Rock Music IS Folk Art.

Posted Dec 7, 2003
Last Updated Nov 2, 2011

An appreciation for folk art originating in the Far East circa early 20th century was the impetus for the American folk art movement, which arguably culminated in rock and roll proving to be perhaps one of the most significant movements in folk/popular art.

The philosopher and art critic Dr. Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961) began to stress folk art as a recognizable art form in 1925. Stressing the importance of craftsmanship, Yanagi revealed his display of "Mingei” (peoples art) at the opening of the folk museum in Mingeikwan in the year 1936. Prior to opening of Yanagi’s museum, folk art was not a recognized art form. With Mengei, Dr. Yanagi strove to preserve the fire of ancient methods of craftsmanship that were being rapidly extinguished by the advance of machine and the negative effects of industrialization.

Mengei was quite different than the already established "Fine Art”. Fine artisans, consisted only of highly trained individuals, capable of creating elaborate works that were to be found only in the richest of homes or used solely at ceremonial events. Works of this stature were not designed to be functional or intended for use on a daily basis. The "Mingei” derived from and for an entirely different purpose. These works were sculpted by craftsmen who’s only intent was specializing in the individual task of their trade. Before industrialization such artists/craftsmen created household items with consideration only for their durability in the daily use of such an environment. Durable items need not reflect elaborate design or be adorned with such aesthetic appeal. Following Yanagi’s movement "Mingei” would be connected to popular attributes of the religion "Shinto”. This religion indigenous to the Japanese Islands stressed "Subi (patina, age, simplicity) and Mabi (or choosing of the understated and its purest form)” (Traditions, PG 14). These beliefs were of importance to carrying out pure "Shinto” lifestyle. Folk art from this point on became favored over the previously adored elaborate works of fine art. Such a demand for these simplistic works arose that craftsmen would artificially stress or age their works in order to replicate the feeling of an ancient long lasting use.

Yanagi had been entirely successful in rescuing these traditional crafts from extinction and through his museum he taught the Japanese people an appreciation for simplicity thereby preserving timeless methods of craftsmanship.

The rapid spread of "Mingei” was called to a screeching halt by the effects of WWII. Threat of American invasion and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought Yanagi’s movement to the bottom of a list of importance for quite some time. But, during the war American soldiers became interested in Japanese pottery, collecting and sending pieces home as souvenirs. As the war drew to a close various camps were established in attempt to assist in rebuilding the Japanese economy. The most important of these camps to the spread of "Mingei” was the posting of Lawyer and Amherst College Alumnus Lakeman Barnes who was stationed in Japan as a legal advisor to assist post war economic reconstruction. For the seven years of his stay Barnes collected and studied artifacts of Japanese culture (mainly ceramics) directly related to "Mingei”. Over the period of his term Lakeman collected some 3000 pieces of "Mingei.” Lakeman’s connection with Amherst College later brought him to donate 250 select pieces from his private collection to the Mead Art Museum in Amherst, MA. This donation sparked the beginning of American understanding and desire for folk art.

After WWII appreciation for folk art swept like wildfire across the continental United States. Never before did critics recognize a genre of art lending itself to the trade arts of craftsmen who created functional pieces in the tradition of their ancestors. Several reasons fueled such passion for the American folk movement. A major contribution to the spread resulted from American population being entirely of immigrant decent. Thus the United States a young country, and the American culture had shallow history and no ancient method of craftsmanship from which to base their opinion of artistic virtue. Immigrants from eastern countries filtered through the Appalachians on into the deserts of the west mingling with Native Americans indigenous to the continent. The adaptation and bickering of ethnicity left America’s frontier writhing in turmoil. Battles were not only fought against the dictatorships of Great Britain. Cultural wars took place amongst the classes of immigrants who fled their countries to reap the prosperity and freedom of the new land. This type of interaction was coined a "Melting Pot” society. Battles took place on large scale and on seemingly regular basis while the country attempted to discern its differences and become "one nation… united under God” (Gettysburg address, Lincoln). The magnitude of this turmoil effected what became aesthetically pleasing to individual interest groups. "Right wise born Americans” would decorate everyday objects in the flavor of patriotic theme. Common objects such as chests of drawers, paintings, pottery, and fireplace adornment would bear witness to the acts of great generals, record battles, or display the markings of the stripes and stars.

