Chapter 4 (Folk Culture’s Comeback?)

When I teach the different genres of music to my students, I always feel inadequate to explain folk music. It is hard for middle schoolers to conceive of music that there are few recordings of. Sure we have folk rock and bluegrass among others, but those are genres unto themselves. Almost by definition, folk music leaves behind few artifacts. It was rarely written down and the majority of it was created before recordings could be made. There are folk songs that have survived like Oh, Susanna or I’ve Been Working on the Railroad but the first was a fairly commercialized version of folk music, made to be printed and distributed, and purists would argue that if it is known who composed the song, it is disqualified from being folk music anyway. The second would more properly fit into the genre of Work Songs. I prefer to think of the term “folk music” as an umbrella covering various other types of genres. At any rate, it is much easier to decide what is NOT folk music or folk culture, and one example of that would be popular (pop) culture.

Jerkins briefly explains how the commercialization of the media and entertainment industries (which are one in the same [see Neil Postman]) killed folk culture in America. I don’t believe that its death was caused intentionally, but rather that it was an inevitable occurrence due to the professionalization of EVERYTHING. This event raised the bar so high as to what could be accomplished in art, music, and literature, that only those with considerable resources were able to compete. Eventually, the perfection of artistic production transformed our culture from a participatory one to a passive one, in which commercial interests decide for us what our culture will look like as we observe it unfold before us.

As a society, we have since taken “mass culture (a category of production)” (Jenkins, 2006) and appropriated it among ourselves, thereby creating “popular culture (a category of consumption).” (Jenkins, 2006) Think about places where you see elements of folk culture surviving. If you’re like me you think of local art fairs, “antique” shops, flea markets, Renaissance festivals, and the like. In my mind, even the folk culture represented in these places is typically crafty kitsch, usually relying on ever changing fads (cows last year, angels this year, and perhaps next year we can cash in on the home-made purse movement). Half of the time, you will find that what is being passed for folk art is more likely to be decades old “pop” art or, at the least, inspired by such. Picture a 1950’s era print of Santa drinking a Coke. or a collage of the Three Stooges. It seems very un-folk culture-like to attempt to cash in on consumer trends when creating your folk art. I’ve even seen blog posts where some have harsh words for those who copy THEIR style of folk art. Are you serious? By definition folk art belongs to all of us!

Got Milk, Hmmm? (n.d.). Source:

Got Milk, Hmmm? (n.d.). Source:

Feel the Force. (n.d.). Source:

Feel the Force. (n.d.). Source:

Jenkins believes that the triumphant return of folk culture is the new convergence culture. As consumers, we now have the same tools to craft our art, music, literature, and film as the professionals do. I heard one of the Garage Band loops that I have on my computer being used in a documentary on HBO. New technology has leveled the playing field quite a bit, and is enabling us to resurrect that which the mass media put to death almost a century ago, our folk culture. Now I can make movies, record songs, and edit photography using means that only large production companies had the ability to use before. The best part about it is that just as the mass media initially used folk art to exert its influence, the common man is now borrowing from the mass media. The new artists sometimes borrow mass media in a way that the powers that be approve of, and sometimes not, as is illustrated in the pictures above. Jenkins cites fan fiction and parodies, as well as open source video games and low budget movies as examples of this new trend.

But, the technology that enables the creation of our new cultural artifacts is only half of what is making this resurgence possible. The other half is technological advancement in the area of distribution. The internet has enabled emerging convergence artists to distribute their work to a world-wide audience, giving it instant attention and immediate feedback. The immediate feedback enables the creators to hone their skills until eventually, as can be seen now on flickr, YouTube, and other such sites, the work is just as polished as works that come from huge media conglomerations. The creation of such works has been going on for longer than most of us realize, but the new methods of distribution are bringing these works into our households. The battle now lies in both sides seeking to redefine copyright law in their favor, but regardless of who wins, the new culture has emerged and is here to stay. As Jenkins indicates, our media companies will either make their peace with it and flourish, or will attempt to squash it and perish. The “Napster Generation” has come of age, and will consume on its own terms, and nobody else’s.


Feel the force. [Online Image]. (n.d.) retrieved July 14, 2009, from

Got Milk, Hmmm? [Online Image]. (n.d.). Retrieved July 14, 2009, from

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press.