(and surfacing topics to be expanded anon)
(but barely scratching the surface)
Here’s a list I made for myself of issues to explore:
- the “real folk” and the Tradition
- authenticity and interpretation
- versions and versioning
- collectors, researchers, profit seekers
- the True Vine
- the place of folklore scholarship
To begin with the last of those, I reopened a file folder of notes and documents from summer 1991, when I spent a couple of months looking into issues of librarianship and access in the world of academic Folklore studies. I also hunted up some books on Folklore that I’d acquired then (Dundes 1965, Dorson 1972, Brunvand 1978), but found them unappealing and pretty much irrelevant to my Nacirema musics Finding Aid, since academic Folklore seems uninterested in the commercial world that produced the shellac and vinyl and digital documents, and ditto in the earnest efforts of non-“folk” musicians to study and then extend the works of early 20th century progenitors. Far more useful than the academic texts are liner notes from albums and books by non-academic enthusiasts who are free of the carapace of academic disciplines. There’s still plenty of contentious territory—John Fahey’s How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life represents that well.
It’s worthwhile to look into the work of 19th and early 20th century ballad scholars (Francis James Child and George Lyman Kittredge, Harvard professors of Rhetoric and English who sparked interest in texts and comparison), the songcatcher collectors (Cecil Sharp, Maud Karpeles, a few others), and the extra-academic road warriors (the Lomaxes père et fils most notably) who went out to record the “folk” in the 1930s. These were especially effective creators and anaysts of the body of work that the folk revivalists of the 1960s drew upon. Alan Lomax (as a fieldworker) and Moe Asch (as promulgator) laid the foundations; Harry Smith, Ralph Rinzler and Mike Seeger understood the potential locked away in all those 78s from the 1920s and 1930s. And a ragged band of collectors went out searching for revenant 78s and so eventually provided the feedstock for reissue compilations. In some cases they also found the still-living musicians who had made the records. Folk festivals and college tours acted as fuel for a boom in interest that also spawned coffee houses and record deals for performers.
A few LPs ignited the smouldering tinder. Joan Baez’s first album (1960) was one such for many people, and “Silver Dagger” pinioned (maybe even created) a whole generation of folkies:
The Wikipedia article on the song puts the Baez version into context: one of many variants, not a Child Ballad (though several on the Baez album were), and covering the same territory of love-and-death that runs wide and deep in folk and popular musics. Deja Morgana’s summary is helpful, and even Thomas Merton was bewitched:
“All the love and all the death in me are at the moment wound up in Joan Baez’s ‘Silver Dagger,'” the man wrote to his lady love in 1966. “I can’t get it out of my head, day or night. I am obsessed with it. My whole being is saturated with it. The song is myself—and yourself for me, in a way.”
Fascination with particular instruments is another vein in the deep mine of the folk revival. The distinctive sound of the plucked string (guitar, banjo, dulcimer, mandolin…) and the powerful magnet of virtuosity (how does he/she DO that?) fueled the (largely unexamined) mania for playing that afflicts a small proportion of those who are attracted to this music. This minority is the feedstock of woodshedders and performers and instrument collectors whose obsessions underpin the vast edifice of tunes and drive the evolution of the various genres of popular music. And evolution there is, and has always been. For such folks, periodicals like Fretboard Journal and the now-defunct Mandolin World News (1978-1985) are tailor-made, and bits of lore like Ry Cooder’s instruments and David Lindley’s instruments are eye candy, the Stuff of which Dreams are made.
The life stories of the personalities in these musical worlds are a perennial fascination: how did they first become musicians, who and what influenced their development, with whom have they played, what demons have they wrestled with… A few examples:
- Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass
- The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir (Dave Van Ronk)
- Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story
- Been So Long: My Life and Music (Jorma Kaukonen)
- Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius
- Music from the True Vine: Mike Seeger’s Life & Musical Journey
Turning a passion for music into a viable career is perilous, and it’s has been true for the last century at least that life “on the road” is the lot of most who try to make a living from music: festivals, concerts in a string of cities, occasional tv and radio appearances, maybe recordings. Many also eke a living from session and sideperson work with recording studios. Austin City Limits, the NPR Tiny Desk miniconcerts, and personal YouTube channels are relatively new venues for performers, designed to reach wide audiences, but most “folk” musicians live pretty much hand-to-mouth. Needed here, and probably the subject of the next post in the series, is consideration of mass media (radio, TV, YouTube…), festivals and concert venues, and the infrastructure of the recording industry (A&R, studios, record labels)—stuff I know is important in the overall story, and missing pieces in the context of the Nacirema musics in my collections. Only a few of these are part of my experience, but they’re things I need to learn about as mise-en-scène for the music I experience by ear.
Meanwhile, a few videos of some of my own musical heroes:
John Hartford (1937-2001)
Master of Ceremonies for the inaugural Ryman Auditorium performance of “Down From The Mountain”, an absolute must-see concert film.