Aside from the turmoil of a forming country, folk art would boast themes of human spirit, the imagery found in daily life, and the common expression of tradition. This type of Folk art was a means for the common man to express emotion in a way that was pleasing to them within the reach of their artistic skill. Although most folk art consisted of trade craft or common expression, numerous views on folk art today push against the fine arts labeling them as tainted by foreign origin deeming them unworthy of classification with folk genres. The openness of folk classification allowed the genre to breathe but not without making the discussion and classification of folk values quite controversial. This controversy enabled artistic values to hinge relative to popular view on social class, cultural hierarchy, ethnic identity, taste, and aesthetic qualities. Some works accredited as primitive by the standards of academic art unworthy of attaching artistic merits were now referred to as "non academic, amateur, self taught, popular, provincial, rural, vernacular, or outsider.” (American folk, PG 22) Many popular works of the 20th century are united by their originality of expression, an artist’s connection to their medium, and the ability to attach great aesthetic quality to the functional object. Folk art allowed the appreciation of American crafts on a worldwide scale. The views of this movement melded Yanagi’s concept into art for the nation. An art "of the people, by the people, and for the people” (Gettysburg address, Lincoln).

Folk art has taken on many differing values and mediums since its initial conception. In America so much importance has been laid in art by hands of the common folk. One can hardly ignore the apparent connection of folk art to folk music and the steps musicians have taken towards expressing themselves accurately in the medium of "sculpted sound” (Jimi Page – Led Zeppelin).

Folk music originated from the chants and stories illustrating the daily life of the American working class or slave. From the labor of earning a living came the sounds of artists such as O.J. Abott telling tales of Irish, British, and Canadian lumber mills through his choice of melody and rhyme. A musician’s lyrical content and melody was able to connect with the struggle and pleasure of common man in such a way as never before. Musicians became popular, as did the popularity of their stories that would be sung by families, taught to their children and passed on. Folk music was beginning to be recognized as an art form. Just as it affected other methods of folk art, Immigration, travel, and the intermingling of ethnic groups allowed for recognizable genres within folk music to emerge. While tradition stayed the same in the eyes of the elderly, young adults became hungry craving a form of expression that was relative to their lifestyle. At this time, in the hands of the young, folk music began to push the boundaries of accepted artistic merit. It is recorded that Mozart, Beethoven and various other great composers were not understood in their time due to their avante guard choice of expression. The same held true for the folk movement. Emerging artists such as Bob Dylan spoke words written during his childhood and reformatted them in order to apply them as lyrics to be accompanied by descriptive rhythmic acoustic sounds and melodic emotional vocals. As Dylan traveled from Minneapolis to the east coast word of his music traveled faster. Dylan was met by thousands of appreciative college students all hungry for the imagery he created for young folk through his sung word. Folk music continued to thrive as festivals of all sorts were orchestrated to house these displays of sculpted sound. Never before in the history of any artistic movement had their been such widespread support and excitement as their was attached to new music. The phenomenal support did not come without its fare share of outraged traditionalists who deemed new folk music unworthy of being considered a valid art movement. As is common in any movement that is subject to such ridicule, folk music continued to progress as years passed.

