When was the last time you met someone or heard a joke that you would describe as “folksy”? In these cold, modern times it seems “folksiness” is becoming increasingly rare. What do we even mean when we use the term “folksy” to describe someone or something? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as the following: “1. Sociable, friendly. 2. Informal, casual, or familiar in manner or style (i.e. folksy humor).” In other words, there is a certain “innocence” to all things“folksy.” Certainly one conjures memories of everything from Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion and his tales of Lake Woebegone to “old-fashioned” sitcoms such as The Andy Griffith Show and distant spiritual descendant Newhart.
Coming out of an era of war and economic depression, Jane Feuer’s notion of “folk art” (represented by the phenomena of the “folk musical,” for our purposes) consists of an alteration and, ultimately, erasure of the characteristics of “mass art” to create itself. Utilizing “Bricolage” (tinkering with material at hand) in place of engineering in conjunction with spontaneity and (apparent) effortlessness in place of preparation, calculation and labor, folk art is capable of seeming to come off the cuff and from a human/personal place, rather than from a plan and any sort of obvious industrial mechanism. Folk art bespeaks of love or ritual value by valorization of the amateur in order to erase profit motive and the concept of professionalism – ordinary people become stars through love of the artistic process and the result rather than any sense of commercial appeal. Finally, folk art creates a communal atmosphere for creation and consumption, strengthening human relations – as it must have in its original incarnation as part of “primitive, folk” cultures, per Claude Lévi-Strauss (according to Feuer) – rather than the alienation of production and consumption through art as just another economic industry.
Lévi-Strauss’ concept of bricolage as appropriated by Feuer appears time and again in musicals, from Singin’ in the Rain (1952) to A Star is Born (1954), in which props at hand and “environmental choreography” play an key role in creating the atmosphere of the “integrated musical” in the unlikeliest of spaces. However, the integrated musical (one in which characters simply begin to sing in character as part of “everyday life”) becomes host to the “backstage community” (not to be confused with the “backstage musical”) – that of characters who star in the musical of their lives through passed-along songs, sing-alongs and community dances, even though the story is not about “putting on a show.”
Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) features a number of examples of these tropes of the integrated “folk” musical. The title song plays as “Tooti” ‘passes’ the song along to grandpa as she skips through the upstairs floor of the family home; in a “folk” musical, musicality itself is infectious. A communal youth dance in the living room to “Skip to My Lou” masks its choreography by being a community event, reinforcing the values of the folk musical in the process. This gives way to the “cake walk” between Tooti and Esther performed “spontaneously” to “Under the Bamboo Tree,” utilizing straw hats and canes from their guests as though they were their own (bricolage). A famed song on a trolley, appropriately titled “The Trolley Song,” is sung by Judy Garland’s character to and with several others on the way toward the fair grounds. The number takes the form of confessional on her part (think the back to school sequence of Grease much later), telling her community about the man she’s fallen in love with after previously singing about him to herself – as if it’s their business.
The “folk musical,” does not have the market cornered on “folksiness,” however. During the Depression, the notion of a folk-hero found its visage in the celebrity profile of the romanticized anti-authoritarian bank robber, ala’ Robin Hood. Such hard-boiled criminals as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, John Dillinger and the like caught the public imagination and set the nation on fire with the kind of romanticized notions of charming criminals that we see again and again in films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Badlands (1973), True Romance (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994), Kalifornia (1993) – and the list goes on and on…
Indeed, Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra (1941) was made, as Marilyn Yaquinto quotes Jack Shadoian as saying, “during the ‘tense and energetic perspective of 1941 [when] the Dillinger era of folk-hero bank robbers’ was being viewed with embroidered nostalgia” (68). Humphrey Bogart’s charismatic and (relatively) well-meaning anti-hero Roy Earle, fresh from jail but still pursuing a life of crime, nevertheless had a soft-spot for the underprivileged, such as a handicapped girl and a dog. It’s this soft-spot which, arguably, ultimately does him in. This sense of humanity and “innocence,” coupled with his love for nature, which in his death is equated with a sense of freedom, tie Earle to some of the same notions of “folksiness” that Feuer writes about – for a gangster, he’s actually not “so bad.” For that matter, Earle seems to have escaped from the big city gutters that killed “Little Caesar” (Edward G. Robinson) in the film of the same name (1930), only to perish in paradise, as it were, while the family from Meet Me in St. Louis fears losing their small-town cultural identity by moving to the big city, which Feuer might view as a potential reversal of the mass art-to-folk art erasure in the making. The family is, of course, relieved to discover that they aren’t moving to New York after all, and can retain their small town “folksy” family charm…for now.
Consider this, however: although “folk art” and the notion of “folksiness” seems to represent a kind of “innocence” and charm as often associated with small towns, it is nevertheless capable of masking unspeakable evil, which is certainly what David Lynch was getting at in small-town expose’s such as Blue Velvet (1986) and Twin Peaks (1990-91, TV). Perhaps that accounts for the presence and personalities in Meet Me in St. Louis of the irrepressibly morbid ‘Tootie’ (Margaret O’Brien) and Agnes (Joan Carroll). After causing a street car derailment and being scolded that she could’ve killed tons of people, Agnes retorts to her older sister, “Oh Esther, you’re so stuck up!” While this kind of dark humor is hopefully just a product of rural/pre-suburban boredom on the part of two precocious young kids, it nevertheless points toward a “fatal flaw” at the core of folksiness, and humanity itself – we are all deeply twisted in one way or another.
So, at the end of the day, are folk art its’ utopian values really everything they’re cracked up to be? Or is it an ideal we aspire to that’s finally, in this day and age of cynicism, irony and morbidity, untenable? One might like to think that as long as folk art exists, some scintilla of that innocence and incorruptibility of spirit still exists too. We can only hope.