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On Roots Music & Folklore

A 21st century look at the "folk process" and the spread of music

The term “roots” music seems to have largely replaced the term “folk,” and it is a much better word. It makes sense that cultural information flows, grows and spreads from the roots to the branches of the cultural trees. This avoids the awkward and unnecessary use of the "folk" word, spares us those awkward attempts to rigorously define it, and avoids discussions of whether or not the so-called "folk process" was involved. It might be better to envision our cultural heritage as a river or watershed system, though a more accurate model these days might be a fire hose or a geyser, since things are not flowing gently down any streams anymore. Ultimately it may not matter what path the music took to get from the roots to the branches, since people either learn and absorb music or they don't, and they have always done it by whatever pathways were available. It might be time to let go of some of those 19th and 20th century romantic attachments to the idea of the "folk process" and folklore, and to just realize that the way people pass along musical knowledge is all about and always has been about the flow or lack of the flow of information and knowledge.

Culture in 21st century America is a roaring, dizzying maelstrom of images, rhythms, language and sounds. Even when things were more controlled and simpler it was not a cut and dried thing to isolate chunks of cultural information and folklore and determine how they had been passed on or changed as they moved down the cultural river. It has never been possible to be completely sure of how a song, recipe, joke or a custom evolved or didn’t evolve. If there is even such a thing as "the American people," it's a fundamental question as to what people in general can see or understand of their own “folk culture," if there is such a thing. Your concept of how we as a nation have passed on musical traditions is no doubt different from my own, and it's likely that each a person's internal image of cultural ideas is shaped by a variety of factors, including their upbringing, age and cultural background. Hopefully from your vantage point you will be able to relate to what I am talking about here.

The discipline of folklore and the idea of "folk culture" seem to have been largely invented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they now look a bit naïve to me as I try to get the bigger picture of how music has moved around to get to each of us. It's understandable that "trained" and "musically literate" people were baffled and strove to understand the "people's music" that consisted of endless variations in the way that individual people learned, remembered and performed songs and tunes. Imagine a grammarian watching street kids who are using and making up slang terms for everything around them. The only way oral music can move around is in the memories of people, and certain things are easier to memorize than others, and certain people are better at memorizing than others. That's where I keep all my music, though admittedly I use audio and video increasingly to record and help me retain what I learn and create.

It's easier to learn from your family or close neighbors because they are more available to you. If you hear a traveling fiddler once at a dance you might not learn a lot of tunes or techniques from them. If someone grew up in a rural place without a lot of outside cultural information flowing in, they would naturally absorb things from local sources, and what they learned would be similar to what their neighbors learned. This is the explanation for the "richness" of local folklore and culture. When isolated people have a long period of time, things develop, grow and spread locally. DNA and life forms did something similar in geographically isolated places like Australia, the Galapagos Islands and Madagascar.

Shall we learn to read or just memorize?

Americans in general didn't really start learning to read music until the first half of the 18th century, when the Protestant church began to endorse the idea, and psalmody gave way to hymnody. "Regular singing" was what they called sight-reading, and there was a transitional period in the first half of the 1700s in American church music when one faction wanted sight-reading while the other wanted to stick with what they called "usual singing," where the congregations sang melodies they had internalized and were not reading. Sight-reading introduced the idea that people could and should perform music that they never really "knew" or learned. From the outside it seems like a good idea, like reading books instead of memorizing them.

I can attest to the fact that there is a fundamental difference between memorized music and music you have not memorized. In un-literate societies, the ability to memorize is an important one, and there may be interesting research newly available about how modern people with smartphones are not memorizing much information as compared to people in the past. The sacred stories and texts of both Native Americans and those of the Hindu religion were passed on for thousands of years in memorized form, and many think they have survived better than paper-based knowledge. It was considered normal in centuries past for students of Christianity to memorize huge chunks of the Bible, and Muslim devotees have often memorized the entire Koran since it first showed up around the year 700.

