“This Machine Kills Fascists”: Public Pedagogy, Rhetorical Education, and the American Folk Singer
Near the end of my first year in the master’s program, I attended the Computers and Writing Conference and discovered a few people talking about sonic rhetoric. It was a small conversation, but it was an exciting one, and though it’s a fast-growing subfield of rhet/comp, I think it’s still a hugely undertheorized and understudied area. I’m very curious about all things sound—how sounds affect the body, how silence affects the mind, and how we decide some sounds in some contexts are “noise.” In my current research, however, I’m looking at how music participates in informing and engaging the public about issues of power and citizenship. To do this, I’m studying how different musicians have (re)shaped the role of the American folk singer as a public pedagogue enacting a form of rhetorical education that is designed to empower marginalized people.
I was first struck by the rhetorical power of vernacular music (a broader term for folk music that encompasses most non-institutional genres) when looking at the music used in the Civil Rights movement. A song like, “Amen,” for instance—in which “Amen” is essentially the only lyric… There’s nothing to analyze in the words, no information, no real argument, and yet it was a powerful song, repeatedly used in rallies and marches. As I studied, I discovered that so much of the power of these songs comes from the embodied action of group singing—the movement of the movement, so to speak. And that’s what began leading me to the conclusion that activism in a digital age still requires action, and the most powerful examples of digital activism we’ve seen in the last decade have nevertheless involved mobilizing people in physical spaces, even if the mechanism to do so was digital.
Regarding methods, I’m using rhetorical criticism and framing analysis to explicate both the texts and actions of these musicians. In particular, frame amplification has been very useful, as it explains how someone can bring attention to specific issues in specific ways based on the way they discuss it. For example, we know what a sit-in at a university administrator’s office means, because we know about the Greensboro Four and their famous lunch counter sit-in. In a similar way, when Tom Morello sings “Which Side Are You On?” at an Occupy Wall Street rally, he’s framing the event and its issues to mirror the labor struggles of the 1930s, and people can then understand the corporate malfeasance and class warfare occurring in present day as a continuation of the legacy of greed in America.
Ultimately, I plan to expand this dissertation into a book, and I’m sure the hardest part about getting started will also be the hardest part about continuing: knowing how to limit the scope of the project. In terms of building my “archive,” I chose Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Ani DiFranco, and Tom Morello as my chapter focal points, because they create an interesting lineage of folk singers who changed the trope while harnessing technologies new in their own times. But how to leave out Pete Seeger? Joan Baez? Bruce Springsteen? Phil Ochs? Odetta? Steve Earle? Tracy Chapman? And so on, and so on. So I expect that a book would at the very least include Baez and Springsteen, because I think I can make the argument that they’ve done something unique along the trajectory I’ve been working. But I can worry about that after finishing the dissertation.
Harley Ferris is a 4th-year PhD candidate and university fellow, currently on the job market and finishing his dissertation.