Introducing American Folk Music, by Kip Lornell

October 1, 1992

lornellIntroducing American Folk Music, by Kip Lornell. Madison, Wisconsin: WCB/Brown and Benchmark, 1993. xii + 251 pp. ISBN 0-697-13383-4.

 Kip Lornell has written a fine introductory textbook that presents the many styles of folk music and folk-based music of the United States. The focus is on the folk music of the English-speaking people from the early nineteenth century to the present. Lornell does, however, discuss several American grass roots styles that involve languages other than English. These styles include klezmer, Cajun, and zydeco, as well as Native American musics. He also explores a number of popular, commercial genres that have direct roots in American folk music.

The author is well qualified to write this book. Since 1969, he has conducted research on black folk music, gospel singing, and hillbilly artists. He wrote most of the book as a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution. For this reviewer, the author's references to his personal experiences considerably enrich the material. An excerpt from the opening to his chapter on Beginnings vividly illustrates this point.

Before supper we lolled casually on the front porch; the seventy-degree temperature invited us to sit outside in order to swap stories and sing . . . .

Just as the yearning words and simple chord progressions of an earlier Neil Young composition, "Sugar Mountain," settled into the air, Rusty's eyes lit up as he picked up his guitar. He sang a ditty that began: "Last night when I got home, drunk as I could be. Saw another car parked, where my car ought to be." When he finished, I asked Rusty where he picked up this song. "From an old drunk at a fiddler's convention in Union Grove, North Carolina. I thought it was fun, so I learned it," came his instant reply.

Introducing American Folk Music is accompanied by an audio package that includes thirty-two musical examples drawn entirely from the Smithsonian/Folkways Catalog. Each of these listening examples has its corresponding reference in the text, each reference including background information, title, identities of performers and instruments, duration, and notable musical features. Only a few of the recordings are by well-known performers like Jean Ritchie, Leadbelly, Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, and Sonny Terry.

The text is divided into ten chapters. Topics covered include the influence of the mass media and popular culture; Anglo-American secular and sacred music (separate chapters); African-American sacred and secular folk music (separate chapters); ethnic music, including that of Native Americans, Hawaiians, Scandinavians, Tejanos (Tex-Mex), and Cajuns; and folk revivals, such as the 1960s commercial folk music scene. There is also an impassioned plea for more field work.

Lornell's exploration of relationships between folk music and more popular, commercial styles significantly adds to the text's strength and its usefulness. The book is about folk music but also about the roots of much American popular music. It does not feature immigrant styles—those musics that were brought to this country to be performed and enjoyed essentially as they had been in their native country. It is a book about American vernacular styles that were implanted in our culture but have subsisted here sufficiently long to have evolved into distinctly American styles. Lornell's book is timely. The teaching profession is becoming more global in outlook. For example, recent music appreciation textbooks reveal the growing interest in using repertoires that reflect the cultural diversity of the American people. Most new editions now include at least symbolic sections on jazz, popular music, and music of non-Western cultures. In addition, conference programs and publications emanating from professional organizations such as the Music Educators National Conference and The College Music Society reveal that a growing number of college teachers want to approach the study of music through repertoire as it exists in the real world. They assume that no repertoire is too small for the study of music and all repertoires are important, differing only in style and function.

Lornell's Introducing American Folk Music is suitable for introductory courses in folk music, as his title suggests, though these courses are not plentiful. It is also suitable as a text or a supplementary resource for introductory courses in American popular music, especially if popular music's roots in folk traditions are emphasized.

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, this book can serve as an important resource for teachers. It can help teachers grow in their knowledge and understanding of perhaps unfamiliar repertoires, and it is a worthy addition to the list of recently published resources on American music. These include new editions of books by Gilbert Chase, Daniel Kingman, and Jean Ferris. Other pertinent resources include van der Merwe's Origins of the Popular Style; Bohlman's The Study of Folk Music in the Modern World; the New Grove Gospel, Blues, and Jazz; and the New Grove Dictionary of American Music.

Introducing American Folk Music is a good book, but unfortunately the author needs to produce a second edition to correct a large number of writing problems. If the book is intended for lower division college students, then words such as free reed, "city billy," Great Awakening, fuguing tunes, cante-fable, centonical, arhoolies, and melisma need definition or further clarification. Many such words and concepts are not indexed, and there is no glossary. Additionally, the author mentions but does not define a "normal" singing school (pp. 94, 95), and he gives the reader no help in understanding the distinction he makes between native American and Native American (p. 57 and other pages).

Many of his statements are problematic. These range from the self-evident, such as the sentence "A tuba is usually a low-register instrument" (p. 16); to the debatable, such as the conclusion that Tex-Mex music is "unlike that of any other form of American folk music" (p. 175); to the incorrect or obscure, such as the assertion that " . . . honky-tonk rose out of the fecund Lone Star State . . . " (p. 75). Other statements raise questions. Did Uncle Dave Macon (who died in 1952) really "stretch across the gap between minstrelsy and rock 'n' roll" (p. 48)? Do Methodists really prefer the "grandeur of hymns . . . often set to the music of . . . Bach" (p. 238)? Are "up-tempo 2/4 tunes that at times sound dangerously close to the popular swing bands of the day" (p. 73) sufficient to prove an influence of black music? If Tin Pan Alley flourished in the "last two decades of the nineteenth century" (p. 65), what about the greatest of Tin Pan Alley composers who flourished through the early decades of the twentieth century: George M. Cohan, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, et al? Lornell, incidentally, does reveal a bit of humor in discussing early recordings of Lonnie Johnson: "In 1929 Johnson . . . waxed . . . guitar duets . . . " (p. 38).

Early in the book, Lornell establishes that his material is heavily weighted toward the Anglo-American and, particularly, the African-American folk traditions. He also describes the close links between traditional and popular cultures, revealing the problems we sometimes have with labeling musical styles and genres. Throughout the book, the author moves easily among oral tradition folk music, composed music that has become part of the oral tradition, and commercial popular music. In this book, music is considered popular if it appeals to a national audience, is known regionally, or is valued within ethnic groups. Many nationally popular styles, especially country music, are shown to have roots in or characteristics of traditional folk music.

The author treats black religious and white religious music in separate chapters. This is logical and acceptable, but leaves some misleading impressions. One might assume, for instance, that lining out was an important device only to the black people (p. 106) or that Pentecostal music was part of the religious experience only of black Americans (p. 115).

Two examples of many worthwhile conclusions that Lornell presents merit special mention: First, folk musicians are influenced by their roots, families, and surroundings (p. 13). Even if they leave this environment, perhaps to seek professional careers elsewhere, they are "bred in the bone," a provocative phrase the author borrowed from the title of a book by Robertson Davies. The phrase suggests that folk musicians remain "intrinsically tied to the music they inherited."

Second, Lornell acknowledges that factors in our society continue to reduce America's distinctive and regional ethnic characteristics (p. 29). As one cause of this shift, he suggests that instant communication, improved long-distance transportation, and literacy for the masses have increased acculturation in our era. He also cites the notion that recordings have reduced the need for direct contact by consumers with folk musicians, creating a professionalism that breeds standardization. In fact, Lornell ties the history of modern American folk music directly to the evolution of the radio and recording industries. He concludes that, although distinctive characteristics are still strong, they are slowly dissipating.

Introducing American Folk Music, despite weaknesses in writing and editing, will be valuable as a textbook or a supplementary resource for courses that focus on American folk music. It will also be beneficial in courses that emphasize the links between folk and American popular music.

3177 Last modified on October 22, 2018