Friday, June 1, 2007

The Return of Folk Art: Is Social Media Leading Us Back to our Roots?

In browsing through YouTube today I was thinking about the importance of the musicologist and folklorist Alan Lomax in bringing obscure American folk music to mainstream media outlets. Through Lomax's recordings in the mid-20th century we gained access to pivotal and influential artists such as Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie and other performers who have become icons of American culture. Their songs have been "mashed" (covered) countless times by popular artists, creating a legacy of profitable operations for music publishers everywhere. Lomax' subjects were far from slick: some were in or just out of prisons, sitting on tin shack porches in the backwaters of the deep South, up in the mountains of Appalachia - it would be fair to call most of them "nobodies" by the standards of any day.

Today I can turn to YouTube and get a catalog of folk performances with breadth that far outstrips anything that Lomax was able to acquire through his years of sojourns. The average teen humming a song on the edge of her bed in front of a webcam is not likely to become a new Jelly Roll Morton, much less a Sade, but voices such as this have restored the concept of folk art being something that anyone can create for anybody. Which of these performances is worth watching? The new Lomaxes of the world are us, the audience, providing accolades through our use and ranking of their content. Mainstream content being transformed in this environment through mashing is the equivalent of a seamstress cutting up scraps from a designer dress to make a beautiful quilt - it returns the content to its roots as a resource for new folk communication.

When one goes into a major city you're surrounded oftentimes by street performers of various kinds, usually average at best but often enough inspiring in both their content and in the context in which they've chosen to perform. YouTube makes everyone's home a street corner, re-integrating our modern American culture that has been decimated by the automobile cult with its look-alike shopping strips that discourage folk activities in favor of consuming finished goods. Finished and packaged content still matters in a very important way, but I think that we're only at the very leading edge of understanding how profoundly human communications have been affected by services such as YouTube. The emerging dominant culture of the 21st century will be unplugged and unmediated folk culture, free to be free or commercial or whatever it desires to be in the moment. What Lomax exposed through 20th century technology YouTube will unite through the 21st century's direct communications between folk artists and their audiences.
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