By Meghan Chua
Rivka Maizlish studies folk music, folklore, folk art, folk medicine – but she is not a folklorist. Maizlish is an intellectual historian, about to embark on a fellowship with the Smithsonian Institution to dive more deeply into the question, how did people in 20th century America define folk?
A PhD student in the UW–Madison history department, she studies the folklorists who found meaning in folk traditions and folk culture, and a debate that reoccurs throughout history based on what “folk” means.
“I got interested in that from a number of angles,” Maizlish said, “but the main thing is I just really love Bob Dylan.”
The singer-songwriter’s performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival inspired Maizlish to look into the debate over how Americans have defined folk. Dylan, who was widely known for his American folk revival songs, wore a leather jacket to the Newport show and played an electric guitar with backing from a band. The crowd booed Dylan at that show and subsequent performances across America and Europe. They were angry about the band, the guitar, and the “sellout jacket,” Maizlish said.
“That fascinated me,” she said. “Basically, I just wanted to historicize that story, and ask if there were moments earlier in American history where there were similar debates about what is folk, because Dylan’s fans were angry that he had ‘betrayed folk’.”
For the young people angry about Dylan’s performance, the guitar and jacket symbolized values counter to folk culture, which espoused purity and non-commercial values.
Maizlish has found the disappointment over Dylan’s so-called betrayal of folk culture was far from the first time “folk” was debated in American history. In the 1920s, disagreement over whether folklore should be considered an art, open to anyone, or a science reserved for people with PhDs led the Texas Folklore Society to secede from the American Folklore Society.
The Texas organization’s leader, J. Frank Dobie, believed the value of folklore was in producing a good story. Dobie “walked like a cowboy, he only had a master’s degree, but he was teaching at the University of Texas anyway,” Maizlish said. To the contrary, the American Folklore Society’s leader Franz Boas, himself a social scientist, strongly believed folklore was a science that should only be done by people with professional degrees.
These debates reveal anxieties and hopes, sometimes political, personal, or cultural aspirations of Americans, Maizlish said. She doesn’t seek to define “folk” herself. Rather, folklore provides a rich context to explore the ideas of the past.
“I have a sort of democratic conception of intellectual history, that everyone has ideas and everyone expresses them in a different way,” Maizlish said. “Sometimes it’s in a published text, but sometimes ideas in America are in songs, or they’re in slaves doing certain things with their tools in order to signify something to each other or to rebel.”
In October, Maizlish will begin a six-month fellowship with the Smithsonian Center for Folk Life and Cultural Heritage. She will be able to access materials in the archives of the institution – such as the Folkways Records, which recorded influential folk musicians including Woody Guthrie. Between the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, Maizlish will be able to access materials and papers by all of the major influencers in folk studies.
The fellowship will also provide Maizlish opportunities to present her work to other fellows and learn from their work. It will be a time for discovery at a place that, itself, has been a player in defining folk.
“The Smithsonian as an institution played a role in shaping what is folk and what isn’t folk, because they have a museum of folk,” Maizlish said. “They’re displaying objects and artifacts and saying, ‘this is folk,’ but of course they’re also making choices about what not to include as folk.”
Maizlish isn’t the only UW–Madison graduate student to have joined the ranks of Smithsonian Fellows. Other students in the history department, and across campus, have been fellows in the past.
“Now it’s a proud tradition,” Maizlish said.