Thursday, July 26, 2018
July 26, 2018: Folk Music Studying: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
[On July 25th, 1965 Bob Dylan famously—or infamously—plugged in an electric guitar on stage for the first time, as part of the Newport Folk Festival. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that moment and a few other American folk music topics!]
On the simple and vital song that captures the essence of political music.
As I tried to make clear in one of my very first posts, on Public Enemy and N.W.A., I don’t have anything against overt and aggressive political, protest music; quite the opposite, some of my favorite American songs, from the ones referenced in that post to many by Springsteen and Steve Earle (among other songwriters), fit that bill quite directly. And I certainly have moments where nothing other than a Rage Against the Machine song seems to capture my AmericanStudier’s perspective on our politics, society, or culture. Yet at the same time, I would argue that the most effective political or protest songs are often far more simple and subtle, weaving their melodies and meanings into our consciousness in a quiet and compelling way; that’s how I’d describe Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” for example (my nominee for a new national anthem, as I detailed in Monday’s post).
Guthrie’s song might be the most exemplary such simple political song, but it’s got some serious competition from Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Inspired by some lines in a Russian novel, based on a melody from a different Russian folk song, and expanded through a series of additions (both by Seeger and other songwriters) in the decade after its initial appearance, Seeger’s song certainly has had a complicated history and evolving American presence. But at its core is an even more simple use of structure, repetition, and imagery than in Guthrie’s song—yet “deceptively simple” is probably a better phrase, because by the end of its third verse (Seeger originally wrote only the first three, although again they have been expanded since) the song has tied together allusions to environmental destruction, fleeting and lost youth, marriage and its effects on women, and the consequences of war, among the many complex and sweeping themes to which we might connect its seemingly straightforward lines and phrases.
And then there’s Seeger’s evocative, political use of spring imagery. The song’s title and first verse might of course suggest the seasonal opposite, the shift toward fall that brings with it the close of each year’s most abundant flowering. Yet I would disagree, and would instead analyze the first verse as a statement about (in part) the worst kind of human response to the natural wonder that is spring’s annual rebirth. That is, those symbolic “girls” who have “picked every one” of the flowers represent to my mind the way in which we can come to take such natural wonders—and ultimately, of course, the environment and planet on which they occur—for granted, as simply more material of which we can take advantage for our own beauty and happiness. Would it be possible for us to appreciate and enjoy the flowers without picking them? Just as possible, Seeger might argue, as it would be to stop sending young men (and now women) to die in wars—which means incredibly difficult, yet worth aiming for. Sounds like a political anthem to me.
Last folk studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Folk music moments or texts you’d highlight?