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Torching the Fink Books & Other Essays on Vernacular Culture

Archie Green

(University of North Carolina Press)

Preserving the Public Goods

Several years ago, I attended a conference on the intersection of music and politics. The individuals who convened the occasion seemed to believe that these two phenomena most effectively came together during the folk revival in the person of Pete Seeger. Therefore, what the world needed now was more agitators with an acoustic agenda, preferably one that the audience could accompany on the sing-along chorus. More than likely, that was why the weekend climaxed with a hootenany. I not only felt like I was in a time warp, but also could not comprehend why these individuals failed to realize that assigning such a didactic goal to music cheapened both the material and the message it was impelled to carry. Just when I thought we were going to be led in a rousing rendition of “If I Had A Hammer,” the oldest individual in the room slammed his fist on the table. He damned the names of the conference’s sacred idols and proposed that assuming they could provoke the present generation into activism was rank absurdity.


The speaker was Archie Green. Now in his 80s, he has led a succession of careers, ranging from that of shipwright and proud union man to university professor of Folklore and English, Washington lobbyist on behalf of the American Folklore Preservation Act of 1976 and prime mover behind the John Edward Memorial Foundation [J.E.M.F.] collection, the premiere holdings on folk and vernacular music in the country. A self-proclaimed “anarcho-syndicalist with strong libertarian leanings,” Archie can be said to have provided the intellectual and organizational framework for much of the present-day documentation, preservation and exhibition of vernacular activity in general and “labor-lore” in particular. He more or less pioneered this field and has forcefully advocated for its study of any manifestations of the human dedication to physical toil. Having been a working man himself, he laments the fact that we fail to cherish the individuals who earn their living by the sweat of their brow or that we cast aside the evidence of their actions and even the tools they employ to complete those tasks. We are inescapably surrounded by the fruits of their labor, yet all too often become enthralled by the consumption of material goods and ignore how they constitute a portion of the identity of their creators. In a memorable formulation, Archie reminds us, “Not every product is plastic; not every skill, robotized; not every craft object, uniform.”


That statement and the sentiment it embodies typify how sympathetic and emotionally generous Archie Green’s writing can be. He embodies the best kind of common sense; reading him, we are alerted, as if from deep slumber, to how labor and culture, the active and the contemplative life, are not divisible territories but part of a complex environment in which thought and action form an indissoluble whole. The manner in which he presents these observations has a clarity of statement and purpose that one rarely encounters anymore, bombarded by the various streams of jargon espoused in the academy. His writing can best be described by the words he uses to commend the etymological investigations of his late friend, Peter Tamony, a legendary, self-taught scholar of the nation’s speech. Archie states, he “eschewed grand design and singular formula—never hectored me with trendy phrases or blinding concepts—[and] although his studies were most imaginative, he saw himself grounding each word’s story in social events and chronological appearances.” A similar absence of abusive obfuscation or dislocated theorizing makes Archie’s writing a joy to read. That is not to say he does not pursue complex ideas or avoid an urgent agenda. Archie is, if anything, a agitator of the human spirit, one who impels his readers not simply to admire the skill of his formulations but consider how they might act upon those ideas in the course of their own lives.


Torching The Fink Books is a splendid collection of twelve investigations of the subjects that have drawn Archie’s mind for over forty years: “vernacular music, graphic art, word study, public cultural policy, labor-lore.” It includes his celebrated and ground breaking 1965 study of the origins of the recording of “hillbilly” music. So synoptic is this piece that we are still unpacking and expanding upon what it told us about the origins of that designation and the involvement of the music industry with the material it encompasses. He was one of the first to draw attention to the role of industry figures like Ralph Peer in constituting the genre of country music and assigning it the credit it was due as one of the nation’s’ principal forms of cultural statement. The fact that he, and others, used a pejorative term to designate the genre is not cause to dismiss these businessmen as oblivious to the value of their endeavors. As Archie observes, the term “hillbilly” possesses sufficient “semantic elasticity” to encompass all its users: the creators of that form of culture, the entrepreneurs who market it, the scholars who analyze it, and the numerous individuals who joyfully consume it.


An equal clarity of purpose and richness of presentation pervades Archie’s examination of the phenomenon of the “cosmic cowboy” and the manner in which it pervaded the environment of Austin, Texas in the 1970s. Like “hillbilly,” this term has routinely been taken as having a pejorative designation. Archie rejects this knee-jerk condemnation and commends the manner in which this coinage “holds always in bond the multiple images of guerilla, buckaroo, wrangler, stoic, dude, braggart, hustler, rebel, mystic.” Our pluralistic society has need, he believes, for such terms that can help “mark a people’s travels across borders of class, ethnicity, and region.” He concludes, we should despair more about our “fragmented polity” than the romanticization of rednecks.


This inclination to find the means of healing our divisions has particularly influenced Archie’s participation in the public sector, both as a cultural advocate in Washington, D.C. and as an organizer of the J.E.M.F. collection. Therefore, perhaps most valuable portion of Torching the Fink Books are the essays that advocate for the public dimension of folklore, the necessity to interfuse our civic responsibilities with our aesthetic proclivities. Those institutions that archive and exhibit the nation’s lore have to be, he demands, as complex and open to variety as the population they represent. Again, he expresses this sentiment with a striking clarity: “To see our archive as a uniformly contoured circle suggests dim sight. To sense it as a tranquil abode suggests only partial comprehension. The archive’s land-mass is irregular; its beaches, indented; its shores, varied.” Much of Archie’s life has been given over to assuring that our comprehension of the nation’s vernacular culture never be partial, and, whether we know of him or not, we are better off for his efforts.


At the front of this collection is a memorable photo of Archie. Barefoot, clad in a colorful T-shirt, his outer shirt rolled up to the elbows, his abundant energy belies his age and commands our gaze with complete engagement and effusive good humor. His writing attracts one’s intellect in a comparable manner and rewards it time and again with the evidence of a life well spent and a mind fully occupied. Take your shoes off. Dig in.

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