Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Media Studies


Nick Dyer-Witheford


American folk music gatekeepers have been rightfully critiqued for positing problematic naturalizations of authenticity. Yet, there are underexplored thinkers and artists across the history of folk music whose relationship to media is more complicated. By drawing on the field of media archeology, this dissertation explores the various diagrams and models of communication that can be pulled from the long American folk revival. Media archeology as described by such thinkers as Jussi Parikka and Siegfried Zielinski is not a conventionally linear means of narrating media history; media archeology rather seeks to uncover forgotten and all-but-lost potentialities within our historical media ecologies. In this way, drawing also on the work of Friedrich Kittler, Marshall McLuhan, and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, I explore the subterranean but vivid discourse on technology offered by several key players in American folk music history.

I begin by closely reading the work, writings, and eclectic projects of Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger. Lomax’s anthropological and folkloristic research was grounded in a myriad of both analogue and digital media; he pioneered the use of sound-recording technology in the field, used IBM mainframes to analyze musicological data in the sixties, and even experimented with personal computers and multimedia software in the eighties and nineties. I probe Lomax’s writings to find an anomalous and productive conception of the digital. Second, I look at Pete Seeger’s complicated relationship to McLuhan; despite his problems with the Torontonian superstar, Seeger’s own thought works towards a similarly medium-specific understanding of resistance. Chapter 3 considers Steve Jobs’s and Apple’s mobilization of Bob Dylan’s work and star image. Although Apple’s effacement of the machine has roots in Dylan’s own artistic lineage (via Romanticism), we can also find a post-humanist Dylan—one interested in noise, machines, and parasites. The final chapter explores through-lines between the “Hootenanny” parties held by Woody Guthrie and his friends in the early 1940s and more recent mobile, music-making iPhone apps, with a final stop at the Occupy movement’s “People’s Microphone.” These exploratory case studies bring to light a set of connections and convergences between digital history, folk music, and critical theory.