“If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning / I’d hammer in the evening, all over this land,” sang the late, great Pete Seeger. Notice he did not say that if he had a hammer he’d submit it to peer review or place it in his tenure and promotions file. He’d hammer it. All over the land! Of course, while on the blacklist in the 1950s, a good stretch of Seeger’s land was made up of college campuses across the United States (Seeger was a nomadic pragmatist: he had a message to spread and, as far as audiences went, he would take what he could get). Still, Seeger’s signal would not be bent or broken or, least of all, subjected to any sort of bureaucratic metrics.
It is funny that I only came to fully appreciate Seeger’s commitment to communication (just one of the legacies of the folk revival in general) after working with the Czech computer scientist and programmer Mirek Plíhal, who is not even a fan of American protest music but who nonetheless embodies its ethics. I met Mirek in Dawson City, Yukon, where the two of us were artists-in-residence together at the Klondike Institute of Art & Culture in the spring of 2013. Mirek was there to work on an app about Newfoundland, and I was there to work on a collection of Klondike attempted murder ballads, but we ended up collaborating instead on a project called Artificially Intelligent Folk Songs of Canada (see www.folksingularity.com). Basically we built a computer that can access the totality of the history of Canadian folk music and generate new yet hyper-legitimate compositions from the source data. It was a strange, beautiful brew: humanism meets science, art meets technology, East meets West, etc.