Folk pop: the classic Mail Pouch Tobacco ad gets the meme treatment. For better health.

I’ve never bothered to discern what Pierre Bourdieu would probably brand the “echelons of taste” that distinguish “folk” from “pop”.  Their thematic intersection owes a great deal to the fact that they share a prosaic, anti-elitist undercurrent, but the commonalities probably don’t extend much further.  While both folk and pop eschew the highbrow ethos that usually comes with well-financed creative ventures, many artistic movements that harness the “pop” moniker actually achieve considerable mainstream acceptance, as well as the inevitable payoffs that accompany this. That’s why they’re pop-ular.   A lot of “pop” might be either lowbrow or middlebrow, but a handshake among fatcats at a corporate boardroom seals the deal—that or the approving signature of a wealthy benefactor.  Conversely, “Folk” movements nearly always begin from a person with very humble means, who follows his or her muse.  If the folk artists capture the public eye, they succeed as a niche or genre effort, potentially through a corporate broker (sensing their possibility for mainstream acceptance) who propels their popularity.  Without that corporate broker, the folk artists simply cannot disseminate their art easily or quickly, no matter how high-quality it may be.  But then, if similar artistic initiatives from the folk artist receive heavy financial backing, don’t they at some point morph into “pop”?  Or even “folk pop”?

So folk and pop are different, but not mutually exclusive.  It’s not helpful to speak at length about such fuzzy concepts without offering some examples.  I’ll concede that I never read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I know that it achieved unprecedented and unexpected success initially as a self-published ebook—building up steam over many months after beginning as an obscurity, as most self-published authors do.  Once its luridness earned Grey some notoriety, there was no stopping it, or its author: E. L. James released a series of sequels and spinoffs, then a film trilogy, and—much to my surprise—a classical album.  (And yes, it inspired quite a few parodies.)  A billion-earning franchise owes its origins to a work of fan fiction originally intended to appeal to aficionados of the Twilight book/film franchise.  And, against all odds, Fifty Shades of Grey then became a more adult-oriented franchise in itself, rivaling Twilight in popularity.  It may have caused literary critics to roll their eyes, but they did the same to Twilight.  A grassroots success doesn’t have to meet elevated standards of quality to be popular; folk, pop, and folk pop can operate outside those echelons of taste.

Meanwhile, the 1987 blockbuster Dirty Dancing barely eked out a theatrical release; low-budget and “indie”, the distributors perceived the sensitive abortion subplot and the niche setting (a summer vacation spot for affluent Jewish New Yorkers) would make it an insta-turkey.  Eleanor Bergstein’s script had sat in development hell prior to a third-tier company taking it on.  Since neither lead (Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey) was yet a household name, the distributors planned for a one-week release, followed by a rollout on videocassette just a few weeks later.  (The production company specialized in direct-to-video releases.)  But its opening weekend was strong and the initially mixed reviews leaned more on the positive side, prompting theaters to retain it; it topped the box office for several weeks, then became a worldwide hit, followed by a bigger hit on video.  The soundtrack became one of the best-selling albums of all time (14X Platinum in the US), then a prequel many years later, as well as a stage musical adaptation, and a TV remake.  Even the Virginia resort that served as the primary filming location offers themed vacation/tour packages.  (Alas, the Borscht Belt of the New York’s Catskill Mountains can’t reap much financial reward.  The warm-weather season probably wasn’t long enough.)

I’ve deliberately chosen these two examples that I already knew about firsthand, not only because I didn’t feel like doing much extra research, but because I wanted to cast a wide net.  And researching something arcane or obscure completely defeats the purpose of folk pop.  The James-authored book and the Bergstein-penned movie may seem to have little in common besides a female-centric fanbase and the surname “Grey”, but they both achieved widespread popularity despite very humble origins.  Fifty Dirty Shades of Dancing are not “folk” in the sense that they represent some sort of aesthetic or cultural practice disseminated over time, but they did start small and with relatively little financial backing.  Folk pop by my definition. The potential and the anticipated audience were both tiny at the beginning, and they earned their cogency almost entirely from word of mouth.

And that previous sentence effectively captures the line of reasoning necessary to reach this musing on folk pop: none other than the once-ubiquitous Mail Pouch Tobacco ads.  They’re still not that hard to find, though I’d imagine many are ersatz—recreations inspired by the originals.  Though a few are on the sides of brick commercial buildings—which I covered many years ago—the majority of advertisements urging “TREAT YOURSELF TO THE BEST” appear on wooden surfaces: namely, the sides of barns.  And given the usual prevalence of barns in rural settings, Mail Pouch Tobacco ads remain an overwhelmingly rural phenomenon.  They were the rural proxy for billboards.

