Again a bit of a rescue operation, a page to make accessible various documents buried on oook.info, and to inspire me to update access to musics materials.
So what happened to June and July? A strange summer, mostly unseasonably cool and foggy here in midcoast Maine, while sweltering ‘most everywhere else (fires, plagues of frogs, rain and more rain…). I put a lot of time and effort into four Convivium Questions:
- Words To Live By last of May 2023
- realizing the Beautiful, from adversity early June (Brian’s Question)
- on Community early July (John’s Question)
- And what next? mid July
…which l enjoyed working on but can’t really claim had any useful effect beyond my own sorting out of what I was inspired to discover and put into words, and of course plentiful Collection Development by way of book purchases to salve arising curiosities.
In photographic realms, just a few Flickr Albums generated, but no new ground broken by way of image projects, and no public display lined up until maybe next spring. I have ideas for Blurb books, but nothing underway. I now have the wherewithal to make good scans of a lot of old negatives from 40-50-60 years ago, and those might feed into books too.
And in musical realms, I continue to play for an audience of one, and to acquire irresistible new-old instruments via Jake Wildwood, but Betsy is of the opinion that there are Too Many instruments, so there’s a plan afoot to recycle some of the rarely-played via Jake.
Otherwise, the rapidly-approaching 80th birthday is beginning to loom…
One of the pleasures/trials/challenges of advancing age is the occasional experience of finding oneself faintly ridiculous. Sometimes it’s a consequence of some quest or quixotrie one has embarked upon, some exercise in futility or overweening bumptiousness which has turned out to be vastly more complicated and complex than one initially anticipated. That’s OK, nobody is watching the clock or running a performance review on your ass, or not yet anyway. Today’s case in point reaches back 20 years, or maybe 75 years.
When brother David (16 years older than myself) was dying, he wanted to hear a particular piece by Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1702) that he had somewhere on 78… a turntable that could handle 78s was quarried and hooked up to bedside amp and speakers, and the 11″ disk was played. David had thousands of records (he was an acoustic engineer, founder of DBX, builder of Earthworks speakers and microphones, audio perfectionist, but not the most orderly of folk), so just finding that one was an adventure in itself.
Lately I’ve been curating my own mountain of vinyl and figuring out how to make the collection(s) more accessible. My solution has been to stick numbers on the albums (around 2500) and photograph their covers, then make web pages with pictures of albums belonging to the (very) various categories, so that I can leaf through the visual catalog and find, for example, a particular obscure Persian ney album, or specific gamelan performance, or Bach chorale, or… and put that prize onto a turntable and step back in time to remember former encounters with the music.
And so the barn now has glorious sound capabilities, analog and Bluetooth digital, downstairs in the Museum and the Shop (Cambridge Soundworks speakers) and upstairs in the Auxiliary Library (Earthworks speakers). I’ve been figuring out how to access and move amongst the various media, including cassette tapes, CDs, mp3s, and streaming Bluetooth services, as well as vinyl and shellac. And while I was sorting and cataloging and tagging, I came across that Buxtehude 78. This morning I woke up wondering if I could play the record through the amps and speakers, and sure enough I exhumed that 78-capable turntable (complete with 78-specific stylus) and the record was playable after 20 years of hibernation.
Next question: could I sort out a pathway from the 78 to a digital recording? In effect, an analog to digital conversion, should be easy. And probably is, if you know what you’re doing or are willing to try a lot of solutions that ought to work …play into a CD writer, or make a cassette tape, or perhaps run the signal from the turntable and through a preamp and then somehow pass that through USB to Audacity editing software on the laptop… It all sounds feasible, given the right connectors and the proper curses to make bits of hardware accessible to one another. But for a lot of good reasons it doesn’t quite work as well as it seems that it should… and that’s what I spent most of the day messing with, learning a lot about paths that didn’t connect and might work if I had the right bit of equipment.
