Each year the History department awards its highest honor for excellence in graduate scholarship, the Loomie Prize. The Loomie prize is awarded to the best seminar paper produced during the previous academic year. All M.A. and Ph.D. students who have taken the proseminar/seminar sequence or a research tutorial are eligible. The prize for 2015 was awarded to Rachel Podd and Christine Kelly.
Rachel Podd‘s paper “Interrogating the Guaridoras: Women, Medicine and Magic in Catalonia before the Plague” was written under supervision of Alex Novikoff. The Loomie judges noted that it was based on rich source material, and offered a convincing argument about why and how these sources could be useful to scholars beyond those who specialize in 14th century Catalonia. Rachel wrote that “these documents offer a window… into a vibrant and dynamic world. Within them, one may find Saracens and Christians, men and women, as well as spells and incantations for the health of people and of animals. Through close reading and contextualization, they can elucidate the lives of individuals performing curative activities outside of the major civic centers of Catalonia before the arrival of the plague – what types of diseases did they treat, and how? If caught, what punishment could they expect from the ecclesiastical judicial structure?” Hence, Rachel demonstrated how these records sit at the juncture of vernacular medicine, episcopal control, and inquisition.
Christine Kelly‘s paper “Gender, the Popular Front, and the Folksong Revival through Sing Out! Magazine, 1950 – 1968″ written under supervision of Kirsten Swinth. Her essay is an outstanding example of cultural analysis built from the gritty work of data collecting. By categorizing hundreds of articles in the folk music periodical, Sing Out!, Christine developed a highly original thesis about the discourse of gender in the 1960s folk music revival. She overturned a conventional division between the leftist cultural movements of the 1930s, and those of the 1960s, showing that folk revivalists in the 1960s resurrected familiar tropes and narratives of gender from the 1930s. These were ultimately highly traditionalist, premising an anti-capitalist utopia on an idealized view of the American past where women remained tied to “traditional domestic and reproductive spaces” and “men were more responsible for carrying out the daily operations of political thought and cultural innovation that constituted the engine [of the] folk song revival.”
We reached out to Rachel and Christine for details about their work and how they developed the ideas and research for their papers.
Over the course of the 2014-2015 school year, I was a student in “Medieval Intellectual Cultures,” with Dr. Alex Novikoff. The course covered a wide geographical and temporal scope; my area of interest had always been late medieval England, but Dr. Novikoff’s class seemed an ideal space to explore a new location, if not a new time, and so I began looking for primary source material involving gender, medical practice, and law on the Iberian peninsula. Eventually, I came upon a set of transcriptions from the fourteenth-century Episcopal Registers of Ponç de Gualba, the bishop of Barcelona. What struck me first was the uniqueness of the texts. It is somewhat of a truism in medieval history that the majority of recorded voices are elite, urban, and male. These episcopal registers included not only those voices we might expect, however, but also those of almost a dozen rural, poor women, brought before the ecclesiastical court for working magic. By and large, and in contrast to the indictment against them, however, these women were acting as healers, guaridoras, albeit without formal education or licensing, and it was those curative activities which interested me. After translating the documents, I wrote “Interrogating the Guaridoras: Women, Medicine and Magic in Catalonia before the Plague”; through close reading and contextualization, I explored what types of diseases they treated, and how. If they were caught, what punishment could they expect from the ecclesiastical judicial structure? Those questions, among others, informed the text. My work is not complete, with regard to both Spain and the paper. In May I will be presenting a version of my project at the annual meeting of the American Association for the History of Medicine. Furthermore, last summer I walked from Leon to Santiago de Compostela as part of a Fordham Course, and I will be going again this summer as a graduate assistant.
Among the community of historians, literary scholars, sociologists, and musicologists, who look carefully at the contributions of the folk music revival in the cultural life of twentieth century American society, a standard feature of their source evidence includes Sing Out! The Folk Song Magazine. The most well-known magazine of the folk revival period, founded in 1950 and peaking in influence around 1965, Sing Out!’s high number of subscriptions and articles authored by key figures in the movement render it a window into the world of folk music that help to reshape the political and cultural trajectory of American society.
In the mid-twentieth century, a growing number of folk music aficionados and amateur artists, usually college age youths, turned to folk music to serve as a portal to another time, to transport them to by-gone era which they imagined as superior to the current context of the world they inherited, one of Cold War anxiety, military-industrial profiteering by an invisible but omnipresent power elite, and the anticipated blandness of their futures as organization men living and working in a post-scarcity age. Subscribers to Sing Out! joined a growing body of left-leaning activists who would seek cultural changes and political solutions to mitigate their dissatisfaction, protesting for civil rights, against nuclear activity and Vietnam, and for less management of student life on college campuses. All the while, folk music, a major source of musical accompaniment to the unrest of the 1960s, would motivate and unite activists of various kinds, and readers of Sing Out! formed a common community of those “in the know” about folk music’s role as an instrument of social protest.