Growing from the seed folk music had planted came the most controversial musical form to date "Rock and Roll”. Named for the supposed type of reaction it induced on its listeners, rock and roll touched the hearts of the young connecting with their lifestyles in a way none had before. Adults and traditionalists all had their music, things to follow or spend money and time on. What did the young have in the eyes of the media? Their hunger for revolution took form in Rock and Roll and provided these youngsters with symbolic meaning that applied sound to fit the teenage mood. Like all other forms of folk art, rock instilled fame in the hands of common man and his need to express himself. Rock musicians in most cases were not academically trained on their instruments. They either learned on their own or were self-taught simply by studying other folk musicians and their achievements. With or without formal training, individuals sharing the same ideals could band together and express their views and values of life through the sculpted sound their group produced. Rock musicians pushed the limits of appreciated music, by exploring imagination and young human instinct, while continued focus lied in making it fun and entertaining. Lyrics took on many shapes, not only referring to love and happiness, but also began to tell tales of anger. In many forms of rock music anger was expressed quite effectively through the electrification of traditional folk instruments (electric guitar and bass). In many senses electrified rock could be considered abstract sound. Artists of every medium share similar values. Rock musicians stressed these values endeavoring to touch the masses through original expression of what held personal significance to them. Rock idols and the effect of mass media and recording only pushed this movement further into the commonplace of teen life. Mass media positioned rock at the forefront of all musical movements of the time. This continued support enabled the organization of concert events like Woodstock (1969) where thousands of teens flocked in support of their favorite musical acts. Various companies would associate their product with the rock movement signing rock idols as official mascots of their product’s campaign. The industry banged to the drum of media frenzy as newfound teenage stars continued their expression in the spotlight of the entire nation. Idols like Elvis Presley coined the "King of Rock” pioneered important elements of rock music "setting in stone the image and sound of rock and roll that would endure as long as the music persisted in fact for memory” (Pioneers, PG210). Spotlighting Elvis placed him at the core of the youth movement. Casting standards of image, sound, and dance that evoked popular themes of youth, sex, and rebellion against tradition. Millions of people immersed themselves whole-heartedly in rock. Teens lived and breathed its every word.

The effect Rock instilled on society did not do so without placing itself at the hands of endless criticism. As is popular to any form of revolution, rock was met face to face by the scowling frown of tradition. Movements by traditionalists including parents and teachers as well as the forming of advisories such as the F.C.C. (Federal Communications Commission) all took active role in attempting to curtail the perversion of traditional youth cultural values pertaining to the growth of this phenomenon. Musicians of other genres addressed the movement head on. The vocalist and songwriter Frank Sinatra voiced his discontent for rock voicing that "(Rock and Roll) is the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear. [It is written and sung] for the most part by cretinous goons [and] by means of its imbecilic reiterations and sly lewd in plain fact dirty lyrics… [It] manages to be the martial music for every side burned delinquent on the face of the earth.” (Social History, PG 46) Sinatra was not only lashing out against rock in competition over popularity, but the music was thought to be of obscene nature and was condemned by masses of rock and roll anti fanatics. Anti rock rallies and record burnings became traditionalist pastime while rock expressionists dodged the ridicule of angry parents who associated the musicians and their music with devil worshipping. This behavior only further brightened the flame of the new folk movement illustrating the power in the need for human expression.

Rock and roll has for 47 years proved it’s worth by revolutionizing the marketing industry. It has set the standards of personal image such as popular hairstyle, clothing, personality, and teen moral as well as forcing its influence on products and marketing like the automobile, cosmetics, electronics, and all forms of mass media. (magazines, radio, television etc.) This continued influence has moved rock to a genre considered mainstream by most audiences. It is ironic that products such as the most conservative/traditional American made automobile, Cadillac uses background rock music as a means of marketing to connect with the traditionalists in today’s interest groups. Derived from folk art Rock and Roll’s growth has proved the need for basic human expression in the arts illustrating it not only as an endeavor of adulthood but of importance to all ages. One can simply not deny rock recognition as one of the most important folk artistic movements in American history. To do so would be to ignore an entire century of artistic human expression through sculpted sound.

Works Cited

Baggellaar, Kristin, Donald Milton. Folk Music American History and Critisism.
Toronto: Whiteside limited, 1976

Hauge, voctor and Takako. Folk Traditions in Japanese Art. New York:
John Weatherhill, 1978

Jahn, Mike. Rock: From Elvis Presley to the Rolling Stones. New York:
Times book co Quadrangle/New York, 1973

Moes, Robert. Mingei – Japanese Folk Art. Universe Books: New York, 1985

Saint – Gilles, Amaury. Mingei: Japan’s Enduring folk Arts.
Tokyo: Published by the Author, 1983


Sumrall, Harry ed. Pioneers of Rock and Roll. New York: Billboard Books, 1944

Ward, Gerald, Abagail Duda, Pamela A. Parmal, Sue Welsh Reed, Gilian
Ford Shallcross, and Carol Troyen, eds. American Folk.
Boston: Boston MFA, 2001

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