By 4 PM I was at an impasse with connectors and jacks, and was figuring to do other things for a while, and attack the problem again in the morning. I thought maybe I should just see if the interwebs could tell me anything about the 78 record recorded in 1946… so I searched for title and performer (Axel Schiǿtz) and mirabile dictu up came a YouTube video of the exact precise very recording, with none of the surface noise and pops and clicks of the shellac original. I could actually hear the words, and thus have some idea of what brother David heard all those years ago (before there even was vinyl) and kept in his memory all his life. Here it is:
Aperite mihi portas justitiae
Open to Me, Gates of Justice
So the faintly ridiculous part of this was that I didn’t ask Google first, I who generally pride myself on knowing my way around the worlds of Information that I’ve inhabited all my life, and that I’ve kept up with pretty well. I was stuck on the realia of that 78, on the story from David’s last days. But now I have a slightly better understanding of where he was at (Gates of Justice indeed…), what he thought about, and how he responded to the intricately structured sound of a rather obscure Danish/German mid-Baroque musical eminence, as interpreted by an even more obscure Danish singer.
Our UPS dude said to Kate today, “What does your dad do up there in the barn?”. Her answer: “Who the hell knows…”
I spent quite a bit of the last fortnight wrangling the Question “how about we explore the roles music has played in our lives?” which is for me something between a sheer impossibility and a marvelous opportunity. oook.info/Conviv/musics0.html is the summary collection of pointers that I arrived at, many of them YouTube videos, but a week later I’d probably put up a whole different set. I continue to struggle with how to curate my collections: vinyl, cassette, CD, MP3, video, bibliographic, playlists (mostly Spotify), material from the various iterations of Cross-Cultural Studies in Music, and of course instruments.
Yesterday the day began with this advice from Kate:
And support your local bookstore
What actually matters to me includes thinking things through and constructing summaries of the process, perhaps for an audience of one. The blog is a basically harmless venue for such maunderings, and has the advantage of being distributable to any like-minded others out there. So things like this have a home where they can be found again at need:
Wovon man nicht sprechen kann
darüber muß man schweigen
Whereof one cannot speak
Thereof one must remain silent
…which has, among other things, to do with Silence, investigation of which has occupied me for the last couple of days. The subject came up via an eloquent post by Andy Ilachinski, which mentions “the infinite variety of silences that permeate existence” and references Notes on Silence and the accompanying film In Pursuit of Silence. I got and inhaled both.
And so I’ve spent the last couple of days bouncing around in various texts. Herewith some of my findings, each worth lingering over:
SILENCE and LICENSE are anagrams; both are forms of Freedom.
People think that their experiences are the reality and in fact, experiences are always interpretation, they’re always a construct. (Ross NS 264)
“Sound imposes a narrative on you and it’s always someone else’s narrative. My experience of silence was like being awake inside a dream I could direct.” (Maria Popova)
Any musician will tell you that the most important part of playing a piece of music, especially classical music, is the rests, the silences. (NS 276)
Louis Armstrong maintained that the important notes were the ones he didn’t play. (Popova)
“you are confronted with your inner noise, with your inner resistances.” (Sturtewagen NS 161)
“…persistent self-noise of the internal sort… ‘the interminable fizz of anxious thoughts or the self-regarding monologue’.” (Shen NS 207)
“I think it’s hard for us in the West to see silence as an end in itself… We think of silence as an absence and something negative…
Silence is like a rest in a piece of music—it’s not blank space, it’s a concrete space that’s filled with something other than words. (Pico Iyer NS 123)
“…as simple as shifting your attention from the things that cause noise in your life to the vast interior spaciousness which is our natural silence… the process of ungrasping, the process of opening your hand, of unclenching the fist…” (Ross IPS)
In a world of movement, stillness has become the great luxury. And in the world of distraction, it’s attention we’re hungering for. And in a world of noise silence calls us like a beautiful piece of music on the far side of the mountains. (Pico Iyer, IPS)
“Silence is a sound, a sound with many qualities… Silence is one of the loudest sounds and the heaviest sounds that you’re ever likely to hear.” (Evelyn Glennie)
“Modern people don’t feel moved or impressed just by living. In order to do so, we need to keep the silence and examine ourselves.” (Roshi Gensho Hozumi IPS)
Give up haste and activity. Close your mouth. Only then will you comprehend the spirit of Tâo. (Lao-tzu)
I also took this opportunity to reacquaint myself with R. Murray Schafer’s The Tuning of the World (“a pioneering exploration into the past history and present state of the most neglected aspect of our environment: the SOUNDSCAPE”), and to put my perceptual apparatus to work on the soundscape of a 4-mile trash picking up expedition. The sound of car and truck tires on the road was the loudest, most frequent, but still intermittent interruptor of silence; dogs barked at my passing in four places. My own footfalls were the regular punctuation of an otherwise almost entirely silent passage.
