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This is part of an authorized online posting of Harvey Reid's important book, "The Troubadour Chronicles," published in May 2020. It is available in paperback from this web site or from Amazon.com.

troubadour book cover

“I speak for the trees.” [The Lorax (Dr. Seuss)]

Chapter 5: A Lengthy Disclaimer

Since antiquity, people have been singing words in rhythm to their melodies and accompanying themselves on musical instruments, but only the tiniest sliver of what was done is visible to history, properly described or understood. As we open up the curtain on the long and interesting story of troubadours past, it will be helpful to take some time to fully remind ourselves how hard this is to do, and how little we actually know about what happened musically in the past, no matter how much we want to. Every discussion of history should do this to some degree.

Anything involving music in the past cannot be a scientific, fact-based expedition, and we’ll need to use our imaginations to fill the large gaps between things we know for certain. Theories are hard to prove right or wrong, and we should embrace the wondering as a form of entertainment rather than a search for ultimate truth. There is always reasonable doubt, and most evidence is anecdotal. Making a pile of facts, names and dates, and letting that collage of images and the accompanying sea of footnotes become the story is not enough, though that approach seems to be increasingly the norm for music history research in the age of the search engine. The lenses we use to peer into the musical past give us frustratingly blurry images, and any certainty we embrace might come merely from a situation of agreement among multiple people who are asking the same questions, rather than a set of proven facts. In the realm of orally-transmitted music, the past is even less visible, so a huge proportion of our knowledge of it is permanently shrouded in uncertainty. I will make copious use of quotation marks and words like “might,” “may have,” “seems,” “appears,” “likely,” “uncertain,” and “probably,” to avoid claims of certainty or triggering negative reactions from others with strong ideas contrary to my own. We have all inherited information and ideas from the past, we all now live on the banks of vast information rivers, but what we see or scoop up does not necessarily mean the same thing to all of us.

Perhaps in the future someone will find a way to extract music from old clothing or teeth, from the walls of buildings or from outer space, but presently we have none of those advanced and magical technologies like DNA, electron microscopes, mass spectrometers, radiocarbon dating, Hubble telescopes, MRI machines, muography or ground-penetrating radar that are revolutionizing many other disciplines. For any music that predates audio and video recording, we can only try to interpret the maddeningly small clues we have to work with, since there is so little genuine evidence. We cannot know precisely where the 12-bar blues, the “Travis” guitar, the Bo Diddley beat or Scruggs banjo styles originated, where square dancing, cross-harp harmonica or the “Georgia Shuffle” fiddle bowing technique came from, or even how yodeling, Hawaiian slide guitar or the “slap bass” style became part of country, jazz or bluegrass music. A written document might tell us that there was a guitar or a piece of music at a particular place or moment in history, but we cannot be sure how often or skillfully something was played by whom, what it sounded like, or whether it was rare or common when it happened. We will need to compare our mental images with whatever hard data we do have, and I will invite you to join me as we try out some new theories and address some myths, truths and popular misconceptions. According to Walter J. Ong, of the roughly 3000 known languages on Earth, only 78 have a tradition of written literature. Scholarship in musicology, especially in literate cultures, has relied extremely heavily on written evidence; music notation, books, letters, essays, articles and diaries are all major sources. Many of them only tell us what one person experienced or tried to share, and we cannot be sure that an anecdote or viewpoint from one person’s writing applies more generally to an era in time or an entire culture.

Paywalls and Freedom of Information
The digital revolution has gutted my income and livelihood, but opened up a treasure chest of music I can explore. Unfortunately, the vast and rich landscape of books, articles and other insights into the music are not following a similar path of universal electronic availability. Much of the research and commentary done, along with the deep and beautiful thoughtfulness of shelves full of books and articles are being replaced by short, generalized summaries on increasingly robotic internet music platforms, comments in chat rooms, tiny snippets of visible content, and whatever the Information Good Samaritans might have generously given us on public web pages mostly made by enthusiasts. For the most part, research libraries, scholars, publishers and authors have not made their recordings, books and archives easily available to all of us, like the old once-commercial recordings have now become. Some of the very best observations, analyses and sources of knowledge are sadly vanishing from the accessible information landscape, along with whatever field recordings have been put into libraries. I have been dismayed to find that in general the books that are used as college textbooks have become monetized far beyond anything reasonable, to the point that even used copies are commonly selling for $50-$100 in a world where comparable books sell for one tenth of that. Quite a number of still-relevant old books whose copyrights have expired are being scanned, reprinted and sold as new books at premium prices, even with pencil marks of previous readers still on their pages– greedily turned to printer’s ink as public domain resources are being re-monetized. The Gutenberg Project, University of Michigan, Scribd, the Library of Congress, Archive.com, Google Books and other platforms and entities are making many digital books, sound recordings and documents freely available online or at a modest price, but much remains inaccessible or expensive for anything published after the 1920s. Valuable writings are often in languages other than modern English, so even if something Johann Gottfried von Herder wrote in Germany in the 18th century is no longer under copyright, the English translations are if they were done in the last 95 years, and they are typically unavailable or expensive. If there are glaring errors or omissions in my research, likely the hidden truth was locked behind these vexing intellectual property paywalls. I would love to know more about the history of the guitar and of troubadour music in the British Isles between 1500 and 1900, but a great deal of the historical work that has been done is not available to me, and I am not curious enough to fly there or spend a thousand dollars on books in hopes they might tell me something vital. I don’t feel like paying a museum $75 to look at a microfilm of something to see if it might be interesting or useful. I was very anxious to read Douglas Alton Smith’s exhaustive and important 2002 book “A History of the Lute From Antiquity to the Renaissance,” said by many to be the definitive work on the subject, and published by the American Lute Society. I could not find even a used one for sale for less than $142, or borrow one from any library in my state. I was forced to do the 20th century thing and drive to a neighboring state library to allow me access to its dense 389 pages that contain Smith’s decades of research. That’s hard to do for a long list of books you might want to read and cannot get your hands on. What Google calls its, “ongoing effort to preserve the information in books and make it universally accessible” has been significantly thwarted by lawsuits from unhappy publishers, and the greatest library assembled since Alexandria in ancient times is being mostly kept from us for the better part of a century while lawyers snarl and the copyright clocks tick at a snail’s pace. Music is part of our collective heritage, but so are all the opinions, observations and explanations it has spawned. I constantly fear I might have missed important information and insights into my musical inheritance by not being willing to spend $150 for a book that might be of value and might not. If this is part of how academia defends its turf I am deeply disappointed, and the paywalled obsolescence of so much scholarship is unpleasant to contemplate and hard to embrace.

Music From the Past
Speaking of lutes, none of those made before 1500 have survived, yet it was the most popular musical instrument in Europe at that time, played by untold numbers of people for close to 600 years. All we have is some pictures and written descriptions of them, a handful of old instruction books, and a pile of crumbling manuscripts that may or may not really depict what people in general did with those lutes. The direct ancestor of the guitar is generally said to be a Spanish instrument known as the vihuela, that was in common use in 15th and 16th century Spain, Portugal and Italy. Stephen Barber and Sandi Harris tell us it was played, “throughout the whole social gamut in Spain and zones of Spanish influence … an instrument which was perhaps in its heyday more widely played than any other in Spain has come to us in the 21st century represented by but three known extant instruments and only seven printed books…” Those three surviving and heavily-modified instruments try to tell their story, along with a few pictures and descriptions and a handful of books that certainly don’t tell us much about the orally-transmitted music of that era. How could so much have vanished? French scholar Gilles Ménage wrote in his 1693 compendium Ménagiana that “The Portuguese having lost a battle, 14,000 guitars were found on the field of battle.” What an incredible mental image! Where did they all come from and where did they go? What battle? When?

Since antiquity, musicians, poets, jugglers, comedians, mimes, magicians, dancers and myriad other kinds of performers and entertainers have existed everywhere, and what we know about them comes from three basic sources. Some skills, melodies or words have been passed down invisibly as information embedded within the art itself; in the lyrics of songs, in the musical notes themselves, and even in the symbols and words in our languages. Music and language sometimes behave almost like elements of genetics, with words, expressions or symbols as flags resembling the “markers” that figure so prominently in DNA research. The second source is whatever we learn from written descriptions or drawings that were made by participants, witnesses or people who encountered those witnesses or participants. Written materials are the closest we have to scientific evidence, though they can easily be incorrect, or corrupted by time and translations, as anyone who has studied the Bible knows all too well. Translating is itself unscientific, and hard to question if you don’t know both languages fluently yourself. The third, and perhaps fuzziest of all, is oral history, which involves people remembering things and telling others. We forget and imagine things, and we embellish and distort our stories without even trying to. A folklorist collecting ballads found an instance where the line, “Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme” was being sung as, “Parsons age and grow merry with time.” The 19th century parlor song published in 1860 (now known as “Wildwood Flower”) that went, “I’ll twine ‘mid the ringlets of my raven black hair” was sung by the Carter Family in 1928 as “I’ll twine with my mingles and waving black hair...” The line about the flower, the “pale aronatus with eyes of bright blue…” became “the pale and the leader and eyes look like blue.”

