The more I think about my posting yesterday, in which I complained about how hard it is to come up with an original idea around folk music these days, the more I realize how badly I was missing the point. The modern need for originality is a construct at best, a complex at worst. If my goal is to immerse myself in the folk tradition, then originality should be my last concern. A perfect moment to land on ‘The Last West’ section of the West, which is basically a chapter devoted to Woody Guthrie. Lomax reflects on Guthrie: “Woody has never tried to be original, in the sense of the sophisticated songwriter. Like all folk poets, he uses familiar tunes, re-works old songs, adding new lines and phrases out of the folk-say of the the situation that demands the new song. He feels that his function is to sum up and crystallize popular sentiment, to act as the voice of the common man. Although his songs are conversational in tone, they have a truth, an authenticity, and a punch which no other poet of this age can match.”
I love this. The folk poet doesn’t demand a new song to feed his ego, the situation demands it. The folk song is not an event in the way a new pop song tries to be; a folk song is a response to the events beyond our control. There is an appreciation here in the outer world’s ability to provide the folk singer with all of the beauty and originality he needs. If he has mastered the form, then he already possesses the tools to respond to the world with an authentic reaction.
The Lomax-a-Day project is not, and should not try to be, an original exercise. It is, among other things, an exercise in relinquishing the selfish desire for originality. If anyone can remind me of this, it is Woody Guthrie. In 1941, Lomax contacted Guthrie on behalf of the Bonneville Power Administration, who wanted to use the folk singer as a “public relations consultant.” The BPA hired Guthrie for a month to write songs about the Columbia River and the building of federal dams. Inspired by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, Guthrie wrote 26 songs in 26 days. The situation demanded these songs. My first reaction was that it takes some serious creative originality to compose 26 songs in so many days, but perhaps Guthrie was just a well-honed folk poet. A finely polished mirror with the ability to reflect the world back to itself. Regardless, “Roll On, Columbia” is a classic, a source of pride for Northwesterners, a reminder to all that this world contains some serious beauty and power. It is a narrow human view to think that we are the only creators of beauty, the only generators of power.