1.4 Narratives of Singing Heroes, pp 20-27.
Lori Taylor, “The Politicized American Legend of the Singing Hero.”
The images of the heroes are passed on primarily through narratives of the heroes themselves, recalling the influence of the other heroes on their lives and simply talking about themselves and their own images. But, what others—reporters, fans, political commentators, scholars—have said (mostly written) about the heroes is also important since they too are carriers of the political music tradition. The musicians are usually, though not exclusively, the active tradition bearers while their listeners are the passive tradition bearers.
The heroes and others tell the story as it has evolved—a story not about the people as much as about the images of several heroes and the Image of Hero within the tradition. The importance of the singing heroes is not judged in an objective way, either aesthetically or emotionally; the importance of the singing heroes is judged by the meanings given them, by their community and by wider society.
Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen: these are names of power within the tradition, though a member of the folknik, communik, revival, country, or rock communities could undoubtedly name a dozen more, or subtract a few. These names are perpetuated not necessarily because they were the most talented or most deserving musicians but because each fit the idea of what the hero should be. The name was therefore passed along and the person gained the power of influence through this continual invocation of his image. They have become the most important singing heroes simply because the heroes who follow them call on all believers to revere these people as the great bearers of tradition. These are the heroes of the highest profiles because these are the most oft-repeated names—and these are the most oft-repeated names because these heroes have the highest profiles. Marketing of images, through tributes, documentaries, retrospectives, and less obvious commercial and non-commercial means, has a tremendous effect on the content of this tradition.
A musician, listener, or political activist who now traces roots to traditional and folk revival music has a very particular idea who have been the most important figures in their area of the movement. People begin the story as far back as they know it. I have heard people say Bob Dylan started it all. Well, kind of. Or, maybe Woody Guthrie started it or Pete Seeger, but before him there were union members like Joe Hill singing. All and none of them are correct. Each one of these people started something important, but each one of them built on what had come before. The chain of hero tales can go back to any of these five people without the teller having any realization of who came before, or many other people could be included. In brief, the progression of the hero stories follows (told in non-heroic manner).
A marginally talented labor songwriter, he used not folk songs but popular and religious tunes to carry his satiric lyrics. Union people kept singing the songs after the questionable circumstances of his death, and he was raised to the status of martyr. He was a symbol to labor—that makes him important.
He was Dust Bowl Okie enough to be recorded for the Archive of American Folk Son, even though he had other interests—like commercial singing and trying his best to be accepted into the American Communist Party (which he never was, officially). With his friends, he revived a lot of old songs (including Joe Hill songs) and wrote a few that people liked and sang a lot. Most people know “This Land Is Your Land” (minus two verses), but fewer people can say who wrote it.
He hasn’t the obvious proletarian ties of the first two men, but he does come from a fine pedigree of music training, Left politics, and folksong study through his parents, particularly his father, Charles Seeger. Through Pete, more than anyone else, the folk music and liberal political revival came about. He was not a singer of traditional songs in traditional settings until he and his friends had established the new traditions.
Then Bob went to New York to become Woody Guthrie, learning his lessons at the dying man’s bedside. He sang like Woody (like the sick Woody it has been pointed out); he sang old songs and wrote new songs that people liked to sing. People know “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but how many have heard his version? Dylan, whose early music was influenced by and labelled “folk music,” is even further removed from the singer of traditional songs in traditional settings, but, like Seeger, he influenced emerging traditions.
From his dubious beginnings as a Bob Dylan imitator, through simultaneous covers of TIME and Newsweek, slowing down for a Woody Guthrie period, Springsteen is a commercially popular, politically active musician. That he has consciously maintained ties with his own working class background and has consistently supported liberal (even Left) causes draws him in closely with the company of these other influential heroes.
People who draw influence from the first three are diverse, but the community held together fairly well up to the Dylan point. The post-Dylans (even post-Weavers) have evolved far from their influences. The lines go from Woody Guthrie to Hoyt Axton and on to U2, or to Bob Dylan and to the Clash; from the Weavers to the Kingston trio on to Steve Allen; or the Weavers to Peter, Paul and Mary to the Smothers Brothers; and Dylan to many people—from Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground to the New York Dolls to glam rock to punk; John Cooper Clark, Patty Smith, folkies, and poets. The branches of music influenced by the tradition of folk music and left politics have grown far and tangled with many other sources.
A simple chain is never an accurate explanation of actual musical influence, but from Joe to Woody to Bob (much of this through Pete) it is fairly strong in the lore of the people who care about the music these people made. They were not the only, maybe not even the most important, songwriters of their times and groups. What about Ralph Chaplin? Phil Ochs? Correctness is not an issue, at least not historically verifiable correctness; this is a phenomenon of emotional truth.
People act on what they believe to be true not what may be measurably true. Belief becomes more important in studying the values of a group as actions based on believed truth continue to influence other actions—the perpetuated ideas becomes truth from the group. When Joe Hill believed music could help him fight his cause and Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger passed that belief on to Bob Dylan and other revival folkniks, the possibility, even probability, that they could change the world through music became true. That there is still a large group of people who believe music can help them change the world for the better is proof that music did change the world—music and musicians have fostered the growth of a community dependent on that very idea.
This emphasis on heroes shows what has been important to the group much more than it shows what kind of person the hero really was. But because this is history within memory, the facts about the lives of the heroes can be and are discovered contrary to the heroes of legend, a twist on hero and legend study, which Barre Toelken explained as it stood when he wrote his overview of folklore study.
There was the myth-ritual urged by Lord Raglan, among others, which insisted that the heroes of myth and folklore could only have derived from ritual characters and not from historical people (this view had been under attack for years when Francis Lee Utley finally proved, using Raglan’s list of attributes for the hero, that Abraham Lincoln got a perfect score and therefore was a ritual character who had never really lived (1979: 5).
The singing heroes certainly existed and exist but probably not quite as the people we have come to know through exaggerated images of them, mythologized through ritual retellings of their legends. Folklorist C. W. von Sydow called this evolution from real to fiction “fabulation.”
That these people are not necessarily what their legends say they are does not matter. They remain role models for those who will follow. We may know what we read is not verifiable fact, but we can still perceive the value of emotional truths for our time. We act on our emotional truths, or beliefs. We raise up heroes who embody in the ideal those traits we value. We should know them for what they are, abstractions from the lives of real people, without denying their worth to us.
- Main Page: Politicized American Legend of the Singing Hero
- Previous Section: 1.3 A Technology-based Community
- This Section: 1.4 Narratives of Singing Heroes
- Next Section: 2.0 Patterning of Hero Tales within a Community
Lori Taylor, “The Politicized American Legend of the Singing Hero: Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen.” M.A. thesis, American Civilization. The George Washington University, 1990.