Information has always evolved as it moves around, and music is no different. There were no airlines, phones or internet in the past, and people did not travel as much as they do today, but this doesn’t mean that everything stayed put, or was only learned from family members or neighbors. Ideas and people have always circulated in various ways, though the “information highways” of the past were of course vastly smaller than they are now. We only need to look at better-known disciplines to get some perspective on the pursuit of some kind of “provable” ideas about the musical past. Oral tradition accounts and folktales claim that Vikings, Basque fishermen and Welsh sailors discovered North America long before Columbus or Amerigo Vespucci, but they all neglected to build stone buildings or leave behind other durable and verifiable physical proof of their visits. Does the lack of documentation and evidence mean they didn’t go there? Because we have no physical proof, are we still allowed to imagine that they did, or to pass on the old stories that say so? Even if we did find an old European coin or datable artifact buried in the remains of a possible Viking settlement in North America, how can we be sure that it wasn’t planted there by one of the people who claimed to dig it up? That sort of thing has happened, and so have personal attacks and character assassinations aimed at people who really did dig up genuine old artifacts, especially ones that disproved theories created or endorsed by established and influential people. The evolution of archeology has been as much about the history of arguments between competing archaeologists as it has about the pursuit of facts and evidence, and the history of anything always exhibits these same types of conflicts. Too often the truth we want is obscured by what has become a popularity contest between competing theories. Offering you my critique of D.K. Wilgus’ analysis of Francis Gummere’s expansions of Francis Child’s ballad research becomes absurd, and one must really factor in Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which reminds us that all measurements and observations are affected by the location and abilities of the observers. (Unless of course, as Andrew Calhoun suggested, different observers are allowed to perceive Einstein’s theory differently.) Many of us look at our inherited folk music heritage differently, and we may easily reach different conclusions and attach different significance to existing evidence and anecdotes. Perhaps a concrete truth you could learn from academia is to be wary when you encounter something by a professor who is refuting what another professor has said.

I recently read an article in the Atlantic Monthly by anthropologist-turned-apologist Stephen Nash (titled “The Underestimated Reliability of Oral Histories”) where he publicly confessed that although he was specifically trained to ignore oral histories and folklore and to stick to “real evidence,” he has now come to realize that in many cases oral histories have preserved things better than written ones. It was nice to see an eloquent admission of this idea from an “insider,” but it underscores that we have a “fence” and a “credibility gap” in history, with groups of believers on either side of it who often disagree. Historians have long struggled to accept that cultural myths, as imprecise and improbable as they often become, are usually rooted in real events, though it is especially satisfying when both the scientific evidence and folklore agree on what happened. Many now-accepted theories about ice ages, pyramids, asteroids killing off dinosaurs and of continental drift, for example, were ridiculed and dismissed when they were first proposed. Scholars have weighed in and written allegedly “definitive” works on things like the origins of poetry, but they are often motivated by trends in scholarship, research funding issues, and personal agendas. In “The Women Troubadours,” Meg Bogin claimed that Robert Briffault knew Arabic and was an impeccable source of information about the possible Arabic roots of early European troubadour poetry. But J. A. Abu-Haidar claims to be an expert, and said that Briffault didn’t know what he was talking about concerning the possible udhri poetic roots of Provençal lyrics. You’d need to learn old Occitan and Arabic languages to even begin to determine who was right, and there is no assurance you’d feel certain you found the truth even if you did that. Admittedly, this is an esoteric issue, but it involves the bedrock and the “missing link” ancestry of the troubadour arts, and humanity’s understanding of that deserves to be as clear as possible.

About Paper and Parchment
Possibly the biggest thing that impacted music before the arrival of electrical and electronic media a century or so ago was the development of paper and the arrival of the printing press. Primary sources from centuries past are books or letters written by people who often had little peripheral vision, and mostly localized or provincial knowledge. Because old pieces of paper are so rare, beautiful and valuable, and seem to offer such tangible proof of something from the past, we can easily attach excessive value to them, and automatically give them authority because they are old and they are all we have. Stanford professor and troubadour researcher Marisa Galvez calls the old manuscripts “luxurious artifacts of the aristocracy” in her 2012 book “Songbook: How Lyrics Became Poetry in Medieval Europe.” Unfortunately, we cannot simply trust written documents and “scientific evidence” as the best or the only sources of truth. In times past, few people knew how to write, and paper was not available to everyone, so old manuscripts that we depend on to tell us about the past are significantly skewed toward telling us far more about the people who used paper than those who didn’t. Literacy rates in the Middle Ages have been estimated at around 5-10%, a notch lower than the 15% rate usually applied to Roman times. That means that written information was inaccessible and meant little to roughly 90% of the people throughout much of European history. The oral traditions only left their shadows on the paper, and the kind of music we’re trying to investigate here may have also suffered substantially from efforts to render it into printed forms, which we will take a closer look at in the next chapter. In 1873 William Motherwell wrote in “Minstrelsy Ancient and Modern” that “The tear and wear of three centuries will do less mischief to the text of an old ballad among the vulgar, than one short hour will effect, if in the possession of some sprightly and accomplished editor of the present day, who may choose to impose on himself the thankless and uncalled-for labour of piecing and patching up its imperfections, polishing its asperities, correcting its mistakes, embellishing its naked details, purging it of impurities, and of trimming it from top to toe with tailor-like fastidiousness and nicety, so as to be made fit for the press.”

Poignantly, those pieces of paper remain the best and often the only tangible evidence of what happened, and those who have studied them have not had an easy time factoring in the things that were never written or could not be written on paper, or how music notation distorts and simplifies many kinds of music. I will repeatedly make the claim that the vital rhythmic and tonal elements of troubadour music from any era in history have never been able to survive on paper alone. A crucial part of the troubadour skill set involves creating and managing shifting polyrhythms, especially between the music and lyrics. Those elements are such a part of modern guitar playing it is natural to assume that they have existed before, but were only able to be passed on orally. Flamenco guitar is a good example of some of those skills that have survived, and if that style of music is a model for what happened, we may have lost a great deal of the rhythmic and stylistic elements of other oral European folk music during the centuries when the printing press was dominant. The astonishing complexity of traditional African drumming is another testament to the sophistication of some music that was long perceived as primitive, and not written down.
In 1876 Thomas Stephens, in his nearly 600 page tome on Welsh bards, “The Literature of the Kymry,” said that “we know but little of the biography of most of the bards…. few facts are so unsubstantial as the bards; like shadows they come and like shadows depart.” He went to great effort to show how poets and authors commonly exaggerated and distorted their writings, saying it was, “a very usual practice for writers” to fictionalize some of their work to make it seem older, more mysterious, or more popular. He spent a lot of time fact-checking and debunking old Welsh poetry and books, including historical records. In our modern era of “alternative facts” and “fake news” we are learning daily that just because something was printed in a book, magazine, or newspaper or otherwise written down, it isn’t necessarily true. Information may be more available now than in the past, but truth has always been elusive. Stephens explained that the true old folk music of Wales (corroborated by a man named de Sismondi) was probably lost, largely due to the cost of parchment, and the written poetry we attribute to the common people was actually written by educated, upper-class poets who came much later: “It is evident that these troops of singers whom one frequently meets with in Wales – ‘the clerwyr’ of tradition, and ‘rymours, minstrels, and vagabondes’ of the proclamations– must have had words set to music; and it is equally evident that these songs, which must then have existed in numbers, are not the poems which have come down to us. They were distinct, and must have been a more popular literature than the more finished productions of the bards. How, then, comes it that they are not preserved? Methinks the answer will be found in the cost of parchment, the scarcity of men able to write, and the cost of copying– circumstances which we know to have existed, which restricted the historians to one line for the events of every year, and which may therefore be reasonably supposed to have prevented the perpetuation of a literature which was most probably looked upon as evanescent, and of little permanent value.”