It's still a mysterious big gulf in music, between the music that trained musicians can read and the bigger, less organized mass of music that performers memorize or create themselves. Sight-readers sometimes memorize their music; the soloists with orchestras generally play from memory while the orchestra behind them is usually reading, though they rarely read "cold" and most often perform music they have played before. The kinds of things that are most often memorized are tunes and melodies of songs that are shorter and manageable. The musically illiterate peasants created, learned and passed around thousands of songs and tunes, and chunks of lyrics, rather than long involved epic poems or symphonic pieces. What we think of as "classical music" might represent the culmination of what a typical sight-reading musician can reasonably be expected to be able to perform. What an orchestra can do is impressive, and in no way do I mean to belittle their beauty or usefulness. (My only quarrel is with the implication that what they do is "higher art" than other kinds of music.) With parts written out, a group of musicians, usually with a conductor to hold it together, can perform very complex music amazingly well, without everyone having to memorize everything.

It is also sort of odd, in my opinion, to celebrate as the pinnacle of musical learning, the establishment of a type of musician who becomes highly skilled at playing music they do not know, and who can only perform it when the sheet music is available. When I was 22 years old I was invited to play autoharp for several classes of music education students at the University of Maryland music department. The dean of the department then was a woman, a superb classical pianist, who headed a department that even hosted an international piano competition. She heard me play autoharp for a class, and later in the day invited me into her office, closed the door, and then gushed out an impassioned confession, as if she had waited for a long time for someone she could confess it to. She said that he was in awe of my ability to play music without reading it, and that she was secretly ashamed at being unable to even play Happy Birthday on the piano by ear. She told me that she worked very hard to avoid ever being in someone's home or anywhere where she might be asked to play a piano without any sheet music in front of her, for fear of looking like a fraud, since she was a respected professor of piano music at a major university. I've been turning her confession around in my memory now for over 40 years, and it becomes more and more poignant the more I think about it. I never learned to read music of any sort, though I have "deciphered" a few classical and ragtime pieces so I could play them on the guitar.

Somehow her kind of music defeated my kind in the past, at least on several important battlefields. I'm now floating the idea that possibly a key reason why troubadour music has always been absent from the world of "formal music" was that it was beyond the power of the human brain to sight read the words to the song and the instrumental part at the same time. It especially doesn't work on the guitar. I've always wondered why they don't let you sing and play at the same time in music schools, and it might just be because of the limitations of sight-reading. If you think about it, the church organist or pianist is typically reading the accompaniment, and the congregation turns to the proper page and sight-sings the melody and words from the hymnal enough to get through the song. How many times have you seen a singer reading the melody and words along with an accompanist who is reading their part? It's a standard thing, and the sheet music is generally written ("arranged") with a level of difficulty that matches what typical readers can manage. [Note: We troubadours who have music stands in front of us are never looking at notes, staves and rests, just lyrics and possibly chords, either in a chort chart or written above the words. If we have internalized the rhythm feel of the song and have heard it a few times, we can use what are usually called "charts" to "read" through and perform songs we don't quite know from memory. Lounge singer/guitarists often have notebooks of this kind of "troubadour sheet music" so they can play requests without actually knowing all the songs completely.]

What puzzles me is that whenever I hear a singer and accompanist both reading, I notice that I am not moved by the music nearly as much as when the musicians play from memory. Why isn't that talked about more? I never really liked Ella Fitzgerald recordings much, and they seemed tepid compared to Aretha Franklin and other more exciting vocalists. A few years ago I learned that Ella was generally reading the songs when she recorded them, and couldn't help wondering whether there was a correlation. Aren't the emotional content and the way it moves the listener all-important? Who would rather hear music that is being read from the page more than music that comes from the heart? Maybe no one. Maybe the institutional requirements of cranking out fresh music week after week have created and maintained the sight-reading world, for the same kind of reasons that we have McDonald's hamburgers and other fast food. It's not better than home-made food, but enough people want or need lots of readily available, consistent food that it supports a huge industry. The entrance exams to important music schools like Eastman or Julliard focus heavily on sight-reading ability, not the ability of the applicant to emotionally move the evaluators.

