Social & Domestic Issues

An American Folklorist

The sun had gone down behind the factories, and you could hear the soft sounds of Spanish amid the clinking of the Lone Star bottles.

"You going to have to talk to politicians?" Archie Green asked me. He didn’t make it sound like something any sensible person would do.

I told him I didn’t see how I could avoid it. We were in Austin, and the Texas primary was coming up. It was late April 1980, and Ronald Reagan was running against George H.W. Bush on the Republican side and Jimmy Carter was fending off a challenge by Ted Kennedy among the Democrats. So it seemed like a good — or at least unavoidable — time to be talking to politicians.

"Well, at least talk to them in the daytime," Archie said. "We’ll go to the bars at night. There’s some music I want you to hear."

To Archie Green, music was more than entertainment. Much more. Having been a sailor, a carpenter and a college professor, he was also one of America’s leading folklorists. He studied music and folk songs along with things like fraternity initiation rituals and the topping-out ceremonies on skyscrapers. He is the person I liked to talk to instead of pollsters to find out where America was heading.

We were at Liberty Lunch, an outdoor bar, where a benefit concert for local farm workers was going on, and even though most of the talk was about whether Kennedy possibly could beat the incumbent President Carter in Texas (he couldn’t), Archie was talking about Ronald Reagan.

"I remember meeting him at a convention of the American Veterans Committee," Archie said. "That was right after the Second World War, and we had formed this committee as a liberal alternative to the American Legion. John Kennedy was a member, and who else would you know? Oh, yeah, Timothy Leary. And, of course, Ronald Reagan. Reagan was the darling of the Red Caucus then."

I asked Archie what the Red Caucus was.

"Marxists," Archie said. "Communists, the Popular Front."

And they liked Ronald Reagan?

"Sure," Archie said. "Reagan sometimes alludes to it. They liked him then for the same reason people like him now: his brashness, his energy, his attractiveness. Look at what people see in him now: the smile, the humor. He compensates for their anxieties. And who the hell isn’t anxious these days?"

Archie then explained the importance of music to presidential campaigning, why candidates were introduced at each stop by certain songs and why Ted Kennedy, who was associated with Boston and the Northeast, would always go to urban shopping malls accompanied by country and western bands.

"For tens of millions of ordinary citizens, it is absolutely necessary to fall back on known forms that are familiar to their lives," Archie said. "For the blue-collar Kentucky migrant who is stranded on the Detroit assembly line, he hears a bluegrass song and has a sense that his life is moored to old values. He makes the conscious or unconscious connection between that music, old-time values and the candidate."

Ronald Reagan’s advance team always played the theme from "Rocky" at his rallies, which always confused me, since Reagan was hardly the underdog against Bush. (He would beat Bush in Texas and go on to the win the Republican nomination and the presidency.) But Archie explained that "Rocky" was a theme of working-class triumph, and that was where Reagan was seeking votes.

"People are hurting," Archie said. "Their pride is hurting, and their pocketbooks are hurting. Reagan promises an end to the hurt, an end to the pain."

Up on stage, four women who had been singing modern folk songs about nuclear power and the environment began singing "Which Side Are You On?" — a song written during a coal mine strike in Harlan County, Ky., in 1931. The strike had been crushed, but the song lived on.

"Listen, don’t worry about the candidates," Archie said. "It will be all right. Because you know what we’ll always have? We’ll always have what’s going on right here tonight. We’ll always have America."

Archie wrote eight books and founded the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. He was lobbying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to set aside stimulus money for artists, writers, filmmakers and folklorists when he died March 22 at the age of 91.

A lot of candidates have come and gone since I first met Archie Green, and so have a lot of crises. A lot of old anxieties have been replaced by new ones. But Archie was right: We’ll always have America. And America will always have Archie Green.


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