William Henderson, in “A History of Germany in the Middle Ages” also took pains as early as 1894 to explain that we must be careful not to take old documents and accounts at face value, and that they are often found to be exaggerated or incorrect. “This analyzing of the language and peculiarities of style of mediaeval authors, taken in connection with other criterions, has led, often, to the discovery that writings were spurious.” He strove to separate “fact” from other information, though who knows if his work was ultimate truth any more than the things he sought to disprove. He reminded us that “A great mark of progress in the present century, and a further proof of the constructive tendency of the work of modern historians, is the systematic employment of charters, deeds, and legal documents as historical sources. Every gift, every privilege granted in earlier times, almost every transaction of any kind was duly certified by a deed signed and sealed in the presence of witnesses. Probably a hundred thousand such pieces of parchment have come down to us from the Middle Ages alone.” He lists numerous anecdotes from history, including the story of William Tell the archer, that have come to be “outed” as fictional. In our zeal to know more about the past we can easily read too much into an old sentence or accept any document or story as fact. Maybe William Tell was a real person and maybe he did shoot an apple off his son’s head with an arrow. We can never be completely sure.

All information from the distant past is potentially incomplete, incorrect or out of context, and the passage of centuries has done little to correct or clarify the little we do have about music. It is also just as easy to assume something didn’t happen because we don’t have written proof from a “verified source” that it did. We are forever working only with whatever small percentage of evidence has managed to survive. All inquiries that rely on fossils or other kinds of tangible evidence should perhaps come with an asterisk next to the conclusions, since we have no idea what other artifacts were lost or damaged or have yet to be found. Documents preserved in monasteries or other isolated religious enclaves were generally better protected from war and other upheavals that destroyed evidence, and the authors of those documents were literate and respected, often referred to as “credible sources.” We don’t know, however, how much they actually knew of what was going on outside their enclaves, and being connected with the church, they weren’t necessarily sympathetic towards the troubadours and peasant musicians. They had their own agendas and viewpoints as they carefully wrote on their durable parchments in their secluded worlds. D.K. Wilgus said it nicely: “Oral, popular poetry would not have been likely to find a record in the monkish chronicles.”

Documents were hand-copied until recently, which can easily mask the age or origin of their contents, and it is just as easy to preserve or copy an incorrect or misleading document as a correct one. Old instruments in museums often have elaborate inlay and decorations, but that doesn’t mean that all instruments made in the past looked like that. It probably only means that people took far better care of the pretty ones. Almost everything we know about the German medieval troubadours known as “minnesingers” comes from the Codex Manesse, an extraordinarily beautiful 14th century illuminated manuscript that was preserved in a monastery in Switzerland. Who knows what was written on the ugly manuscripts? The famous fire in the library of Alexandria long ago did incalculable damage to our knowledge of history, and the penchant for warring parties in the Middle Ages to completely destroy and sometimes immolate entire cities has not been helpful to our understanding of cultural life from the past.

Class Issues
Another delicate subject that lies at the heart of this book is how much of the information and understanding from the past concerning the music of the common people has been provided by the literate upper-classes of society and so-called “scholars.” They have long proved to be amazingly ignorant about how folk knowledge and orally-transmitted music works, and have often been hostile to or ignorant of the culture of “commoners.” It no longer shocks or surprises us that an uneducated (or self-educated) or dark-skinned folk musician can be virtuosic and brilliant and play at a level comparable to the “educated” ones, but those “learned white men” that have so dominated both society, education and history in the past several centuries seem to have had real trouble with that idea along the way. In a later chapter we’ll explore more of what spanned hundreds of years and involved mountains of books and essays about “pastoral” and “national” musics, all attempting to explain how there could be a large body of common music somehow circulating, having been created and/or preserved by “ignorant” and “untrained” peasants who couldn’t read music, harmonize a hymn or compose a string quartet.

It was easy to dismiss music of strange-looking and far-away cultures as “barbaric” and “primitive.” The white men, especially those from the dominant and ultra-colonialist British Isles, who tried to explain music during that era when such men felt the urge to explain everything in writing, were quite baffled by the breadth and beauty of the folk musics of their own country that they personally knew about and liked. Even as they were thrilled by the new “organized” and “civilized” music coming from Italy and Germany, some tried very hard to show that music from ancients, Orientals and savages, as they called them, shared properties with ignorant folk musics of their own countries. A common view was to sweep them all under the rug as being “proto-music” or developmental phases that could be quickly explained and dismissed as though they were musical versions of stone tools. Observers likened folk processes to evolution, and folklorists like Francis Grummere spread fanciful ideas that folk songs were created communally and might, “spring up among men-at-arms and in the dances” and then be “jostled into unity by the chances of time” and “forced into poetic unity by the pressure of tradition.” Frank Sidgwick weighed evidence and arguments and voted that “a man and not a people” created the folk songs in his efforts to refute the so-called “communal theory” of folklore. Other scholars felt the need to create a distinction between “illiterate” people who were part of a society that was based on literacy, as opposed to “non-literate” people, the aborigines and savages who were part of a different kind of culture altogether. A surprising number of publications focused on trying to explain the importance of Scottish airs and songs, though many admitted that the Irish and Welsh and to some extent the other mostly-white countries in Europe had some good ones too. Old accounts and descriptions of Norwegian hardanger fiddle playing (hardingfele) are amusing, where observers admitted liking the sound but disapproved of the unorganized and uncivilized ways the music was played and created.

James McPherson fired a major volley in 1760 when he published “Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language,” which he followed in 1761 with “Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, together with Several Other Poems composed by Ossian, the Son of Fingal.” They were met with huge international acclaim, and brought forth the idea that common people or perhaps a mysterious Homer-like minstrel named Ossian had written something large and good that educated, upper-class people could actually enjoy, and that competed in value with the literary work of educated writers. Thomas Jefferson was so taken by it that he vowed to learn Gaelic so he could read the poems in their original language. Theories were proposed, and arguments abounded about how anonymous genius creators somehow could have left high-quality art amongst the peasants, mixed with what they called “artless graces,” “pleasing simplicity” and “romantic wildness.” One of the established theories of folk music became the idea described by ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl in 1926: “the members of the folk community are unable to create something new; they only take over what is created by the elite… and while using it, simplify and debase it.” Louise Pound wrote that “the typical process…is a process of decay.” Most prominently Joseph Ritson and James Beattie, but also many others at the time, hotly debated whether “shepherds and milkmaids,” “bards and minstrels” or perhaps hidden, unnamed educated “great men” wrote all this music and poetry. The learned white men were also baffled by the modality and pentatonic scales of much of the peasant music. Those yielded music that didn’t conform to the newly-accepted rules of harmony and arrangement that were strutting about in the works of the great composers. They created operas, symphonies and other examples of proper composition that almost never happened to be in the Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian or Mixolydian modes often used in folk music. According to Matthew Gelbart’s exhaustively-researched “The Invention Of Folk Music and Art Music,” all manner of convoluted theories emerged among the explainers, peaking in the late 18th and early 19th century. It literally took several centuries for academia to evolve our more tolerant and understanding modern concepts of folklore. Most of us now seem to accept that unknown and often illiterate or “uneducated” individuals can originate interesting music that sometimes spreads and mutates, and that this knowledge is learned and often modified, often invisibly, among the populations. We’ll look more closely at how the peak of the ignorance among the “educated” about the processes of folk music seemed to coincide exactly with the peak of Western music’s embracing of reading music from the printed page.

Oral History and Folklore
We are surrounded not just by old music, but by folktales and legends, ancient jokes, expressions, superstitions, holidays, customs, clothing, skills, lyrics, tarot and playing cards, magic tricks, recipes, and all manner of inherited cultural ideas and artifacts, often without even realizing it. This cultural information has been surrounding people all through history, transmitted down all sorts of pathways, but it is rarely possible to pinpoint precisely how this kind of “invisible knowledge” emerges or moves around. No one documents how gypsies learn card tricks or fiddle tunes. Oral knowledge is affected and limited by all kinds of cultural or demographic factors, political upheavals and displacements, wars, and by language itself. Expressions, practices and nuances change constantly within each language and culture. Scholars have been mystified for centuries by the folkloric processes, and the list of ideas, knowledge or skills that have uncertain origins or have moved around mysteriously is dizzying. Words, languages and alphabets are themselves a cultural inheritance of the most fundamental type. Albert Pike said beautifully in “Lectures of the Arya” that “You hardly utter a sentence of our English tongue without speaking some word which was spoken in the same sense by… ancient people, ten thousand years ago or more.” The alphabets we use, the fonts and numerals, the names of the days, holidays and months often have mysterious origins in far away cultures. September was the seventh (sept) month, October the eighth (oct), November the ninth (nov) and December the tenth (dec) months in the Roman calendar. They are the ninth through twelfth months in our modern world, yet we still keep their names. Preserving those names is not logical, but they came from the past. Naysayers who think that ancient ideas haven’t percolated deeply into our modern selves and our high-tech world need look no farther than the very languages and alphabets they are using to make their denials.

