It is 1966. A twenty-five year old Bob Dylan stands, beanpole frame and electric curls illuminated under spotlights, between the instruments of rock ‘n’ roll and his audience of baffled and fuming folk enthusiasts. As Dylan’s one-time fans have done for the past year from San Francisco to Paris, the crowd is booing. “This is a folk song.” Dylan says to them. “I want to sing a folk song now,” he calls above the din. With the incantation “folk song,” Bob Dylan transforms the boos into roaring cheers and applause. “I knew that would make you happy,” he teases.
My dissertation project began as an examination of mid twentieth-century scholars of mid nineteenth-century American literature, such as Perry Miller and F.O. Matthiessen. In the course of investigating the intellectual context of the scholars who created the first canon of American literature, I discovered a number of interesting characters who worked as social scientists in the burgeoning field of American folklore studies in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Cowgirls, frontiersmen, outcasts, mystics, Native-Americans, sons of immigrants, and daughters of slaves, these social scientists reminded me of the characters that populate so many of Bob Dylan’s song. As students, professors, journal editors, field workers for federal programs like the WPA, members of the American Folklore Society, or simply folk enthusiasts, they uncovered, collected, analyzed, and popularized tall-tales, superstition, myths, folk songs, and murder ballads. Often these folklorists were as unusual– both in their relationship to their context and in their temperament– as the characters in the songs and stories they recorded.
As a rising star in the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s, Bob Dylan drew upon the work of professional and non-professional folklorists who, in the decades before, had collected folk tales and recorded and published folk songs across the United States. Dylan was in no way unique in going back to the work of early folklorists. The 1960s folk revival in music grew directly from a lager folk movement in literature and social science, beginning in 1889 with the creation of the American Folklore Society, but gaining momentum and significance in the 1920s. I have become captivated by this story, and my dissertation has shifted focus. I now aim to examine the development of American folklore studies, and the broader folk movement that grew out of it, asking what cultural or political need early folklorists tapped into, and what they created that allowed the simple words “folk song” to mollify the hostile crowds at Dylan’s concerts in the United States, Australia, and Western Europe.
The quest to uncover American folklore represents a cultural and intellectual movement based on repossessing a hidden, repressed, uncanny American past. Neither modernist nor anti-modern, this cultural and intellectual tradition valued imagination and poetry over science, prized mystery over naturalism, and embraced a radical anti-historicist philosophy of history. Many of the early folklorists were women, Jews, African-Americans, Native-Americans, or others excluded from academic social sciences or from full citizenship in American society. They used this rich repository of hidden and unsettling stories about America to dissent from the dominant political culture, and they used the methods and tools of social science not to clarify, but to make the United States and American history more mysterious, more chaotic. Their work insisted on the existence of an alternative America where they could discover themselves.
Historians have argued that American social science grew from wide-spread commitment to naturalism, Progressivism, modernism, Protestant ethics, and Victorian sensibilities, but scholars who have produced valuable work on the development of professional history, sociology, economics, psychology and other similar fields, have not examined the American Folklore Society or the work of American folklorists as part of the discourse of social science. Scholars such as John and Alan Lomax, Harry Everett Smith, J. Frank Dobie, Zora Neale Hurston, Benjamin Botkin, Constance Rourke, Carl Sandberg, and Dorothy Scarborough often considered themselves social scientists, but represent an intellectual tradition completely opposed to the modernism, naturalism, historicism, Progressivism, and Pragmatism that still dominates most characterizations of mid twentieth-century U.S. intellectual life.
Coming at the height of progressive history, the folklore movement also represented a challenge to the methods, goals, and assumptions of the history profession. Uncovering this movement represents a similar challenge to the historiography of this period, dominated by Richard Hofstadter’s The Progressive Historians (1968). As folklorist and song collector Harry Everett Smith wrote in the 1950s, “historical facts served hierarchy, while [folklore and folk tradition] was liberating because it grew from a voluntary personal response to the repertory of the past.”  Thus, in addition to offering a different view of the development of social science and its relation to U.S. thought and culture, this chapter creates a new canon of historical consciousness in the United States, examining figures critical of professional or progressive history.
I am also interested in the tension between individual and society that lies at the heart of the idea of “folk.” Although folk songs and folk tales often celebrate the unique individual, the outcast, or the criminal who stands outside society, much of the American fascination with folk grew from a desire to celebrate the culture of “the people” in the aggregate, and to put folklore to work in the service of political populism during the Popular Front and the Civil Rights Movement.
This tension between individual and society culminated in the conflict between Dylan and his fans. According to Dylan, folk music was “based on myth and the Bible and plague and famine and all kinds of things like that which are nothing but mystery.” Speaking of songs about “roses growing right up out of people’s hearts and naked cats in bed with spears growing right out of their backs,” Dylan asserted: “its all really something that nobody can touch.” Furthermore, Dylan separated the idea of folk from the politicized protest-folk song: “All those songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese, they’re not going to die. . . . Songs like “Which Side Are You On?” and “I Love You Porgy” – they’re not folk music songs; they’re political songs. They’re already dead.” Folk music, Dylan argued, was “too unreal to die.”
Dylan’s conflict with his fans over the meaning of folk also points to one more important theme in the story of creating a canon of American folklore and the attempt to recover and reenact a certain American past: once a canon is created, how can it be kept alive and relevant? Once artists and thinkers have repossessed the past, how do they keep the past from possessing them?
I hope to continue to blog about these and other questions as I continue to explore the fascinating world of American folklore and the men and women who sought to uncover it.
 Dylan then proceeded to play his newly released “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” which no one would describe as a “folk song.”
 See, Thomas Haskell, The Emergence of Professional Social Science (Baltimore: 1977); Andrew Jewett, Science, Democracy, and the American University (Cambridge: 2012); Wilfred McClay, The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (Chapel Hill: 1994); Dorothy Ross, The Origins of American Social Science (Cambridge: 1991).
 Harry Smith, quoted in Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic (New York: 1997), 100.
 Bob Dylan, quoted in Marcus, 114.