Folk Politics

“It’s only the last 50 years or so that people have let TVs and radio do their singin’ for them.” —Arlo Guthrie

In the 2008 issue of Connections, Bob Cornett writes about the use of traditional music in the education of young people. Readers may not know that Bob, his wife Jean, and their family are renowned among musicians for their annual festival of Appalachian music in Lexington, Kentucky. Their Festival of the Bluegrass began in 1974 and is now the longest running music festival in the region where the distinctive form of music began.

Bluegrass festivals can appear odd to modern concertgoers. They typically run for days rather than hours, and people come as families to camp on festival grounds. Most do not come just to attend a concert. They bring their own banjos, guitars, and mandolins. And they bring their voices—they come to do their own singing. Bob Cornett emphasizes the point. “People really sense that festival belongs to them . . . they really do sense they’re coming to their own show. They’re not just buying tickets to come and sit at an event.” Music at the festival never stops, as people break off into self-organizing ad hoc concerts. Yes, people also go to watch the professionals paid to play on the “main stage.” But it is common to find those professionals at the campground jam sessions as well.

Bob regards the sense of community as a critical part of a good festival and of bluegrass music itself. The music began in places where people came together on front porches to talk and to entertain each other. “The music was a part of it,” Bob says. “It was a self-forming community.” The music that they made on those porches and are still making at the Festival of the Bluegrass is folk music in Arlo Guthrie’s sense: people are doing their own singing and the music is theirs.

Of course bluegrass music is not unique in its origins. Just a few generations ago most people would rarely experience a stranger playing music for them. Yet music and singing have been fundamental parts of the everyday lives of people of all cultures. Throughout human history, songs have been sung around tribal campfires, in homes, in churches, and in workplaces. Before the advent of the printing press, people used songs to share and make sense of things happening in their lives.

The resulting songs and the insights they contained could not typically be attributed to particular authors. Copyright ownership of music and lyrics is a recent institution. The songs were ever-changing emergent phenomena, appearing at points in time as artifacts of an ongoing conversation—a melodic public voice that took different forms in different contexts while retaining the identifiable plots of human life. The resulting music has taken a mélange of intertwining forms: sea shanties and field hollers, rhythmic drumming and complex narrative poems, love songs and murder ballads, drinking songs and gospels, beer hall polkas and street corner raps.

Folk music is thus distinguished not by the subjects of the songs or the instruments used but by the nature of the interactions among people in the process through which the music is created. Folk songs are public works.

As Arlo Guthrie notes, people doing their own singing—the practice of folk songs—has only recently come to appear odd. The nature of music and its roles in the lives of people has changed in fundamental ways in the 20th century. By the mid-1900s songs and stories had become the purview of professionals who write, copyright, and perform them for the folk. Today if you ask people what the term folk music means, most will say that it is a professional form of music that takes “everyday people” as the subject and audience.

In this way music, like many other things that people create and exchange, has been transformed in just a few generations. The concept of music as something produced for people by professionals was part of a larger 20th-century movement. Many of the challenges people once saw themselves and their fellow citizens responsible for—individual and social security, caring for the ill, the gathering and sharing of news, the education of youth, organizing people for community work—have become widely seen as distinct responsibilities of agencies staffed by experts in the administration of services.

The results have been transformative. Professionally managed programs built affordable housing, provided clean water supplies, constructed schools and hospitals, and built national highway systems. They virtually eliminated many life-threatening communicable diseases. The programs have been so successful that their administrative protocols for analyz-ing, planning, and evaluating are seen as the paragons of governance.

The meanings of citizenship and community have been transformed as well. People—the folk—have become the subjects of public administration rather than its fundamental actors. As Arlo Guthrie has seen the loss of the folk as players in popular music, we have seen the loss of the folk from the work of popular governance.

What can be done? As shown in this issue of Connections the promise is not in the molding of a new kind of citizen for a new kind of politics. People become singers by singing, and they become citizens by doing the things they have always done to shape their futures together. Indeed the most interesting stories seem always to begin with people seeing and building on what is already happening in the life of their community. While folk songs have come to appear relatively insignificant, people never stopped singing together.

We know what the songs sound like and we know how they feel. We also know how it feels to work together in concert with others in community, and that feeling is at the heart of every story in this issue of Connections. The stories are songs of folk politics.

Randall Nielsen is a program officer at the Kettering Foundation. He can be reached at

Connections (2013)
Randall Nielsen