Oral history can be very valuable when you need to look back just a few generations, and perhaps ask old people what their childhoods were like or what their parents or grandparents used to say or do. Jennifer Post, in her engaging “Music In Rural New England Family and Community Life 1870-1940,” did a beautiful job of interviewing older people and studying transcripts of interviews done in the recent past to assemble information about music from not that long ago, since there were almost no recordings and few documents to be found. After longer intervals, though, and outside of very stable and insular societies, there often isn’t any way to tell fact from folktale or myth. Scientifically-minded people tend to completely discount folk knowledge because of its variability and uncertainty, yet there often are valuable things encoded in it. Almost every really old culture has a flood myth quite similar to the story of Noah’s ark and the Biblical flood. When they are all assembled and compared, a kind of truth emerges, that leads some researchers to think that collectively this kind of “knowledge” is acceptable evidence that there really was a world-wide flood ten to twelve thousand years ago. Such theories are especially tenable when you consider other kinds of more tangible evidence like seashells in the Alps and Andes mountains at very high altitudes. Journalist/author Graham Hancock has written quite a number of very interesting and tantalizing books that often involve taking myths, oral histories and folktales more seriously. When many of them from different places all tell the same story, and are corroborated by existing physical evidence it’s academically harsh to merely dismiss them all as “untrue” or “unproven.”

We don’t know why people all over the world universally say “OK.” We don’t know where playing cards came from, or why the red kings on those cards usually have special art on them. A good example of how quickly things get unclear when we try to look into the past is that we don’t even know where the $ symbol came from for the American dollar, though the most popular theories connect it to the symbol for the Mexican peso. The United States is not even 250 years old, and we have already lost track of why we use an S with one or two lines through it to represent the currency that was established by our fledgling government in 1785, barely a hundred years before my grandparents were born. Possibly the most popular melody at the time of the Revolutionary War was “Yankee Doodle,” but what in the world is a “Yankee” or a “Doodle?” “Yankee” is probably a variant of the Dutch word janke, since New York was originally a Dutch colony. In Dutch it means ‘little Jan’ or ‘little John,’ which isn’t particularly helpful. We also don’t know where the musical term “boogie-woogie” came from, where the character Santa Claus originated, or why we accept and celebrate the idea of the Easter Bunny. Even the word Easter is an odd one to apply to an important Christian holiday, since it comes from Eostre (Ostara), a rather minor English pagan goddess. Alfred E. Newman, the freckle-faced grinning character that MAD Magazine adopted in the 1950s as their “mascot” is also an untraceable element of folklore that seems to date only to the 1890s, but is already shrouded in mystery as to its origins. I doubt you will be able to find satisfactory, certified-as-true explanations of innumerable cultural practices and beliefs, and you’ll need to get used to feeling puzzled as we spin out our long ball of musical yarn. Again I recommend looking at all of this as entertainment, and that we all try to enjoy the processes of wondering and imagining, rather than taking sides or drawing lines in any sand.

Ideas, memes, language and culture travel around in populations very much the same ways that diseases and pathogens do. The mathematical models are nearly identical. A good example of how frustrating it is to try to go backwards in time musically is the realm of nursery rhymes. Those little rhyming songs, chants and taunts that many of us learned as children, like “Ring around the rosy” or “London Bridge is falling down” and even “Liar liar, pants on fire” have very ancient histories, but are impossible to trace, because they are learned orally, quickly and invisibly. They are essentially memes, and since we often absorb them when we are very young we usually don’t remember how we learned them. Millions are familiar with them, but we don’t know for certain where they came from, how they got all around the world or into our individual heads, nor can we track their endless variations. A parent, sibling or housekeeper or nursemaid might have sung them to a child anywhere, and there are similarities and differences among the versions we know of them that are perfect examples of the elusive nature of any kind of oral tradition or folklore. We don’t even know where the now-widespread children’s song “The Wheels on the Bus” came from, though it first seems to have appeared in the 1950s. Jokes work the same way, especially dirty ones that are not printed often. There are very old oral-tradition jokes circulating, that like peasant music don’t always follow traceable or observable pathways of information.

We only have limited understanding of what music was doing in stable societies long ago, but we know vastly less about what gypsies or wandering entertainers were doing at the time, or how vital their contribution was to troubadour history. Their presence adds a “wild-card” element to any model that tries to explain how music moved around Europe, and it is completely possible that undocumented traveling musicians carried important musical ideas around for a very long time, and to some extent they still do. They obviously brought with them all sorts of rhyming, rhythmic songs played on portable instruments. When a new musician passed through, doing things people hadn’t seen or heard before, it was the historical (and probably prehistoric) equivalent of listening to the radio. If the listener liked the music and wanted lessons, or perhaps was a noble or otherwise influential person, or even knew how to write, then the knowledge could pass from oral to literate. Young people joining the military or going away to school often brought songs to other places or brought things home, all in untraceable ways. One sailor on one ship could have brought a song, a musical instrument, a joke or a disease across an ocean and caused it to spread all over a continent. Plenty of sailors also went plenty of places with ideas and diseases that did not spread widely or “go viral.” Just like today, some things spread and other things don’t. It’s entirely possible that even a single charismatic and skilled fingerpicking guitarist on a boat traveling on the Ohio or Mississippi River around the year 1870 could have had a major impact on the entire history of American guitar and troubadour music. Unfortunately, we may never know more than we do now about whether that happened.

Written accounts from travelers who sought to share their experiences and observations were quite popular in the past, and like modern bloggers and vloggers, they offer valuable insights into any kind of history. Marco Polo had a noticeable though unmeasurable effect on Europe with his book “The Travels of Marco Polo,” published around the year 1300, which encouraged Europeans to be curious about other cultures. These kinds of “eyewitness account” writings, unfortunately, only give us sporadic, intermittent and nearly random data from a world that was mostly local. They were just the results of one individual with their own interests and powers of observation and writing, who went to a very finite number of places and encountered a finite number of experiences in a time when the same things were probably not happening in every village or region. There is even increasing doubt being introduced about whether Marco Polo really went everywhere he said he did, and some now suspect he was repeating stories he heard as much as he was telling about what he actually saw and did. He certainly didn’t bring any music or musicians back with him from the Orient, nor could any other traveler in that time do any more than write or talk about music they encountered. All personal accounts in the world of music are just as likely to be slightly fictionalized and unscientific. The famous diary of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) has many passages where he describes music, though we can only imagine what he actually heard.

Eyewitness sources are necessarily limited in what they can say about music, which would likely sound very different in distant cultures, with nothing resembling recording technology to preserve anything specific. The Swarganga Music Foundation website said it nicely, though they were discussing Indian folk music: “Carrying the tradition forward by oral tradition, not in a documented or codified form is the important aspect of folk music. Documentation of literature of folk songs, music notation and audio documentation is a recent phenomenon.” Ultimately, we have almost nothing in the way of measurable or “hard data” that would lead us to believe that we really knew what music people were playing in the various corners of Europe in the Middle Ages, which unfortunately is precisely what many modern people want to know more about. “Fake news” might have spread more easily in earlier times than today. Now and then a new source turns up and joins the collective knowledge of the libraries and collections preserving them, but for the most part there haven’t been many new eyewitness accounts or pictures of medieval musicians, and the passing centuries have mostly meant that fading manuscripts have faded some more, or been lost, damaged or stolen.