Schafer’s chapter on Silence provoked a brief dip into acoustical theory via Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894), whose On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music is a still-relevant exploration of the psychophysics of sound. von Helmholtz distinguished ‘non-periodic vibrations’ as “noise”, distinct from the ‘periodic vibrations’ that characterize music. Others (among them Claude Shannon) developed the notion of signal-to-noise ratio as a measure of the operational health of an information system. Noise is generally formless, seems to carry very little information, is inclined to the random rather than the patterned, and is that which we try to edit out of soundscapes as we pass through them. Anechoic chambers are sound environments that reduce noise to a minimum. John Cage’s description of his experience in such a space
Evelyn Glennie is another wonderful and inspiring re-discovery in the context of silence:
And here’s one of my favorite African music examples, a percussionist’s dream captured as University of Ghana postal workers cancelled stamps.
This bit of brilliance arrived a few days ago: Protobilly: The Minstrel & Tin Pan Alley DNA of Country Music 1892-2017. The Amazon précis:
This 3 CD reissue anthology is the first to track twentieth century American vernacular music of old time country, bluegrass, jazz and blues by tracing their beginnings in 19th century blackface minstrelsy and Tin Pan Alley.
Country Music is a genre driven by songwriting and publishing. This fact alone has given opportunity for songs to be refashioned again and again showcasing stylistic as well as lyrical changes over the past 100 years. The foundation of the American popular songbook traces its beginnings to the Vaudeville, Circus, Minstrel, Music Hall and Theater stages of the mid-late 1800s. The songs spread throughout the country and world creating a new musical tapestry that included both black and white performers of all backgrounds. Their songs and styles are presented in this three CD anthology.
By aligning performances from the earliest cylinder recordings with later 78 rpm, LP and CD versions, PROTOBILLY brings to life 81 historic recordings, more than half never before reissued…
Assembled by collectors and music scholars Henry Sapoznik, Dick Spottswood, David Giovannoni, and Dom Flemmons, this wowed me from the first cuts. I hadn’t realized that those Edison cylinders (and other brands too) had any relevance to the music recorded in the 78 era, or that the material captured in cylinder recordings had itself a considerable pedigree in sheet music and mid-19th century stage performance. Dom Flemmons puts it beautifully:
…songwriters, black and white, performed in the streets, theaters, music halls, medicine shows and circuses of a budding America reimagining the American Dream through song. The songs reflected and exaggerated the social climate of the world at that time. Like the internet memes of the digital era, Tin Pan Alley was not limited to unapologetically featuring songs that included ethnic humor lampooning working class people whether they be Irish, Italian, Jewish, German, African-American or Asian-American for the amusement of a paying audience. But it would be blackface minstrelsy, the songs that lampooned African-American experience, that would reach worldwide fame much to the chagrin of modern culture…
Black songsters pull songs of black buffoonery inside out and create humorous toasts of black ingenuity and excellency. Rural hillbilly singers take Broadway harmonies and give them the “high lonesome sound” of the Southern Mountains…
Here’s an example from Protobilly: The Arkansas Traveler seems to be datable as music and text from the 1850s, and was popularized on the vaudeville stage by Mose Case from the 1850s to 1880. There was a piano roll version by 1900, credited to Case. Here are three versions from Protobilly: Len Spencer (Edison cylinder 1902), Jilson Setters (Victor 78RPM 1928), and Clayton McMitchen & His Georgia Wildcats (Crown 78RPM 1932). And here’s a New Lost City Ramblers rendition:
The cylinder recordings I’ve heard before were so scratchy-noisy as to be almost unlistenable. The examples in the Protobilly compilation have been cleaned up beautifully, and I’m inspired to (re-)explore MAC’s (Michael Cumella) Antique Phonograph Music Program on WFMU, which has 23 years of archived programs (see list of artists played in those 23 years). MAC uses antique disk players, so you get a sense of how the original technology sounded to early 20th century ears.
