Checking In On The Railroad Revival Tour

There’s this Railroad Revival Tour going on next month. Mumford & Sons, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros playing out west. That is going to be a good show.

A friend of mine linked me to Entertainment Weekly’s post on it, though, and that’s where my eyebrows went up. The press release frankly didn’t help much, either.

Winston Marshall from Mumford & Sons is taking a humbled historical perspective on the tour, saying, “To misquote the great Woody Guthrie, this train is bound for disgrace. Glorious disgrace. Woody rode with his fellow drifters around North America; we get to do it with a bunch of other musicians, although not strangers, from different corners of the world. A dream come true to be on tour with them, a privilege we get to do it on a train (one of Britain’s greatest inventions by the way).”

The Railroad Revival train is 1,500 feet long and consists of 15 vintage railcars from the 1950s and 60s, pulled by two locomotives. The bands will eat, sleep, and record on the train as they travel across the American Southwest, bringing their collaborative vision to fans from California to New Orleans. The bands will have equal billing and equal time on stage, in an environment that encourages creativity and cross-pollination. The entire tour will be the focus of a documentary that captures the spirit of the journey and gives intimate insights into the creative process.

When asked about the inspiration behind the Railroad Revival Tour, Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros commented, “From hobos to the wild west, trains have always been a fascination of mine. This tour is going to be rad.”

But perhaps Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show put it best when describing the tour, saying that “It’s bound to be one hell of a steel wheelin, railroadin good time…while the western country rolls by and the smoke rises blacker than musical notes pouring out of that stoked-up-and-chuggin iron chariot.”

The point of a press release is to drum up excitement and general interest. If they were coming within a day’s drive of Denver, I’d go, no press release necessary. But I look at those pull quotes, and I look at that EW post, and I can’t help but be reminded of something Greil Marcus wrote in The Old, Weird America (emphasis mine):

Art was the speech of the folk revival — and yet, at bottom, the folk revival did not believe in art at all. Rather, life — a certain kind of life — equaled art, which ultimately meant that life replaced it.

The kind of life that equaled art was life defined by suffering, deprivation, poverty, and social exclusion. In folklore this was nothing new. “Thanks to folksong collectors’ preconceptions and judicious selectivity, artwork and life were found to be identical,” historian Georgina Boyes writes in The imagined village. “The ideological innocence which was the essence of the immemorial peasant was also a ‘natural’ characteristic of the Folk and their song.” A complete dissolution of art into life is present in such a point of view: the poor are art because they sing their lives without mediation and without reflection, without the false consciousness of capitalism and the false desires of advertising. As they live in an organic community — buttressed, almost to this present day, from the corrupt outside world — any song belongs to all and none belongs to anyone in particular. Thus it is not the singer who sings the song but the song that sings the singer, and therefore in performance it is the singer, not the song, that is the aesthetic artifact, the work of art. In a perfect world, in the future, everyone will live this way.

That is a leftist translation of what began as a genteel paternalistic philosophy; it is a version of socialist realism. In 1966 folklorist Ellen J. Stekert saw it alive in the folk revival, and traced it to Communist folk music circles in New York in the 1930s. Woody Guthrie and Aunt Molly Jackson, she wrote, celebrated as great artists by their sponsors, were not even good artists, judged either by the traditional standards they were seen to embody or by the urban standards of their primary, political audience, which embraced them for political reasons — because the singers brought authenticity to the politics. “It was a pitiful confusion,” Stekert wrote. “It was monstrous for urbanites to confuse poverty with art.” When art is confused with life, it is not merely art that is lost. When art equals life there is no art, but when life equals art there are no people.

That press release hits all the important checkpoints for something like this: Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, vintage, the Wild West, and hobos.

Nowhere in the release do I see any kind of acknowledgment that those checkpoints, and thus the point of the venture from the PR perspective, are founded on history that’s problematic at best. No mention of bank repossession of family farms during the Dust Bowl, of the Great Depression that spawned the hobos (and a significant portion of Woody Guthrie’s work), of the systematic genocide that created the notion of the Wild West. And I don’t expect to see a mention of those things, either — not in a press release, anyway. A press release is going to have to lean on the romanticized history that passes for the mythology of the United States in order to sell tickets, which is what they’re after, especially in light of Ben Lovett’s remarks to EW:

Keyboardist Ben Lovett [of Mumford & Sons] recently told EW, “We have somehow yet to financially profit from what we do,” despite their debut album Sigh No More moving two million copies. Tickets go on sale Wednesday March 9 at noon EST. Here’s hoping that going hobo will push them into the black.

Like I said, I’d go if I could — that’s going to be good music and an excellent show. And I’d like to put some financial support behind those artists — or more so than buying their records, anyway, which I have. But I’d go because of the music, not the concert model. The concert model trades on bad history. ($5 says the documentary doesn’t mention any of that history at all.) These groups have proven they don’t need the romanticized claptrap to get us to buy their records. And I’d just as soon we followed the money, ditched the romanticism, and stopped confusing poverty with art.