The Medieval Mind
Possibly the best-known predecessors of the modern singer-songwriter were the troubadours of the Middle Ages, and in exploring this connection we immediately run into the unsolvable problem of trying to understand what historian William Manchester calls the “medieval mind.” It is rarely a good idea to impose modern thinking on people from the past, and Manchester devotes a section of his history of the Middle Ages, “A World Lit Only By Fire,” to describing the unimaginable viewpoints of that time, where strange beliefs and superstitions often dominated. Disease and violence were rampant, with severe and cruel punishments normal for even minor offenses. The first stringed-instrument strumming, rhyming songwriters in Europe may have appeared in southern France about 900 years ago amid what we call the “Provençal” or “Occitan” culture. The region bordered Muslim Spain, where the Arabic practice of singing rhyming songs with the oud was quite established. It’s a daunting task for us in the 21st century to try to understand what led Pope Innocent II and Simon de Montfort, for instance, to launch and doggedly pursue their Albigensian Crusades in 1209, rallying hundreds of thousands of Christians in an “Army of God” to try to brutally exterminate what we now call the Cathar culture in that region. This was the society where what many call “troubadour music” first took root in Europe, and it is valuable to look at it as we try to follow the historical trail of troubadour bread crumbs. To the heads of the Roman Catholic church, and to the rival nobility from other regions who joined their cause, these Cathars were an ultra-dangerous “heresy” that posed a threat to the very heart of the Catholic church. The descriptions of the Cathar beliefs don’t sound that evil to modern ears, nor do those of the even-more despised Waldensians, who were an easier target because they wore sandals or other easily identifiable articles of clothing as part of an effort to behave and look more like Jesus. The Holy Crusaders couldn’t wait to toss them all into fires and horribly torture and kill as many of them as they could as fast as possible. No amount of explaining can make those behaviors understandable to us now, nor do we have much information about them. When the Cathars formally complained to Rome that it wasn’t necessary to gouge out the eyes and cut off the noses of thousands of people or incinerate an entire city and exterminate all inhabitants because it might harbor a few heretics, the church’s legal department responded with a decree that said that these techniques were indeed permissible, and were the best and proper way to rid the country of the “vermin and pestilence” of unwanted ideas. An anecdote from well after the peak Middle Ages that illustrates this mindset came from John Weeks Moore’s “Complete Encyclopædia of Music” (1854) [p.44]:
“Bonnet, in his ‘Histoire de la Musique,’ gives the following extraordinary account of a mathematician, mechanician, and musician, named Alix, who lived at Aix, in Provence, about the middle of the seventeenth century. Alix, after many years’ study and labor, succeeded in constructing an automaton figure, having the shape of a human skeleton, which, by means of a concealed mechanism, played, or had the appearance of playing on the guitar. The artist, after having tuned in perfect unison two guitars, placed one of them in the hands of the skeleton, in the position proper for playing, and on a calm summer’s evening, having thrown open the window of his apartment, he fixed the skeleton, with the guitar in its hands, in a position where it could be seen from the street. He then, taking the other instrument, seated himself in an obscure corner of the room, and commenced playing a piece of music, the passages of which were faithfully repeated by the guitar held by the skeleton, at the same time that the movement of its wooden fingers, as if really executing the music, completed the illusion. This strange musical feat drew crowds around the house of Alix, and created the greatest astonishment; but, alas for the ill-fated artist! this sentiment was soon changed in the minds of the ignorant multitude into the most superstitious dread. A rumor arose that Alix was a sorcerer, and in league with the devil. He was arrested by order of the parliament of Provence, and sent before their criminal court, La Chambre de la Tournelle, to be tried on the capital charge of magic or witchcraft. In vain the ingenious but unfortunate artist sought to convince his judges that the only means used to give apparent vitality to the fingers of the skeleton were wheels, springs, pulleys, and other equally unmagical contrivances, and that the marvellous result produced was nothing more criminal than the solution of a problem in mechanics. His explanations and demonstrations were either not understood, or failed of convincing his stupid and bigoted judges, and he was condemned as a sorcerer and magician. The iniquitous judgment was confirmed by the parliament of Provence, which sentenced him to be burned alive in the principal square of the city, together with the equally innocent automaton figure, the supposed accomplice in his magical practices. This infamous sentence was carried into execution in the year 1664, to the great satisfaction and edification of all the faithful and devout inhabitants of Aix.”

Understanding or projecting our modern mindset into the practices and sociology of slavery of the Antebellum South is a more familiar but nonetheless difficult problem. Less dramatically, the disgust, derision and even punishment that upper-class Europeans heaped upon street musicians, ballad singers, guitarists and fiddlers in centuries past might also be incomprehensible to the modern mind that has for the most part learned to enjoy and respect art from “primitive cultures.” We should keep these sorts of perspectives in mind as we project our imaginations and world views into the past.

Who Curates the People’s Music? Scholars or Non-Scholars?
In prehistory, there was only “folk knowledge,” though the compartmentalizing and ghettoizing of information goes very far back to when priests, magicians, scribes or shamans typically kept their secret knowledge from the “masses.” Common people kept their musical treasures in their memories, where they were safe from damage or theft in some ways, but vulnerable to change or loss in others. Think of all those centuries when huge amounts of “important” knowledge, including the Bible itself, was only written in Latin, which became the shared language of scholarship in Europe, but was intended partly to keep commoners away. In the 1400s it was a crime punishable by death to possess the Bible in English, and a man named William Tyndale got into big trouble and was hunted down and horribly executed in 1536 after he made a really good English translation of parts of the Bible into English and had it nicely printed on a printing press.

The folklore and culture we all inherit includes a huge variety of songs, melodies, rhythms, slang, jokes, riddles and puzzles, fiddle tunes, folk tales, costumes, recipes and whatever else you can’t stop people from passing on to their companions and descendants. Educated, powerful and literate people have participated intermittently in this stream of information transmittal, and have both helped, hindered and ignored the “peoples’ arts” all through history. In trying to understand our musical and cultural heritage, we have to pick apart what are often two different rivers of information: the “scholarly” or “institutional” body of knowledge, and the “people’s knowledge.” Old documents with songs written on them might have come only from the academic or literate world and not necessarily been a reflection of what people in general were doing. I don’t get the impression that any of the authors of the scholarly books on folk music were skilled folk musicians themselves, at least until the 20th century when Mike Seeger, John Jacob Niles, Ry Cooder and some others got involved who understood the processes and were effective performers. Carl Sandburg was a pleasant singer. Bill Malone is a capable troubadour, as are Stephen Wade and Elijah Wald, and they have contributed some of the best writing and thinking about American roots music.

Ballad collectors who followed Francis Child preserved his template of laboriously organizing, labeling and comparing written transcripts of ballad lyrics collected in different times and places, and by drawing inferences and conclusions from those comparisons. They also modified them as they saw fit, for the most part removing the bawdy parts. The success of Child’s work, boosted by Englishman Cecil Sharp’s efforts a few years later, spawned new generations of song collectors and folklorists who tried to penetrate into the farthest reaches of rural America, primarily to find remnants of those British Isles ballads. The results of their work have had noticeable consequences on the lives of modern American folk musicians, and what we all collectively know of our musical heritage. Those early folklorists greatly helped to shape the image that modern American musicians and audiences have of their shared musical history, though the fact that most of them were conservative white men meant that they overlooked and misinterpreted quite a bit. Because they were so focused on British Isles ballads, they also tended to ignore other music they encountered. The music of those ballads was not part of Child’s or Percy’s studies, or most of their followers in folklore, nor were the lives of the musicians who sang them. The lyrics to the songs were written on paper, while the sources were credited with just a footnote or annotation giving the name and date where the version was collected, and perhaps the occupation, state or town of residence of the musician.

In 1915 Pliny Earle Goddard (1869-1968), the retiring president of the American Society of Folk-Lore published an essay in the Journal of American Folk-Lore (Vol. 28) titled “The Relation of Folk-Lore to Anthropology,” that was a speech he had given in 1914. Here was a man at the center of the academic world of American folklore, at a time just before the world would discover the huge richness of blues, jazz, gospel, hillbilly and early country music, who with his fellow scholars in linguistics, archeology, ethnology and anthropology were focused almost entirely on the idea of folklore and folk music as they applied to indigenous people. The idea that there might be other folklore or folk music around them, made by the people who grew their food and cleaned or built their houses, seemed to be invisible to them. Among what Goddard called “the cultures of unlettered peoples,” he did manage to say that “The greatest lack in our comparative studies is that of music,” but he spent two pages trying to connect the Hopi sun-dance to Homer’s Odyssey and American Indian artifacts to the Greek vases from Mycenae. The other articles in the journal were about folk dances from Mexico, animal fables of the Chuh Indians, Athapapascan myths, the Syrian Lamb, Eskimo songs, Batanga and Penobscot folk tales, and poetry of Northern Brazil. Edwin Piper got closer to home by sharing some children’s play-party songs from the Midwest, but the section “Songs and Rhymes From the South” by E. C. Perrow jumped out. It was 120 sets of lyrics and eight melodies of songs, said to be about drinking and gambling, though without much discussion of purpose or meaning. They were collected from sources said to be “country whites,” “mountain whites” or “negroes.” Dr. Perrow was born in Virginia, trained at Trinity College (NC) and received his doctorate at Harvard, and became a professor of English at the University of Missouri and Mississippi, then at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. He was one of the earliest collectors of Southern American folk songs, and published 270 of them in three issues of the Journal between 1912 and 1916. He did not seem to have rallied the Society or the nation to join him in his appreciation of rural American music, and his work remains independent and obscure, though he did publish the earliest version of “On Top of Old Smoky.” Like fellow early collectors Howard Odum, Dorothy Scarborough, Natalie Curtis and Mellinger Henry, Perrow had a recording machine, but tragically, they all seem to have tossed out the precious cylinders after transcribing the lyrics and melodies, not realizing how incredibly valuable they would be today.