Is that enough to make it folk art?  Are barn-side billboards “folk” simply because barns are rural?  And folk leans rural while pop leans urban?  Regardless, the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company out of Wheeling, West Virginia disseminated its product through advertisements during a peak period of 1900 to 1940, concentrated most heavily in the Ohio Valley, where smoking rates have always been high.  The advertisement practice continued through American Harley E. Warrick, who painted or refurbished over 20,000 signs during a 50-year career ending around 1993.  Thus, the Mail Pouch Tobacco sign became omnipresent and (to use a cliché) “iconic”: as much a representation of rural America (particularly the Midwest and mid-Appalachia) as a hex sign or charcoal-black horse fence.  And, though the Highway Beautification Act attempted to curtail billboards and the commodification of the sides of barns, the Mail Pouch Tobacco ads achieved such collective awareness and fondness that they earned exemption as historic landmarks.  And most of these ads survived past World War II thanks to one individual’s lifelong career effort: as good of an example of folk pop as any.  (Warrick sometimes had an assistant, but he became so good that he didn’t even need a straightedge.)   Mail Pouch Tobacco hasn’t been a popular commodity since the 1970s; Swisher International funded Warrick to keep up the effort, but then the campaign ended completely upon his retirement.

Alas, barns deteriorate quickly if unmaintained, and paint peels even faster.  If the barn owners do not elect to maintain their property, then the Mail Pouch ads fade.  Though still prevalent in about a dozen states, with each passing year they become harder to find.  Given that neither folk nor popular art forms usually achieve the survivability of high art, it’s no surprise that folk pop like Mail Pouch Tobacco is likely to fade into endangerment.

Then again, perhaps meme culture will preclude it from extinction.  The example below isn’t Mail Pouch at all, but it’s obviously Mail Pouch inspired:

This sinuous highway in Bloomery, West Virginia isn’t all that far from Washington DC; the associated Morgan County belongs to the Frederick, Maryland metropolitan area, and residents of Frederick routinely commute to the nation’s capital.  But Bloomery is remote enough that a cellular signal is hard to come by.  It’s the name of the pike featured in the above photo, and it’s also the name the post office uses at the 26817 zip code.  But no major road junction encapsulates Bloomery, nor does even a cluster of slightly more densely settled homes.  It’s little more than a bend in the road, and right at this bend is the painted side of a barn with this memetic instance of folk pop.  From a distance, it looks like Mail Pouch Tobacco.  Even if the color scheme deviates from the conventional (but not universal) red barn, it still has the word “Tobacco” in yellow lettering. But anyone with reasonable eyesight can tell that this folk pop is not Mail Pouch.

Folk pop in Bloomery, WV: a public health spin on Mail Pouch Tobacco barn ads

It includes a lot of defining features common to Mail Pouch barn-billboards: all-caps font, alternating white and yellow lettering, the admonition “TREAT YOURSELF”, and a white frame around it all.  In aggregate, these comprise a logo for a country brand popularized through repetition, perhaps another folk pop feature.  The campaign here in Bloomery begins with a verb, but instead of “CHEW” we get “QUIT” and, of course, a toll-free help line for that exact purpose.  It’s a public service announcement deploying the memetic capability that is only possible when something is widely known…like a folk pop ad campaign that ended decades ago but lingers through the surviving, dwindling painted barns.

It may seem like none of the three cultural artifacts I’ve explored here—Fifty Shades of Grey, Dirty Dancing, and Mail Pouch Tobacco adshavea great deal in common, but they all confront taboos directly, though with varying degrees of bravery: given that some of these involve less stigma over time (risqué dance technique) while others have acquired more stigma (chewing tobacco in public).  The intensity of stigma varies spatially too, depending on region.  It’s no small irony that this colored barn appears in West Virginia, the state where the now-discontinued Mail Pouch Tobacco Company began.  Equally telling is that most national public health data indicates that West Virginia ranks at or near the top in tobacco use, including smokeless, with a nearly 30% rate among adults, nearly triple the rate of use in the lowest-consuming state (California).  West Virginians would likely benefit from heeding the advice of this sign.

But Mail Pouch Tobacco is no more, so does it really matter that some nostalgic people people want to save a vintage ad?  Online grassroots initiatives strive to geocode the surviving Mail Pouch Tobacco barn locations, but the low level of maintenance and updates to the Mail Pouch Barnstormers site only corroborates the Sisyphean nature of such a catalog.  Neglect or apathy among landowners is only one consideration, and getting featured on a website isn’t enough incentive to refresh an old barn with new paint.  Meanwhile, despite the recognition of their cultural significance, Mail Pouch Tobacco barns face extinction because of a deliberate federal effort to minimize visibility of tobacco-friendly advertising: the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement of 1998, which phased-out the legality of promoting tobacco products on billboards, for which the barns and brick walls are Mail Pouch Tobacco’s closest equivalent.  It’s quite possible that the property owner of this “QUIT SPIT TOBACCO” barn-billboard received a financial incentive through a tobacco-cession program, nullifying the possibility that this public health meme earns folk pop inspiration.  If it exists due to big-government incentives, there’s nothing folk pop about it.

Then again, when Mail Pouch was in its prime, wasn’t Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company (and eventually Swisher International) merely the big-business equivalent of a New York publisher or a Hollywood studio, snatching up a scrappy product while minimizing the corporate presence to keep the product looking small and prosaic?  Don’t they call that astroturfing? And if Harley Warriack’s tobacco fields are astroturf, does any folk pop survive without pesticides and fertilizers?

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