Finishing exams, Flying home, and Females in Folk!

Charlotte Gorman
Monday 15 June 2015
Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez in Berkeley, CA, 1980. Photo by Roger Ressmeyer, courtesty of jonimitchell.com.
Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez in Berkeley, CA, 1980.
Photo by Roger Ressmeyer, courtesty of jonimitchell.com.

“Standing on a hill in my mountain of dreams

Telling myself it’s not as hard, hard, hard as it seems…”

Three weeks into my research on the topic “Experiences of Women and Gender in the American Folk Music Revival, 1900-1980”, these lyrics from the song “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin accurately sum up my attitude towards the project. Having originally begun conceptualizing my research last December, months of anticipation came to a head in the last week of May when I was officially free to focus entirely on research of my own devising. It was surreal and overwhelming. Where to start? How to do it justice?

The topic is inspired by a module I took this last semester entitled “Making People’s Music: Folk Music Revival and Society in the United States, 1900 – 1970” with my supervisor Dr Gillian Mitchell, and so the month of May was consumed as usual by revision and exams until I began to re-read literature from that module with a new eye towards the inclusion and treatment of women and role of gender in the so-called “Revival” periods. The aforementioned lyrics are also topical, as the song was reportedly inspired by Joni Mitchell and is thought to refer to her 1967 song “I Had a King”. Mitchell’s musicianship, career, and work are of great interest to me in my research, in addition to individuals including but not limited to Aunt Molly Jackson, Bess Lomax, Sarah Ogan Gunning, Joan Baez, and Emmylou Harris.

Since leaving my beloved St Andrews behind for my native Washington, DC, I have been reading around the careers of those figures and digging into themes like membership and belonging in the Revival movement, image and performance, success, fame, political and protest dimensions, and notions of voice and agency. I decided being back stateside would be best for my internship as I can study sources at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and the Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections at the Smithsonian, both here in the nation’s capital. DC weather has been duly obliging, the sticky humidity making the inside of an air-conditioned library the best place to be in the city.

However as of now I am in the secondary literature phase of my research, looking at what has been written already with a critical eye, keenly aware of gender, genre, “folk”, and authenticity as social constructions needing to be contextualized. I have been asking questions in my research like: to what extent did folk music live up to its reputation as a genre where the confines of popular music did not apply in terms of its acceptance of women as artist and audience? In its continual search for authenticity, did the Revival incorporate the experiences of American women in its spaces: songs, festivals, venues, publications, and organisations?

The aspect of my internship that is both the most frustrating but also the very inspiration for my topic is that very little work has been done within the existing historiography of the Revival that focuses on women or gender. For me, this near-vacuum is a blessing of sorts because it allows me to combine my interests in gender and music history. Though both of those subschools within the discipline of history are too-often dismissed as not being serious or substantive enough, I firmly agree with what Joan Scott compellingly argued in 1986 (thank you to my second year Historiography module), gender is indeed a “useful category of historical analysis” and that studying cultural productions of a given period will serve to allow us a fuller picture of it. One drawback in being widely interested in so many aspects and offshoots of this seemingly specific topic is that approaching it in an restrained, chronological fashion and staying on task is tricky. I devoured Kim Gordon’s memoir Girl in a Band on the plane back to DC, which proved a fascinating read on gender in the music industry, but unfortunately falls outside the confines of my studies in terms of period and style. Similarly, the collections at American Folklife and Rinzler are both packed to the brim with fascinating material, but I have to keep in mind that I only have 10 weeks to be fortunate enough to climb this “mountain of dreams” looming in front of me- the rest will just have to wait.

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