The slow pace and difficulty with which early folksong collectors came to a realistic understanding of the music of rural American people is quite remarkable, now that we have some better perspective on the situation. The academic pursuit of Elizabethan ballads in the rural South or the obsessive stalking of Delta blues musicians by educated white guys with tape recorders are now seen as the somewhat geeky behavior they really were, and the native music of “folk people” in America no longer needs anyone’s doctoral theses to give the art validity or credence. In 1950 it was really hard for even smart people to understand that Robert Johnson could be so skilled or that his guitar or singing style could be so far from what educated white people did with their voices or guitars. It was hard to understand how Jerry Lee Lewis could do what he did on the piano, how French Canadian Jean Carignan could play his fiddle style, or even that Elvis could sing or gyrate like that. The explosion, where various folk musics invaded and conquered popular music, was both disorienting and extremely exciting. When people who grew up on church hymns and Stephen Foster songs heard boogie-woogie piano, they understandably were astounded. When Scotsman Lonnie Donegan heard Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie recordings it galvanized him, and when those Liverpool Lads and the young Mick Jagger first heard recordings of Howling Wolf, Slim Harpo, Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, they went nuts too. Now we know not to characterize learning by audio as being somehow impure or not valid, since that is what stirred the musical pot the most for about 90 years beginning around 1925. I wouldn’t have learned much by seeing Doc Watson or Leo Kottke come through town once and play out on the street by the railroad depot, but with my record player and my guitar in 1972 I was able to really penetrate their complex styles of playing.

In and Out of Oral Tradition
The distinction between written and oral music is fuzzier than we realize, and a great deal of content has always passed in and out of both forms. The first copyrighted and published version of “Row, Row Your Boat” (or “The Old Log Hut”), was printed in 1852 by Firth, Pond & Co. “as sung by Master Adams of Kunkel’s Nightingale Opera Troupe.” This could mean that subsequent versions and variations branched outward from that source, or it might mean that R. Sinclair, listed as the composer, or Master Adams modified and printed something that was already a folk song or based on one. There are large numbers of these situations in ballad research where refined and literate poetry written by educated, upper-class poets was printed in a book and then found later in a fragmented form in the folk tradition when collected as a peasant ballad or story passed down orally. This process led folklorists to develop their theories of folk tradition as “decay.” Folk songs or poems have also been commonly taken from true oral tradition, transcribed and printed on broadsides or in books, eternally bedeviling collectors in search of authenticity or purity of folklore content. Songs, stories and other cultural information have always moved in a revolving door between invisible orally-transmitted and visible printed versions, and songs have always been modified by people on both sides of that door. All this has led to an almost endless web of comparisons of similarities and differences among various versions of all the songs. The processes happened far slower in the past, and the appeal of studying older and more manageable folk culture is obvious. It can easily seem strange to onlookers that the method by which something is learned or the path the information took might affect its ultimate value, though admittedly in the world of fine art and antiques, provenance is always a vital component of the established retail value of heirlooms and artifacts.

Caught up in the romance and excitement of finding sources and songs, scholars often made assumptions about how the rural and illiterate people learned their songs. Substantial numbers of recently composed and published songs had already entered the oral tradition, and many were assumed to be old. A good example is “When the Work’s All Done This Fall,” written by D.J. O’Malley in 1893, with the original title “After the Roundup.” John Lomax published a “collected” version in “Cowboy Songs” in 1910 that he assumed was a folk song, Carl Sprague recorded it in 1925, and that record sold hundreds of thousands of copies. In 1938 Mellinger Henry put it in his “Folk Songs From the Southern Highlands,” referencing Lomax, and saying it was recorded from Dora Testerman, who learned it from relatives, who likely themselves got it from either Lomax’s book or Sprague’s record. The popular song “Home on the Range” was also in the Lomax cowboy song book, “collected” from a “Negro saloon-keeper” in San Antonio in 1908. Lomax had no idea it was written in 1873 in Kansas by a doctor named Brewster Higley and printed in a local newspaper. After it became a huge hit by Bing Crosby and was president Roosevelt’s favorite song, a woman in Arizona filed a massive copyright infringement lawsuit in 1934, also without knowing the true origin of the song or that it had long been in the public domain. In 1910 it was really hard to track down the origins of songs, and easy for folksong collectors to make this kind of error. Now in the Information Age we are finding out that mistakes like these were neither rare or unusual. We are now also learning that numerous precious “family recipes” were taken from common cookbooks or even off the boxes or cans of food. Charles Wolfe carefully examined the hundreds of recordings of the Carter Family, and found very few un-pirated original or traditional songs for which they had a legitimate claim of ownership. Even their theme song, “Keep on the Sunny Side,” was written and published in 1899 by Ada Blenkhorn and Howard Entwistle. Billy Murray and Byron Harlan recorded the song in 1906, long before the Carters’ well-known 1928 version, and it also appeared in some shape-note hymnals.

Through a lack of information, two of these songs were able to masquerade as folk songs, and A.P. Carter and Ralph Peer were able to copyright and publish the other as their own property. Both errors happened presumably because both the “scholars” and business people underestimated the speed and breadth that songs were already traveling in almost invisible ways, and no one had access to enough good information to know what was really going on. As soon as recordings arrived, people began to learn from them, though the process was slightly different, because it was faster, more accurate, and involved rhythm, tone and dynamics and not just words and melody. The archive of early recordings of rural performers in the 1920s are full of both similar and different versions of songs by musicians from different places who never knew or heard each other. Record companies could easily record alternate versions of a song that was already embedded in folk knowledge, thus documenting the variations. People also could get their hands on a 78rpm record, hop a train and take the music across the country, so that within days it could invisibly spread anywhere, spawn imitations or even merge and interbreed with a local version from another area.

The celebration of oral learning doesn’t make sense today in the light of our better understanding of music as information, and it didn’t make sense to the folk musicians who were the sources of the ballads being collected. They were puzzled and even offended that the folklorists were not interested in having them sing original or popular songs into the recording machines. The general rules for folklore collecting were that the songs had real value if they were learned orally, spanned generations, and if the sources were not professional musicians. This confusion about sources and learning pathways has also led to situations where folk artists feel the need to conceal the source of their songs in order to please the song collectors or listeners. Folk music legend Jean Ritchie (1922-2015) made an international career out of singing the ballads and songs she learned growing up in rural Kentucky, always being careful to stress how she learned to play the dulcimer from her father or neighbors, singing songs she heard in her youth. One of her best-known albums, released in 1957 was called “Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family.” But she let it slip on page 73 in her 1988 autobiography “Singing Family of the Cumberlands” that her father Balis and his brother Isaac together ordered a “talking machine” in 1905 from Sears & Roebuck and walked 80 miles to the nearest freight office in Jackson, Kentucky to bring it home to their small town of Viper, where the whole village came to listen and marvel. She perhaps learned from the record player as much as from relatives or neighbors, but it’s not as good a story to tell when you come from a tiny rural town and it is the height of the “folk boom.” North Carolina folk and bluegrass legend Arthel “Doc” Watson (1923-2012), just a year younger than Ritchie, also remembered the day his father brought home a Victrola with 50 records, and his repertoire was full of songs he learned from earlier recording artists like the Delmore Brothers, Carson Robison and even Elvis Presley. Doc didn’t hide where he learned his music, and press reviews for his first recordings and concerts often made strange claims that he was good, but wasn’t “pure” folk music. By the latter part of his career the sheer force of his artistry had made it clear to all that whatever way he learned was fine, and it is possible he might have greatly helped pave the way for modern musicians playing traditional American music to be respected by academia even if they learned from recordings and were not part of the actual oral cultures where the music had supposedly originated, according to established rules of folklore. Though Watson himself was from the mountains of North Carolina, he once told historian Bill Malone that he had to work hard to learn many of the ballads and traditional songs from his home region that the 1960s folk audiences assumed he already knew. You can hear it in his introduction on a live performance version of “Little Orphan Girl,” recorded at a folk festival, where he said that his mother and his grandmother both knew this song, “so it must be pretty old.” It’s actually extremely likely he learned the song from the Delmore Brothers’ 1933 recording “The Frozen Girl,” since his melody and many verses match their version, and he was known to have learned so many other songs from their records. Doc was playing a Les Paul electric guitar in a rockabilly band when he was “discovered” and turned into a touring “folk musician.” The hillbillies were no longer just learning from their neighbors and relatives, and many musicians we envision as having learned from the “folk process” often “cheated” by listening to records and radios. Should we join the folklore purists and be disappointed? Of course not. When those recordings came along, vastly more of the musical elements could be passed along to the listeners. American orally and aurally-transmitted music literally exploded, and we have all enjoyed the fruits of its growth, even as it jumped out of its traditional containers and spread wildly around. Nearly every song I ever learned came from either a recording or from other people who were not my family, neighbors or even an older generation.