Try this one: Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me (Esther Walker, 1919)
Spotify offers at least 100 variants of the song. Here are two:
Kweskin Jug Band and Sidney Bechet.
MAC did programs of cylinder recordings as well, with guest collectors. Try this one for a good introduction to cylinder technology (broadcast date April 15, 2003):
Earnest and Bogus have been away on a Guitar Heroes and Other Musical Influences field trip, an effort to summarize my own musical history, which remains a subproject “Under Construction” in perpetuity, but has for the moment stabilized enough to feel distributable. I’m plunging back into the larger project of corralling Nacirema musics, but also being diverted into exploration of thousands of downloaded video clips.
“Hm.” I remember thinking. “Need to provide entrée to the collectors who found, preserved, annotated, packaged, released, and loved this music. And to the venues and mass media outlets that brought it to broader publics…” and the more I look into the background, the more stuff I find to explore and include, so more searches get done, more stuff gets ordered and read and heard. Case in point:
Just flew in through the transom: The Harry Smith B-Sides (“the flip side of 78-rpm records that Harry Smith included on the Anthology of American Folk Music”).
Who needs this? Certainly the music-obsessed, those who have grown up with the Anthology (1952, reissued on CDs 2007… and download !!liner notes!!) and its sequelæ Anthology Of American Folk Music Volume 4 (Revenant Records 2000) and The Harry Smith Project: The Anthology Of American Folk Music Revisited (2006), and the lucky few who followed gadaya’s labor of love MY OLD WEIRD AMERICA An exploration of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music blog when it was alive for downloads of the Variations.
The B-Sides are fully as revelatory as the 84 cuts on the original Anthology:
a mirror image of the Anthology… a way to hear the complete statement of each 78RPM disc… as they were originally released in the 1920s and 1930s…
Most people interested by the Smith Anthology will agree that it stands as an esoteric beacon outside the whole dysfunctional culture system. Just like when it was first issued in 1952, you still won’t hear the music of the Smith Anthology on the radio, on TV or on the front pages of the internet…
By releasing his Anthology to the audience of Folkways Records, Harry Smith dropped an extraordinary rural working class culture bomb on a New York City world of artists, bohemians, radicals, and city musicians… (Eli Smith, B-Sides liner notes)
A New York Times story on the B-Sides: How to Handle the Hate in America’s Musical Heritage
The saga of recording Black musicians in the 1920s was somewhat more haphazard. There was a booking agency for the Black vaudeville circuit, the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA, referred to by Ma Rainey as ‘Tough On Black Asses’) that dealt with jazz, comedians, dancers and (mostly female) blues acts (Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith). Country blues artists were mostly too small-time and local for TOBA, and were recorded in studios outside the South (e.g., “Paramount Records, based in Port Washington, Wisconsin. The company was a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company, who also made phonographs…”) but the musicians were recruited by
“field scouts” [used] to seek out new talent, though this is a somewhat grand name for men the likes of HC Speir, who ran stores in the South and simply kept an eye out for local musicians. Through Speir they recorded Tommy Johnson and, most importantly, Charley Patton. It was Patton that took Son House, Willie Brown and Louise Johnson to Paramount’s new studios in Grafton WI in 1930.
Several record companies had catalogs of “Race Records” made for a specifically Black rural public, and it is these disks that were rescued by record collectors in the 1960s.
Thinking about mass media and Nacirema musics, one of the constants for most of the last century has been Grand Ole Opry, which was first broadcast from Nashville in 1925 and came to blanket the rural South with versions of aural and, eventually with TV, visual imagery of regional culture. Separating the authentic and vital from the stereotyped and bogus is challenging, and just how accurate and inclusive the picture was/is/can be argued endlessly. The intrusions of commercial elements are everywhere, and might as well be acknowledged while we hunt for whatever purity they blanket. Resort complexes like Opryland USA and Dollywood and Branson MO and Graceland have drawn crowds seeking ‘authentic’ experiences, and have provided income for entertainers.
The cultural complexity of the Showcase experience is exemplified by Bascom Lamar Lunsford (1882-1973), who was a lawyer, performer, researcher, field collector, impresario, and tyrant for the cause of what he spoke of as “mountain music.” His Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville NC (first in 1928) was the paradigm for many other folk festivals.
