Books by Robert S. Cantwell

WHEN WE WERE GOOD by Robert S. Cantwell
Released: April 1, 1996

Jargon-rich but provocative study of the folk-music craze of the '60s. Cantwell (American Studies/Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) is typical of a new school of academic critics combining personal memoir with sociocultural analysis and writing in a highly specialized language understood only by its practitioners. He believes that the original folk revival of the '30s and '40s, as embodied in the work of performers like Woody Guthrie and the young Pete Seeger, failed because of its ideological links to left-wing politics, making it anathema to the postWW II generation. In the late '50s groups like the Kingston Trio created a new folk resurgence by reviving the music without the political message. He also argues that folk music appealed to urban, young, middle-class listeners because it enabled them to act out a mild rebellion against their upbringing and build at least imaginative ties with a purer American culture, nostalgically linked to the past. Cantwell outlines these theories in dense prose that will be barely comprehensible to the uninitiated; for example, he describes Mike Seeger's life work as that of ``cultural cathexis, dreaming the felt but untheorized political urgencies of the present into historical memory.'' Moreover, his theories oversimplify the many strands that went into creating the folk revival. While the Kingston Trio were an apolitical and largely commercial group, the young Bob Dylan was deeply engaged in expressing a social message through his music. Moreover, Cantwell can't seem to decide how he feels about these folk revivalists. While ostensibly praising their lives and work, he slips in many negative remarks about them; he compares Mike Seeger to a blackface minstrel, dismisses Pete Seeger as a person who is ``basic[ally] sad,'' and describes Dylan as possessing ``gallant fraudulence.'' An odd hodgepodge, which will be of interest primarily to the academic folklore community. (17 b&w photos) Read full book review >