Folklore and Money
Until quite recently it was considered normal for folksong collectors to pay no attention to intellectual property, and they or their publishers typically filed for copyrights on whatever lyrics or songs they collected, not even considering that their sources should have been accorded any claim of ownership. This was “the people’s music,” which belongs to us all, so by some logic it seemed fine to record it, put it in a book and claim copyright, like a 15th century explorer planting their country’s flag on newly-discovered lands. This has sometimes involved a lot of money in recent decades, and it is entirely possible that we should wrap a huge roll of Crime Scene tape around the entire field of folk song collecting. The lawsuits and legal settlements surrounding the ownership of royalty money from the 1958 Kingston Trio #1 pop hit song “Tom Dooley” are a fascinating and high-profile example. Even though versions of the song were in the public domain and Grayson & Whitter recorded it in 1929, Frank Warner (1903-1978) collected it in 1938 as sung by a farmer named Frank Proffitt from Beech Mountain, North Carolina. It was transcribed and put into a book of folk songs published by Alan Lomax. The resulting royalty money ultimately was divided three ways between Proffitt, Warner and Lomax. It was determined that the Kingston Trio, though they had first heard and liked the song as sung by another musician at a club, had learned the hit version they recorded from the Lomax book and not orally from the public domain. It never occurred to Warner, Lomax or Proffitt that the song would ever have monetary value, but it is a lesson in royalty thinking to understand how all three parties justified their claims to the money. Old photographs can cause legal problems when they turn out to be of famous people, and photographers, publishers and the families of the subjects sometimes battle in court if there is enough money and popularity involved to make a dispute worthwhile. The ownership of the rights to the two confirmed surviving photographs of blues legend Robert Johnson has been the subject of legal disputes for many years.

The fact that ballad collectors were so focused on only the oral tradition can seem narrow-minded, especially by musicians who do not read music, though it is understandable that educated people could become fascinated with the idea of large numbers of antiquated songs surviving for centuries in the memories of illiterate, lower-class people. It is impressive how many songs were passed along without paper or recordings, but it is also unfortunate that if someone wrote a song centuries ago, it didn’t remain intact and we can’t know the author or provenance of the song because of imprecise information paths. The early collectors were convinced that the proper or academically valid way to learn a folk song was from another person, without the use of paper or recordings. Since they ignored the non-traditional songs that their sources knew, we don’t have field recordings of those. The most hallowed sources of ballads were the singers who had committed the most song lyrics to memory, which in the light of the 21st century information glut becomes an interesting distinction. A young person today might wonder why anyone would bother to learn hundreds of songs when they could just look them up on a smartphone whenever they needed to. Blind Arkansas singer Emma Dusenbury was found and recorded in 1936, and was responsible for 116 songs in the Library of Congress Archive of Folksong, the most of any source. Dusenbury knew a lot of old songs and remembered them well, though in the bigger picture the value of her achievement is debatable. As a musician who knows between five hundred and a thousand songs that are committed to memory, I know plenty of other singers who also know large numbers of songs, though we were never informed that there were rules of learning and remembering, or some kind of juried competition of English-language song lyric preservation. The fact that Dusenbury may not have learned hers from books or records made her of a different ilk to the collectors. It takes some time and effort to put them into memory, though of course the more often we perform a song the better it seems to stick there. Our memories are not precise machines, and we troubadours and singers tend to keep notebooks of lyrics that we sometimes glance at to refresh our memories, or even read or consult if we haven’t sung a song for a long time. We seem to more easily remember the tunes, but we often write the lyrics and sometimes the chords down on paper for reference. Maybe that is just our way of compensating for our musical illiteracy, like a blind person managing the money in their wallet. It doesn’t seem reasonable to consider the use of paper or a recording as a disqualifier, as if I don’t really know a song or it is not worthy or valid if I used paper or a sound recording to learn it, or if I have to glance at the words or the first line of the third verse before singing it to an audience.

The People as Researchers
We are in an exciting and confusing time, when a new type of writer and researcher is stirring up the channels of history. Smart and highly motivated people are learning and writing like never before, armed with newfound access to vast and increasing amounts of information. I’m sure that some history professors and educators are appalled by the influx of “amateurs” (like me!) into the dusty realms of historical research, but I am certain that in the big picture it is ultimately helpful to have more brains, more eyes, and more motivated people asking questions and sharing answers. Armchair historians can now look at the same old documents and read the same sources that used to be locked up in the rare book rooms in universities, and I am finding some impressive work being done these days in music history by people who are not on the payrolls of universities or research institutes. “Outsiders” can read, think and write also, and have a big advantage in that they have no jobs to protect or reputations to defend, and are not worried about how much time they spend researching, though understandably they can make all sorts of errors and omissions by being careless, inexperienced or rushing to conclusions. The collective work that has recently been done to dig up information about the possibly very important American singer Emmett Miller’s life and art in the early 20th century is a good example. Almost nothing was known about him except about two dozen recordings made between 1924 and 1936, and a group of interested, mostly non-academic people recently managed to learn a tremendous amount about who he was, where he came from and what he did. (Nick Tosches’ fascinating and entertaining book “Where Dead Voices Gather” chronicles this search if you are interested.) Similar group research has led to most of what is known about Kentucky musician Arnold Shultz. David Wondrich’s “Stomp & Swerve: America’s Music Gets Hot” is another delightful example of this kind of research done by enthusiasts rather than academics.

Internet and Search Engine Issues
More people are getting digital access now to existing information, because so many old books and manuscripts have been digitized and cataloged. A curious person like you or me with internet access can search old books for occurrences of words or phrases, which would have required huge amounts of time and access to numerous libraries to do in the past. Interested people everywhere can get access now to rare documents that have been locked away or otherwise hidden for centuries. Search engine research currently works only for words in printed books, though software is improving rapidly that can identify pictures and drawings, and it might be possible in the future to search for melodies or fragments of them in recorded or printed music. The odd typefaces and smudged printing in old books, their nasty habit of using multiple spellings of the same word, combined with error-prone character recognition software give us imperfect results and a very high error-count of machine-generated typos. It’s also hard to know what words to search for. If you did a digital search of every book or historical document for 300 years for mentions of the word “guitar” in American and European culture you would have to also search for guittar, guittare, gittar, gittern, cetra, cittra, citole, citera, chiterone, and cittern, as well as words used in languages other than English like guiterre, guiterne, guitterne, guisterne and even rabab. The word lute was sometimes spelled luyte, and searches also turn up the words “salute,” “absolute” and “flute.” The Finnish or Slovenian word for guitar is kitara. A simpler and smaller 4-stringed instrument, an ancestor of the guitar that more closely resembles a ukulele, is important to this narrative and another good example of this problem. It had a number of different names in different regions and languages; you’ll find references in old books to something that was variously called pandore, pandoron, pandole, mandole, mandore, bandore, pandura, pandouris, bandur, and bandura. Since some of those instruments appeared in Muslim culture, there are difficult problems in translating the Arabic alphabet to English. It’s hard to do internet searches relating to an ancestor of the violin known as the “viol” because of that word’s similarity to “violin,” “viola” and even “violence” and “violation.” It’s much easier to learn about an early Welsh relative of the violin called the crwth (pronounced ‘crooth’) or almost anything else in the Welsh language because its words are so searchable. At least whatever we now know will probably be easier to assemble, organize and examine, and won’t get further lost, though it might get buried, like so much other knowledge, under the vast clouds of other digital information whizzing past our modern windshields.

