8 mar. 2007

In Scarlet Town where I was born...

Test yourself. What's the next line??

None of my undergraduate students was able to come up with the definition of a "ballad," in the historical sense. A few knew the word "ballad" to mean a slow song in twentieth century popular music. "My Funny Valentine" is a "ballad" in this sense. None had heard of "Barbara Allen."

So my question is this. Is this particular lacuna surprising to you? When I was a kid (60s) people still sang these songs at home with guitar or autoharp. At what point did this particular part of popular culture drop out of the "vernacular"?

It's the height of dumbness to condemn people for not having been exposed to something. I'm just curious. Where is the cut-off point in knowledge of ballads? 30? 40?

5 comentarios:

jane dijo...

Not to be too simple, but isn't it too simple to ask this question about age? Age is some smallish part of the analysis, but isn't this finally a question about household culture? If you grew up with parents who were part of a certain Sixties progressive white style, you probably know the ballad form, through Dylan if not Seeger and Guthrie; if you have Scots and/or Appalachian heritage, you probably know ballads through other recordings or performance. If you didn't, you probably don't.

Jonathan dijo...

Yes, of course, good point. Then when did this household culture cease to exist on a massive, popular scale? It wasn't just at home either; summer camps and schools featured a certain amount of folk singing too. Not to mention t.v. and radio, etc...

There's also another point. I often can't judge what other people know or don't. I can't really say how typical my experience was. I assume that everyone my age knows "Babara Allen" but that might be a false assumption.

jane dijo...

Jonathan, they mostly don't know it. It's you and a few. I barely know it, and I'm a professional music critic who grew up in Berkeley in the Sixties.

Assuming that one's own knowledge is general knowledge is an integral part of the structure known as "ideology," no?

Or, to rephrase that, magazine editors have three main jobs: 1) finding/hiring talent. 2) assigning/arranging stories for them to write. 3) modulating those stories so that the imagined "average reader" of that title will be able to receive the message. The need for this last is in part because it is actually a professionally desirable skill to be able to distinguish between what a writer thinks people know, and what they know.

Of these three tasks, the third is explicitly ideological, the second implicitly, and the first secretly. But all of them are about arranging an appropriate relationship between individual and "common" knowledge.

Jonathan dijo...

Well yes, and I negotiate that divide every day. It's called teaching. Nothing is to basic to be explained. Bob Dylan still gets 100% name recognition, Joan Baez about 20-25%, among college students now aged 22.

Rock criticism, however, is written in a coded language that is probably opaque to most people. It is to me. Here it is not assuming my knowledge is everyone's, but the exact opposite: assuming that only someone already within this world will pick up the publication.

jane dijo...

All magazines work about the same, I've found, in the stuctural sense above. "Rock criticism" (not a category anymore) and the Sunday Times Book Review and GQ and Boston Review and etc.

I think my point is that [we] don't do it everyday, in teaching. Because it's undoable; because we're always ourselves. We endeavor, honorably I trust, to know our own limits and assumptions, but it's structurally impossible. That's why the magazine, which has a much more literal investment in ideological consistency than a university, pays a third party to do it (in a particular way which is generally objectionable).