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Middlebrow Knowingness in 1950s San Francisco: The Kingston Trio, Beat Counterculture, and the Production of “Authenticity”

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The Kingston Trio was among the most commercially successful and influential music groups in American history. The trio's records, beginning in 1958, demonstrated the immense commercial viability of folk songs, paving the way for the folk music revival of the 1960s and the subsequent, folk-inspired singer-songwriter movement that continues to this day. Drawing upon the work of Pierre Bourdieu and other scholars regarding taste culture, this study argues that the trio's meteoric rise in national popularity was due to the group's ability to carve a middlebrow niche between Cold War conservatism and a nascent countercultural movement rooted largely in 1950s San Francisco. Specifically, the trio's music and performance style tapped into counter-cultural anxieties regarding authenticity, masculinity, race, and intellectualism. At the same time, the trio dismissed such issues via self-deprecating humor so that their records were at once provocative and politically acceptable for mass consumption.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: February 1, 2010


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