American Roots: Folk Music and Identity in the United States

MTF 150, Spring 2012


Instructor:  Dr. Rachel Hall

Office: 232 Barbelin
Office Hours:  M 11:30-12:30, T 12-2, Th 10:30-11:30, and by appointment
Telephone: (610) 660-3096 (Office)


Course Description:  This course explores the variety of music that has been identified as “American folk music.”  Questions for investigation include: What music is perceived and promoted as “authentically” American?  Is the music of some ethnic or regional groups or economic classes privileged above others?  How have the agendas of academic folklorists, record company executives, music promoters, and political activists shaped public perception of American folk music?  How have these agendas determined what music is performed and recorded?  Is commercialism of folk music necessarily a bad thing?  In addition to examining primary and secondary sources, you will learn about this music in three ways. First, you will gain an appreciation of folk music repertoire through practical experience, including informal performance, group music making, and attendance at cultural events in the Philadelphia area. Second, each student will complete a research project about roots music and identity in an American regional or ethnic community.  Third, the class will document roots music communities in Philadelphia through interviews with local musicians.  The course is not a historical survey of American music; rather, we use the living tradition of American roots music as a reference point for a discussion of the construction of a distinctly American musical identity and the problems inherent in such a construction.  This course satisfies the First Year Seminar and Diversity requirements.


The changing definition of “American folk music” is a main theme of the course.  Any attempt to describe folk music begs the question “who are the folk?” The answer to this question has changed in popular consciousness over the course of the past century. Early twentieth century song collectors prized ballads from the British Isles sung by Anglo-Americans in rural Appalachia.  A few decades later, folklorists and record companies promoted African American blues musicians from the segregated Deep South as the original American folk singers, while urban folk revivalists of the 1930s (and, later, the 1960s) co-opted folk styles for political causes. Today, descriptions of “American roots music” often depict America as a fundamentally multicultural society. For example, promoters of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall, the capitol’s largest cultural event, emphasize the geographic and ethnic diversity of their performers. 


Another theme is the complex association between identity and music.  The history of music in the United States is intimately tied to issues of class, race, and ethnicity. Folk music is often associated with idealized images of certain groups of people:  rural whites of Appalachia, African Americans of the Deep South, Cajuns, cowboys, Native Americans, and so on. “Authentic” folk musicians are typically portrayed as poor, rural, unschooled musically, and “pure”—isolated from influences outside their community. While a group may celebrate some of these images, others are uncomfortable stereotypes imposed by outsiders.  Folk music also plays an important role in many immigrant communities, where it connects with a romanticized past in their country of origin and serves as a way to perpetuate language and cultural values.  Through class discussion and completion of a research project on the role of folk music in an ethnic or regional subculture, we will study the many ways in which identity is constructed through music.


Learning Objectives.  This course is designed to prepare you to


Assessment. My grading scale is 94-100% A, 90-93 A-, 87-89 B+, 84-86 B, 80-83 B-, 77-79 C+, 74-76 C, 70-73 C-, 67-69 D+, 60-66 D, and below 60 F.  You will be assessed in four areas:

Portfolio (50%).  See below for a description of the portfolio.

Research paper on roots music and identity (20%).  Students will make use of primary and secondary sources to document the roots music of a particular American subculture (for example, the music of Irish America or the roots of hip hop music).  We will make use of research workshops offered by the library on as part of the First Year Seminar program.

Roots musician interview and recording (20%).  Students will interview folk/roots musicians about their musical backgrounds, their life stories, how they see themselves as belonging to a larger community of roots musicians, and their musical goals. (I know quite a few local musicians and will assist you in locating interview subjects.) This project will culminate in a class presentation, interview transcript, and short paper.

Reading responses (5%).  Students should post responses to assigned reading on the Blackboard discussion board.  This portion of the class is grade pass/fail: if you post thoughtful responses to at least 75% of the readings, you receive a pass (100%); otherwise the grade is fail (0%).

Participation (5%).  Students can demonstrate participation through contributions to class discussion and group music making.


Prerequisites.  As with other First Year Seminars, there is no prerequisite for this course. All I require is a willingness to try and an enthusiasm for taking part in class activities.  You will be graded on your effort and growth as an interpreter of traditional music.


