Ross Cole, "The Folk: Music, Modernity, and the Political Imagination" (U California Press, 2021)


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In The Folk: Music, Modernity, and the Political Imagination (U California Press, 2021), Ross Cole revisits the remarkable upswell of interest in folk songs in fin de siècle Britain and America. While the work of folk collectors such as John Lomax, Cecil Sharp and Hubert Parry seems primarily about the preservation of premodern musical cultures, Cole suggests that the anxieties about the disappearance of these traditions were inseparable from – and constitutive of – a critique of industrial modernity. That is, the preoccupation with folk culture in this period was as much about discontent with the present and imagining new visions for the future as it was motivated by a socio-historical interest in the vernacular musics of the past. Cole shows how the desire for ‘folk culture’ actually occluded the messy, hybrid reality of vernacular music making, and the lives of those who made it, as a result.

Cole makes the compelling case that what he calls the ‘folkloric imagination’ is shot through with a twinned politics of nostalgia and utopia, with both radical and reactionary elements lying just beneath the surface. The Folk traces how the invention of folk song by the collectors of the late 19th and early 20th Century was tightly bound up with contentious questions of race, nation, and empire that would come to an ugly head with the advent of fascism. By pursuing these threads into the present day, Cole shows how the same tensions continue to permeate the use and abuse of ‘the folk’ in contemporary political culture.

Dr Ross Cole is Lecturer in Popular Music at the University of Leeds.

Gummo Clare is a PhD researcher in the School of Media and Communications, University of Leeds.

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