The Folk: Music, Modernity, and the Political Imagination, by Ross Cole (University of California Press, 2021)

May 1, 2023

folkThe Folk: Music, Modernity, and the Political Imagination. Ross Cole. Oakland:

University of California Press, 2021. 259 pp. 25 black and white images. ISBN: 9780520383739. $85.00

In his recent book, Ross Cole draws a potentially eye-raising association between folk music and a right-wing political movement: “Although the majority of folk revivalism is synonymous with the left, the alt-right’s interpretation of folk song is in many ways far more consistent with the anti-Enlightenment tradition from which it emerged” (174). Cole’s book, The Folk: Music, Modernity, and the Political Imagination, traces a path through history that begins with white folklorists’ invention of the “folk” and, by extension, folklore and folk song. Cole addresses Cecil Sharp’s ideology and popularity despite Sharp’s racial and sociopolitical biases; contrasts African American perceptions of folk music to those of white racial frames utilized by John and Alan Lomax; connects the earthy, communal, racially pure, and utopian perception of the invented “folk” to communism, fascism, and nationalism; and ends with examples of alt-right usages of folk music by modern-day musicians to “[defend] . . . an ultra-conservative status quo” (161). Although the volume is relatively short (a full eighty pages are devoted to the bibliographic documentation and index), Cole nevertheless presents a compelling argument for both politically liberal and politically conservative uses of folk ideology.

Cole presents several important themes as the chapters proceed. Focusing on the United States and England from 1870-1930, Chapter One connects the folk to modernity by explaining how folklorists—Cecil Sharp in particular—first invented folklore as a foil to modernism, then used, and continue to use, modern technology to “save” folklore and folk songs from decimation by modernity. Salvation comes in the form of collecting songs, stories, etc. but technology and the drive to collect separate the songs and stories from the people who created them. Chapter Two demonstrates how the generation at the turn of the twentieth century could distrust and dismiss modern advancements in favor of an invented, yet authentic, pure-and-simple past. This trend led to the popular equation of consumer culture with capitalist dregs of modernity while folklore/the folk remained pure. Chapter Three explores the utopian promise depicted in folklore. This utopia rejects modern industry, but also shares tropes of communal living and worker emancipation with Marxist political ideology. A particularly powerful Chapter Four follows, focusing on African American thoughts regarding folk songs and folklore of Black people. Breaking away from the white racial frame of collectors like Sharp and the Lomaxes, authors like W.E.B du Bois viewed Black folk song as a way to acknowledge the present through a lens of past trauma (120). This chapter provides excellent context for the rest of the book, presenting a contrasting way of viewing folklore which, like so many other things, already assumes whiteness as the norm. Cecil Sharp bookends the work, taking center stage again in Chapter Five. Here, Cole draws clear parallels between Sharp’s ideas and Nazi philosophies, such as deep connection and loyalty to the soil (homeland) and, therefore, nation as well as folk song as “Aryan artifact” (150-153). The strategy of focusing on Sharp in the book’s first and last chapters allows the reader to feel as though the work has concluded in a satisfactory way, coming “full circle.” The book, however, truly ends with a “Coda” in which Cole presents the contemporary results of the folk’s associations with fascism, nationalism, and racism: the use of folk songs by the alt-right. The best contribution to the history of the folk is the “Coda.” This ending “chapter” weaves together the book’s threads into an explanation of how the alt-right uses folk ideology as easily as the left—and furthermore how this use aligned with Sharp’s (and others’) invention of “the folk.”

The Folk is primarily a history. It is a provocative source for historians, sociologists, and folklorists. Cole’s deep dive into Cecil Sharp and the Lomaxes also offers something for music historians and ethnomusicologists. Additionally, Chapter One “Collecting Culture” would be extremely valuable for ethnomusicology and anthropology students before fieldwork. While those of us in these disciplines typically do not view ourselves as collectors, Cole’s warnings against bias in selection on the part of the researcher remain apt. Readers interested in folk songs or folk singers themselves may be disappointed, however. Cole views folk song as a kind of monolithic, invented entity and scrutinizes only a few specific songs of Paddy Tarleton, a twenty-first-century “American balladeer” whose songs promote alt-right rhetoric.

In the preface, Cole writes that this work “grew out of an overwrought PhD thesis, though little remains now of its shoots and young branches,” but his candid and, at times, self-depreciating tone does not continue throughout the book (xi). Some of the overwroughtness of the doctoral work lingers, particularly in the first few chapters, as nearly every sentence contains a citation. Cole’s voice is lost at times in the sea of other sources. When it does come through—in Chapter Four and the “Coda” principally—it shines with a refreshing, sometimes almost poetic, tone. For example, he opens the “Coda” with: “Occasionally, when we hear a folk-like melody or a field recording issuing from the depths of imagined time, it is as if we are privy to a revelation, an aural epiphany” (159).

Charles Burkhart’s characterization of the coda of a work as a way for audiences to “look back. . .[and] take it all in” unquestionably applies to the “Coda” of Cole’s book (Burkhart 2005, 12). The book’s “Coda” is not, as the name might suggest, a series of extraneous thoughts tangentially related to the main body of work, nor is it a reflection on Cole’s own experiences. Rather, it represents a substantive culmination of themes and issues presented throughout the book and, as such, is surely a triumphant full finale, not an appendage. After five chapters of turn-of-the-twentieth-century history, Cole’s conclusion highlights how the events of history remain present, particularly when concepts like “the folk,” “folklore,” and “folk song”—which evoke powerful feelings of comfort, community, and nostalgia—go unchallenged.



Burkhart, Charles. 2005. “The Phrase Rhythm of Chopin’s A-flat Major Mazurka, Op.59, No. 7” in Engaging Music: Essays in Musical Analysis by Deborah Stein. New York: Oxford University Press.

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