Reading List.  Other reading will be assigned based on your project choices. 

Romancing the Folk:  Public Memory and American Roots Music, Benjamin Filene, UNC Press, 2000.

Rise Up Singing: The Group Singing Songbook, Peter Blood and Annie Patterson, Sing Out Publications, 2000.

Singing Family of the Cumberlands, Jean Ritchie, Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1955.

Chronicles (v.1), Bob Dylan, Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Escaping the Delta, Elijah Wald, Harper Collins, 2004.  Includes CD.


Ukuleles:  We’ll be learning to play some basic chords on the ukulele!  You can order an instrument from Amazon for $21.99 (Mahalo brand) or more, if you want a better instrument.  Please make sure your uke has guitar tuning pegs (the pegs stick out at the side like ears).


Materials:  You will need to be able to make digital audio recordings for the interview project.  Many laptops and smartphones can do this.  If you do not have a recording device, please talk to me and I may be able to lend you something.


Portfolio: Your portfolio, due the last day of classes, documents your participation in folk music.  Students will attend at least three off-campus roots music events and write 1-2 page event reports. In addition, each student will give three short, informal performances for the class.  These performances will not be graded on musical ability; rather, I expect you to demonstrate that you have put thought and effort into the presentation.  (Students who are already proficient in one style will be encouraged to challenge themselves by learning a new instrument or unfamiliar style; they will not receive credit for something they already know how to do.  In contrast, students who are new to music making may ask the class to sing along with them, or present a dance or children’s game.)  Each student will build a portfolio detailing the history of the pieces performed, the specific sources used and why those sources were chosen, and his or her goals for each performance.  Drafts of event reports and performance guides are due on the dates indicated in the schedule; I will return them with comments and you should polish them for the final portfolio. Your portfolio will contain


Academic Honesty: Dishonesty includes cheating on a test, falsifying data, misrepresenting the work of others as your own (plagiarism), and helping another student cheat or plagiarize. At the very least, an academic honesty infraction will result in the filing of a violation report and a grade of zero on that particular assignment; serious or repeated infractions of the Academic Honesty policy will result in failure of the course. For complete information about the University’s policy on Academic Honesty, consult the Student Handbook 2011-2012.


Attendance: As you have probably realized already, participation in class activities is an essential component of the course.  Missing more than four classes without a valid, verifiable reason will result in failure of the course (a grade of FA).  I will give you a written warning by email if you are in danger of receiving a FA grade.  If you do miss a class, it is your responsibility to obtain the notes and assignments from another student, to make sure your homework is turned in on time, and to reschedule class presentations, if necessary. In case of illness or other emergency that results in multiple absences, notify me by e-mail (


Schedule of Classes.


About the instructor. I have been a roots musician for most of my life.  My parents play, sing, and dance traditional Anglo-American and British Isles music.  I started performing in dance bands while in junior high school.  In college, I was a founding member of the Philadelphia-area folk rock band Broadside Electric.  In 1991, I received a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to study traditional dance music in Scandinavia and the Shetland Islands.  I have been a member of the folk group Simple Gifts since 1995.   Since then, we have recorded three albums and toured throughout the Mid Atlantic states, performing at venues including the Philadelphia Folk Festival, Old Songs Festival, Smithsonian, Brooklyn Museum of Art, National Governors’ Convention, Longwood Gardens, Whitaker Center, Hershey Theatre, and Philadelphia Museum of Art. I continue to perform with Simple Gifts occasionally and play in dance bands in the Philadelphia area.  I play concertina, diatonic accordion, piano, tabla, and fiddle. As a member of Simple Gifts, I have had quite a few opportunities to teach music to adult musicians of varying abilities. I have been on the teaching staff of Folk College and the Greenwood Furnace Folk Festival, a weekend folk festivals held in Huntingdon County, PA, for the past ten years.  My duties included teaching instrumental techniques, regional styles, general musicianship, and leading the contra dance band. Recently, I have become active in Philadelphia’s Sacred Harp singing community.  I organize a local sing and travelled to Alabama in summer 2010 to study traditional singing.  I am also a folk dancer and am proficient in American contra dance, English county dancing, Appalachian clogging, and Scandinavian couple dance.