Lunsford himself despised the commercialism and cultural nonsense he saw in Asheville’s Rhododendron Festival, and opposed the stereotyping of mountain folk as backward and ignorant. Still, as a performer he could produce material as bogus as Good Old Mountain Dew
A documentary on Lunsford, This Appalachian Music Man Lived A Beautiful Life, in which Alan Lomax shows up:
and David Hoffman’s Bluegrass Roots 1965 was filmed in a mountain tour conducted by Lunsford:
John (1867-1948) and Alan (1915-2002) Lomax are giants in the history of discovering and recording Nacirema music in the field. A site from the Musical Geography Project offers maps of Lomax travels. John Szwed’s biography of Alan Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World is excellent, and Duchazeau’s Lomax: Collectors of Folk Songs is a charming graphic-novel portrayal of a 1933 Lomax collecting foray into the South. Among the interesting videos on Alan Lomax:
Cultural Equity has a vast collection of Alan Lomax field materials
Wikipedia lists more than 50 American folk song collectors, and American Folklife Center has a page of women collectors, including Frances Densmore (1867-1957), Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle (1891-1978).
Mike Seeger’s fieldwork in Appalachia brought Dock Boggs (1898-1971) to modern audiences and covered a wide range of southern styles of music and dance. Just Around The Bend: Survival & Revival in Southern Banjo Sounds was his last documentary film, and there are several documentary CDs and DVDs: Close to Home: Old Time Music from Mike Seeger’s Collection, 1952-1967, Mike Seeger Early Southern Guitar Styles, Early Southern Guitar Sounds, Southern Banjo Styles #1 Clawhammer Varieties & more, Southern Banjo Styles #2-Early 2- and 3-Finger Picking, Southern Banjo Sounds, besides his work with the New Lost City Ramblers, his sister Peggy, and various other musicians.
Record collectors inhabit a separate documentary world, well described in Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records.
…an intense, competitive, and insular subculture with its own rules and economics—an oddball fraternity of men (and they are almost always men) obsessed with an outmoded technology and the aural rewards it could offer them. Because 78s are remarkably fragile and were sometimes produced in very limited quantities, they’re a finite resource, and the amount of time and effort required to find the coveted ones is astonishing. The maniacal pursuit of rare shellac seemed like an epic treasure hunt, a quest story—an elaburate, multipronged search for a prize that may or may not even exist. (pg. 4)
Among collectors of 78s, Joe Bussard stands out as a National Treasure. A Fretboard Journal profile introduces his rather unique personality:
Joe Bussard has an interesting theory: Musical forms seem to lose their value when the electric bass is introduced. “That goddamn electric bass ruined everything!” he shouts. “I went to Trashville—I mean Nashville—in ’57 to see the Opry, and I asked for my money back, I’ll tell you that right now. They didn’t have shit I wanted to hear. Garbage! When rock come in, I didn’t have any interest in anything that damn dumb! Elvis and all that bullshit! I already knew better than to fall for that, buncha goddam shit for retarded 4-year-old kids!”
but its essence is best appreciated in videos:
Joe has been very open-handed with his collection, making tapes for people and contributing to a vast array of compilations. There’s a video Desperate Man Blues: Discovering the Roots of American Music that I’d love to get my hands on. Looks like I had it in 2007 from Netflix, and I’ve requested it again.
Besides his Fonotone Records recording business which ran for a decade or so and lately produced a remarkable compilation
Massive 5CD set of American Primitive music unearthed for the first time (in various styles: Jug Band, Country, Old Time, Blues and Bluegrass), recorded and documented by Joe Bussard’s 78-RPM Fonotone label, 1956-1969 — not one track previously on CD before. Incredible package featuring 131 tracks over 5 discs, 160-page perfect-bound book, 17 full-color postcards, 3 record label reproductions in souvenir folder and a nickel-plated Fonotone Records bottle opener(!) — all packaged in a deluxe cigar box.
Joe Bussard recorded the young John Fahey in 1959-1960.
