Rivka Maizlish studies folk music, folklore, folk art, folk medicine – but she is not a folklorist. Maizlish is an intellectual historian, about to embark on a fellowship with the Smithsonian Institution to dive more deeply into the question, how did people in 20th century America define folk?
A PhD student in the UW–Madison history department, she studies the folklorists who found meaning in folk traditions and folk culture, and a debate that reoccurs throughout history based on what “folk” means.
“I got interested in that from a number of angles,” Maizlish said, “but the main thing is I just really love Bob Dylan.”
The singer-songwriter’s performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival inspired Maizlish to look into the debate over how Americans have defined folk. Dylan, who was widely known for his American folk revival songs, wore a leather jacket to the Newport show and played an electric guitar with backing from a band. The crowd booed Dylan at that show and subsequent performances across America and Europe. They were angry about the band, the guitar, and the “sellout jacket,” Maizlish said.