Curiously, however, as I have researched this movement, I noticed that among the key changes of mid-century American life – in particular the rise of second wave feminism and the movement for women’s liberation – the articles of Sing Out! had little to say, and scholars, drawing from this and similar sources among folk artists and activists, had even less to say about the role of women and gender in a movement so otherwise passionately committed to achieving broad social change and advocating for greater social inclusion. I began to wonder why. I started to explore this question by exploring the life of Joan Baez, perhaps the most influential among the “girl folk singers” as a line in Sing Out! dubbed them, whose autobiography reveals that Baez often felt confused and flabbergasted by “women’s libbers” who urged her to tailor her songs to the needs of their message of radical gender parity, one that at the time she barely understood. And yet, it seemed to me that Baez very deliberately manipulated gender-based symbols to communicate certain ideas in her music – presenting herself as an earthy, long-haired, weak-willed falsetto, she lamented such social issues as pollution and nuclear war. This was someone who was using gender conventionality very deliberately to carve out a role for herself as an artist and activist within the folk song community that she was in, even while she felt ambivalent about the possibility that gender norms could operate strategically and often oppressively.
Later, I began to explore the long roots of the American folk music movement, so often confined in popular memory to the 1950s and 1960s, even though roots, jazz, pop, and Tin Pan Alley hits were already being labeled as a “folk,” an increasingly mass-produced and popular music genre, as early as the late 1920s and early 1930s. Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Alan Lomax, and Pete Seeger, all of whom traveled closely in Communist Party and other progressive political circles in these years, presented folk music as the “music of the people,” as they proudly called it in Sing Out!’s very first issue, the music of laborers and farmers of all races, who struggled to survive amid Depression era conditions of low wages and boss exploitation. I learned through the work of historians on the American left that folk music helped to facilitate the Communist Party’s aims during the Popular Front, in which the previously isolated and sectarian Party revamped its message, trying to make it seem more authentically “American” to attract more Party members. Barbara Melosh and other historians and critics have suggested that the Depression era and the Popular Front, unlike other periods of economic and social discontent, suppressed any chance of a feminist movement joining the fray of national concerns as men, now jobless or underemployed, tried to keep women out of the workplace to prevent job competition. It was the Popular Front which informed the folk singers’ intellectual, cultural, and political coming of age, and the Front which would determine their thinking on many matters, including matters of women and gender, for decades to come.
Though published after the Front’s supposed end in 1948, the pages of Sing Out! magazine are filled with Popular Front notions of class warfare, advocacy for racial equality, an idealization of the Soviet Union, and, in addition, a depiction of women as tied to domestic spaces, where they were alleged to be most naturally suited unless the dictates of capital pulled them away in the form of wage labor to support their families. As I looked through hundreds of issues of Sing Out! produced from 1950 through 1968, I noticed that women were consistently designated to advertisements and featured in folk song lyrics, whereas men wrote the vast majority of articles of substantive intellectual and political concern. In song lyrics and ad images, women were often portrayed as standard bearers for a mythical past, one that the folk revival thrived on inventing and reinventing, in which familial harmony, simplicity, and sharing – along with accompanying notions of women as domestic and dependent – challenged the sources of discontent in the present. It seemed to me that the Popular Front, this social and cultural reconfiguring of the country’s radical left, was responsible for the folk revival’s portrayals of gender. This representation of gender would persist long past the Depression itself, into the Cold War world and its later fragmentation through social and cultural protests. Folk singers and enthusiasts, both men and women alike, became socialized into a world that, as the life of Joan Baez reveals, couldn’t conceive of later feminist imaginings nor apply them to their music, even as they challenged other kinds of unjust or oppressive norms.
My hope has been for my article, “Gender, the Popular Front, and the Folk Music Revival through Sing Out! Magazine,” to elaborate on these issues. In it, I quantitatively break down the content of Sing Out!, including the magazine’s reprints of folk songs and news articles, to reveal the gendered character of Popular Front discourse in this mid-twentieth century publication. It critically interrogates what is currently a divide among historians of radical and progressive politics and culture between the “Old Left” of the 1930s and 1940s and the “New Left” of the 1960s, as here the two movements appear practically indistinct. It also seeks to recover the role of women artists of the folk song revival, and to parse out why the movement’s most substantial printed cultural product, Sing Out! magazine, says so little about women and gender in and of itself. Though the essay points out the limits on the role of women in the folk revival as derived from the Popular Front, it nevertheless explores a vividly gendered and unique world in its own right that lived in the imaginations of folk artists and their fans who contributed a great deal culturally and politically during times of cultural transition and unrest.
Congratulations to our two winners!!