John Fahey deserves mention under Collectors for his part in the rediscovery of Bukka White and Skip James (both of whom had made mighty 78s in the 1920s), described in detail in Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist, and for the research he did on Charley Patton, and other Revenant Records collections American Primitive, Vol. 1: Raw Pre-War Gospel (1926-36) and American Primitive Vol . 2 – Pre-War Revenants (1897 – 1939).
Fahey’s life was a trainwreck, with occasional bright interludes, and is perhaps best discussed under Guitar Heroes.
The fraternity of collectors is nicely documented via Mainspring Press (“Information and Resources for Historic-Sound Enthusiasts”, including Discographies). Their blogroll provides links to Excavated Shellac (mostly concerned with non-US sources) and Sound of the Hound (“dedicated to the story of how recording came into being and how it conquered the world”). See also Amanda Petrusich on John Heneghan and The Great 78 Project at the Internet Archive.
Some collectors have specialized in “ethnic” 78s (a whole other subset of my musical world), including Dick Spottswood (who grew up near John Fahey) and Ian Nagoski (of Canary Records and Fonotopia) and Karl Signell. See also 78rpm Collector’s Community (“a social network for collectors of 78rpms recordings, phonographs, memorabilia, recording machines and the history of the 78 rpm recording era”)
(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.
I was brought up short today by Alex Abramovich’s “Even When It’s a Big Fat Lie” in LRB, a review of Ken Burns’ Country Music, when I realized that I had been blithely ignoring the counterfeit nostalgia and encoded racism that clings to (or is perhaps at the core of) the genre. Music does carry multiple messages, serves various purposes, and is heard and interpreted in multifarious ways by different audiences and at different times. None of that should surprise—it’s just what Culture does, and there are cognate issues of the Dark Underbelly in Blues, in Rock’n’Roll, in the the various worlds of jazz, in “folk music” generally, and in High Culture musics too. There’s plenty of opportunity to descry the Emperor’s Clothes at work, and to call out various -isms on display, if that’s where one’s interests bloom.
My paths into these issues were via genres that might sustain the labels “ethnic” and “folk” and that partook of the early-1960s Harvard Square ferment so well documented in Eric von Schmidt and Jim Rooney’s Baby Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years. Robert Cantwell’s When We Were Good: The Folk Revival broadens the focus, and Scott Alarik’s Deep Community: Adventures in the Modern Folk Underground kicks out the jambs with a collection of 10 years of articles from The Boston Globe, which also ventures into English and Irish folk realms. Another dozen or so books on specific performers and groups clamor for inclusion in this canon, and may find their way in as we proceed.
There are essential compilations of music, like Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and its sequelæ and (most recently) American Epic (also a PBS video series). And scores of others, CD and vinyl, on my shelves. These are revenants of commercial 78RPM records from the 1920s and 1930s, remastered and alive again. Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records is a fine introduction to the world of collectors, whose essence is skewered by R. Crumb (who is one of Them himself…):
Capturing the essence and visceral meaning of folk demands attack on multiple fronts, and John Szwed’s Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World is one port of entry.