Songs vs. Poetry
Because so much of the history of troubadour music involves lyrics on paper, it is important to clarify that song lyrics are not the same as either prose or poetry. Scholars of traditional ballads have commonly ignored the melodies, intonations and articulations of the songs, and often treated melodies as being interchangeable, only paying attention to the meanings of the written words. Before about 1920 it was unusual for a folksong collector to pay attention to or to provide a melody with the text of the lyrics. Any songwriter would agree that you don’t just take away the music and treat the words as you would any poetry. Who treats the words to “Georgia on My Mind” as just poetry, while ignoring the melody? Who thinks of the Beatles lyrics “Strawberry Fields forever…,” “It’s been a hard day’s night...,” or “Mother Superior jumped the gun...” as merely words that could be just as well sung to any melody? Words and music are often inextricably bound together in our memory apparatus, and the tendency to do that is most likely connected to innate properties of both people and songs. Song lyrics have meter, as poetry often does, but they are sung, and a skilled songwriter adds at least two more dimensions to them by embedding them in a song with rhythm and a melody. When the words are phrased and sung against a rhythmic backdrop, we can’t measure this multi-dimensionality or even determine its precise meaning, but it’s undeniable that the music and the words fuse together into something that is not just music or words. When a pop singer sings a meaningless phrase or even a syllable, it can communicate something very vital. Most of us have probably stared at the words to a popular song and been surprised by the sometimes awkward relationship between the words and the song as we know it by just hearing it. It was no different centuries ago, but we have no recordings older than 135 years, and only spotty written music to songs from the distant past. So we must remember always that so many of the words on those yellowed pieces of paper were part of songs that were meant to be sung and possibly danced to, and not merely poems to be read silently or aloud. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that both old and modern poetry, including song lyrics and rap, depend on more than just the meaning of words. The ways that words and melodies intertwine and mesh are at the very core of the art of songwriting, and these are not purely rational or mechanical things.

Storing Words With Music
We could also write a whole book on the imprecise process of converting an orally-transmitted song to written notation, since there were rarely any corroborating witnesses, nor many opportunities to verify the accuracy of whatever transcriptions we now have. The discussion in Chapter 6 of Ruth Crawford-Seeger’s transcriptions highlights how confusing and complex that seemingly routine process can become. The sounds and melodic elements of the words of songs are absolutely vital, whether they are spoken or sung, and so are the various ways they are hung on a framework of melody, harmony, meter and rhyme. We now understand that it is normal for a songwriter to create both words and music. The two might even be stored together in our memories in a linked form, yet the musical practices of schools and churches have systematically separated those two elements in a way that is antithetical to the troubadour approach. Through much of the history of Western music, words have been treated as something apart from the music, or added later by someone else, and it is interesting to speculate how the two became so separated. In published sheet music the name of the author of the music typically appears in one corner of the page and the author of the words in another. Woody Guthrie may have only written one melody, and his huge number of songs typically borrowed tunes of all sorts. Who knows that Charles Jennens wrote the lyrics to Handel’s “Messiah?” We often now think of it as a joke or a parody to sing a new set of words to a common song, though for centuries in the world of church hymns and broadside ballads, words and music were considered to be interchangeable parts. Church hymnals still use a code in small print at the bottom right corner of the page that indicates the metrical pattern of the hymn, telling you what other melodies or sets of words could be substituted. Most hymns in a hymnal have a long history of words being sung to various melodies, being re-purposed periodically with new lyrics. You’ll find very few songs more than 75 years old in a hymnal where the words and music were written by the same person. It was absolutely normal for centuries to write new words to an existing tune or vice versa, and very unusual for a composer to write lyrics. The “Star-Spangled Banner” was one of several new sets of words that lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key wrote to the tune “Anacreon in Heaven.” His new song in 1814 was originally titled “The Defence of Fort M’Henry.” More commonly known as “The Anacreontic Song,” the melody was the official song of an 18th century gentlemen’s club called the Anacreontic Society, and close to 80 sets of new lyrics had already been published before Key. The song we know as “Amazing Grace” was a poem written in 1772 by Englishman John Newton, that was published to twenty different tunes before William Walker set it to the “New Britain” melody in Philadelphia in the 1835 shape-note hymnal “Southern Harmony,” 28 years after Newton’s death.

My Message and Myself as a Messenger
As we question sources of information about music in our past, I might as well address up front some of the questions you have about me. I fear an uphill battle to convince you that many of my ideas are valid, and I will admit to being skeptical of my ability to establish sufficient credibility to get you or the world in general to believe me as I tell the story of musicians of my species. I plead guilty to being a self-appointed spokesman, though I have as many “credentials” as anyone in my field, if indeed they are credentials and if troubadouring is a field. Perhaps some part of some world will accept that some fresh truths have been uncovered or spoken properly here as I tell my tale, as though a hidden tomb were excavated. I have worked very hard to tell this story carefully and accurately, though this intermittently-scholarly book has only a single, self-explanatory footnote.

I have made a living for almost 50 years outside of both the music industry and the academic world of folk music; I have written and arranged many songs, published dozens of books, including the first college textbook for folk guitar, published by Random House in 1984, and likely the first “desktop-published” book and the first “Indie” CD. I have recorded over 500 tracks on over 30 albums of music, forming as large and diverse a body of recorded solo troubadour music as anyone has produced. I have learned and performed considerable amounts of music, including Joplin and Bach pieces, made my own arrangements of traditional songs and instrumental pieces on a number of instruments, pioneered new tunings of my instruments and developed new playing techniques. I helped develop new instrument accessories and amplification technologies, gave more than 6000 live performances, and collaborated with quite a number of other creators and performers. Whatever I am or whatever I am not, I’m certainly not an outsider looking in, and I think it is long overdue in the annals of troubadour and roots music history for someone to tell this story who understands and practices the art form.

There is no Nobel Prize in my profession, no relevant Grammy award; there are no elected officials, respected journalists or news commentators in our field. We modern troubadours are an unorganized, independent and unruly bunch; we have no trade organizations, membership societies or annual meetings, though we did about 700 years ago in some parts of Europe. There are no eminent Professors of Troubadourology at hallowed universities, and no directors of government agencies who might stand up like a Poet Laureate or Surgeon General and speak to the nation with authority about an important troubadour-related issue. Popular musicians rarely offer much in the way of advice or guidance to beginners, and the list of famous troubadours who have devoted significant time or energy to helping others learn or understand the craft is sadly a very short one. I can only laugh to imagine that Bob Dylan might find out about my work and make a speech or announce a press conference on the subject to perhaps help more people learn about troubadour music and history. One of the most talented, influential and prolific troubadours of our time, his support could help the cause immensely, but that is an unlikely fantasy and not a plan. Popular musicians who are the inspirations and role models for most new musicians, and who could do the most to help our cause, do not seem to feel obligated to a community of fellow musicians or driven by a visible altruistic desire to help the next generations learn the craft. That work thus falls to those of us in the lower ranks, or simply to chance, evolution and the entropic forces of information.

In the next chapter I will try to explain to you why, if you intend to learn to become one of these innumerable, unnameable singing troubadour/musicians, there is no good reason why you need to learn about reading music, using staffs, clefs, rests and quarter notes, and those colorful Italian words like rubato or fortissimo. I feel certain that many readers will instantly stiffen and question the authority of my claims. You could apply George Occam’s famous “razor” principle, and conclude that it is much simpler and therefore more likely that I am mistaken or delusional than that a deeply-ingrained, centuries-old system of notating music could be significantly flawed or limited to the point that large numbers of people would be wise to ignore it. It is very likely that you will have never heard anyone express the viewpoint that reading music is useless, at least for some types of musicians. No one has given troubadours or guitarists a seat in the orchestra, so why should we limit ourselves by using their notation systems and protocols, that completely ignore huge parts of what makes our music special? When I tell you in Chapter 13 about the disrespect and outright persecution of musicians like me that happened in the past, you will probably rush to your favorite internet search engine to try to find out if I am lying to you, mistaken or exaggerating. First let’s grapple with this pesky and imperfect relationship between troubadour music and paper.

Read Chapter 4

Read Chapter 6

I'm trying to raise issues, questions and awareness in the world of modern troubadours... I want people to find this in web searches and to read it.  I don't have a way for you to comment here, but I welcome your emails with your reactions. Feel free to cheer me on, or to disagree...

Chordally yours,