. Other forms of popular Black music—Ragtime, Dixieland, Swing, and bebop—all in their turn had undergone their own appropriations by the dominant culture. Jazz itself, as a fusion of the March with transplanted African and Caribbean forms, established the pattern for all popular musical forms to come as each form jumped both musical and cultural barriers to be fused and fused again with each and all of the others.
Certainly in American culture, art and belonging are hugely important themes when it comes to the inclusion and the absorption of Black culture by the dominant culture. The process by which the Black subculture achieved various levels of belonging within the dominant culture can be examined, in part, by the role Black music played and continues to play within the popular music of the dominant culture. However, on the other side of that coin is the tendency for the musical forms of the dominant culture to reassert themselves, because, quite obviously, it is the dominant culture. Thus, the fusion of Folk and Rock does not necessarily indicate the dominance of Rock & Roll, but does indicate the dominance of the dominant culture.
Tim Trivett holds a M.A. (History) from the University of Manitoba. His thesis, The Doctrine of Perfection in 19th Century America and the Holiness Schism in American Methodism was an exploration of revival theology. An occasional instructor in Fine Arts at TWU since 2002, Mr. Trivett also co-created and co-teaches a course on popular music in 20th century America.
Although he once played B flat and E flat horns in a Salvation Army band and in a college ensemble, he makes no more of a claim to be a musician than he does to being an artist. His perspective is the same as that of most people: that of the layperson looking in on the musician and the artist in a time that offers -- with the twist of a knob or the push of a button -- universal access to the arts and music. Therefore, he argues that the encouragement of a critical inquiry, for the layperson, the musician and the artist alike, into the nature of a popular culture that we associate with daily--if not hourly and by the minute--is crucial to the understanding of our society and of ourselves.