…Alan’s public influence reached its peak between 1940 and 1960, when he was the single greatest force in bringing folksongs to American awareness… At times his influence can be seen in the distortions of the funhouse mirror of American culture, where a hard-fought idea can be perverted through the countervailing forces of social and technological interests and the discourse of fashion…
To those who knew Alan’s work only from his songbooks he seemed to be the pied piper of the folk, a kindly guide for a nostalgic return trip to simpler times.But he might have thought of himself as spokesperson for the Other America, the common people, the forgotten and excluded, the ethnic, those who always come to life in troubled times… those who could evoke deep fears of their resentment and unpredictability. At such times folk songs seemed not so much charming souvenirs as ominous and threatening portents. (pp 390-391; 3)
Robert Cantwell reflects on the experience of my own age cohort, we who were born during World War II:
…I remembered lovely Joan Baez, with her dark eyes and hair, her delicate shoulders, warbling to the plinking accompaniment of her guitar some British ballad in a voice somberly and exquisitely pure; images of Bob Dylan, the real inventor of punk, brazen, wasted, outrageous, excoriating racists and warmongers and capitalists in the drawling, swearing, muttering, doggerel-ridden songs we adored, and in the elliptic, visionary, lyrical ones that remade our world, but most of all felt again the defiant spirit in which we listened to them and the sense of strength and indomitability they gave us. (pg 15)
What wants explanation for me, and I trust to many of my readers, is the seven-year period between the release of the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” and Bob Dylan’s appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 with an electric guitar and a blues band. These are artificial but not arbitrary points; by general agreement they mark the boundaries between which a longstanding folksong movement, with elaborate political and social affiliations, emerged out of relative obscurity to become an immensely popular commercial fad, only to be swallowed up by a rock-and-roll revolution whose origins, ironically, it shared. (pp 20-21)
[I] declare that folksong, whether high or low, old or new, traditional or original, survived or revived, refects the deepest and most persistent of human dreams, and marks the human face and human habitat with their power. Often it is poetically subtle and precise, melodically and harmonically striking and fresh, elegant formally and structurally sturdy and ingenious, in performance a source of lasting inspiration and intense joy. Within its basic simplicity there is, in execution especially, a complexity that will always defy analysis. (pg 44)
The tunes I still attempt to play, the recordings that moved me, this or that unforgettable performance, have assumed over time nearly the status of persons—like brothers or sisters, perhaps, in whom one inevitably catches the old family resemblance, with whom one can always become reacquainted, in whom time collapses in upon itself, and yet who must finally remain independent, other, unconquerable. We cannot, finally, abandon them—for as surely as we must relinquish our youth, so must we honor and sustain the life force that is the gift of youth. As in any youth movement, what drove the folk revival was sheer erotic magnetism and beauty, idealism and aspiration, personal, social, and political striving, forces that, perhaps more than any other art, music is capable of communicating. (pp 45-46)
And von Schmidt and Rooney capture the feeling in the Cambridge air at the start of the 1960s:
Listening to music and trying to play and sing a few songs started to become more important than whatever was going on in school. For some it became a passion that started to smoulder inside. It was at this point that certain individuals made a difference. Some were teachers, some were organizers, some were sources of energy, instigators, and others were simply talented, musically gifted.
So, where no scene had existed before, one came into being. What had been smouldering before burst into flames. Jan Baez was the most prominent member of a group whose numbers were growing daily, as were their abilities as musicians and performers. More important still was the fact that there was an audience for this music. People wanted to hear it. It filled some need that we all shared in common before we ever knew what it was. Whatever plans we might have had before were to be totally changed. (from the Foreword)
Quintessential for me has been the New Lost City Ramblers: Mike Seeger, John Cohen, Tom Paley (replaced in 1963 by Tracy Schwarz). The Early Years 1958-1962 is a good introduction, and the liner notes are an essential accompaniment. An extract:
The New Lost City Ramblers will leave barely a blip in the history of the entertainment business, as they predicted in their jokes about their “long-playing, short-selling” albums on the Folkways label. But they have nevertheless earned the touch of immortality for their central role in our discovery of the folkloristic riches preserved electronically in the early years of our century. As individual performers, Mike Seeger, Tom Paley, and John Cohen had during the 1950s become interested in performance style in American folk music, exactly that dimension of the music which recordings uniquely capture. In 1958 they formed The New Lost City Ramblers with the explicit intention of performing American folk music as it had sounded before the inroads of radio, movies, and television had begun to homogenize our diverse regional folkways.
They studied and learned from commercial 78 rpm discs of “hillbilly” musicians recorded in what has come to be called the Golden Age (1923–1940), from blues and “race” records of the same era, from the bluegrass recordings of the post-war period, from the field recordings on deposit in the Library of Congress. In turn, they began their own field trips to seek out and record and learn the music of older rural musicians who still played and sang in the old way. Over the next twenty years, the Ramblers poured forth a steady stream of their own performances live and recorded, albums of their field recordings, and festival performances and workshops in which they introduced musicians they had met in the South to urban audiences of the folk song revival of the 1960s. Their lasting influence was greatest upon a relatively small but important part of that urban audience—those few who wanted not only to study the music seriously, but who also wanted to learn to play the music themselves, actually to be the heirs of a musically rich American culture which by the 1960s largely existed only in the scratchy echoes found on primitive recordings, and in the memories of an ever-fewer number of elders.