Maybe the folklorists who were moved by peasant music were reacting to the fact that it was performed from memory, and with all the emotional and spiritual stuff intact and connected to it. Maybe classical music evolved to a state of complexity and an infrastructure of conductors and orchestras made it so that it couldn't keep attached to it all the good qualities that come from memorizing it. It might not be a coincidence that the mid-1800s, when the idea of folklore originated, the era when educated and literate people began to pay attention to uneducated, illiterate music– was the same time in history when sight-reading and musical literacy had driven folk-type instrumental and vocal music out of the churches, schools and the high-profile music world.

Has anybody ever done an experiment where people, or ideally children, listen to two orchestras, where one was sight-reading and the other wasn't? Maybe this is an explanation for why the orchestras and operas feel cursed to present the same popular and hackneyed pieces of music over and over. Once the performers really learn them, then the listener gets the beautiful complexity of the composed classical music, along with a performer who plays from the heart because they know the music. When audiences want to hear the same symphonies again and again, maybe it has something to do with how well the musicians know them. Maybe opera is doing better than symphonic music these days because the singers have to memorize their parts. Audiences undoubtedly get higher doses of some vital musical ingredient than if the singers are merely reading. It's my guess that opera performers trying to learn their craft have benefitted hugely from sound recordings, as have as the folk and popular musicians. Singers have been able to learn their parts much more effectively ever since sound recordings showed up. Luciano Pavarotti reportedly didn't read music, but he certainly got the job done.

Do an internet search for "orchestra memorize music" and you'll find all sorts of viewpoints and opinions. The people who know how to sight-read are not at ease with their relationship to memorizing music. There seems to be a lot of cognitive dissonance and sour grapes on both sides coloring this discussion. I don't read music, so I can easily see the limitations and drawbacks of relying on it. Good readers likewise can justify to themselves that they should use those skills, and they build their careers around situations where those skills are useful and ncessary. There is a lot of name-calling, tribal drumbeating and misunderstanding on both sides of this Great Fence of Music Literacy than runs right up the middle of the music world.

Orchestras have clearly concluded that it is too risky to rely on the memorizing abilities of 80 people at once. There is too much money and time invested, so they have to take the "safe road" and have everyone read the symphony. What if someone got sick or hurt? With a pool of sight-readers available they can get a replacement. Unfortunately, that's the same kind of logic that gave us Whitney Houston and Beyoncé lip-synching the national anthem at the Super Bowl. They were good enough singers to do it, but the powers in charge decided that there was too much at stake to trust a human in that high-pressure, high-profile situation.

In the end, it's possible that every time the humans give up that super-valuable high-profile real estate to the machines, we sadly yield precious ground to the robots and the automating of everything. It's OK if the lounge singer at the casino is reading the words and charts, but when someone is singing at your wedding you want them to really know the song. We should feature humans being incredibly human when they perform music for giant audiences, because humanity forfeits the opportunity for an artist to move all those listeners with a real human performance. That's what artists are for. Would you want a robot to read a poem at your mother's funeral? Would you buy a ticket to hear a robot play a concerto with the symphony?

Is "Folk Music" just the music we don't read?

Should we just conceptualize "folk learning" as just the things people have learned without using sheet music?

In defense of folklorists, I'll admit that there is an eternal allure to the idea of music and cultural customs being passed on within families and small communities. Local customs, songs and cultures are wonderful things, and it feels like a tragedy when they are steamrollered by mass culture. It's irresistably charming to encounter one of those old fiddlers, cowboys or blues musicians who seem to have absorbed their music by an ancient and "authentic" process, though maybe that allure is precisely what has led to some narrow-minded and over-romanticized views of non-academic culture, and led to the chasing of mythical unicorns in the musical forests. A root of the problem may even be a fundamental misunderstanding by academics in the music world about the process of learning music "by ear," and about the nature of musical skills in general that don't involve the reading of sheet music. Millions of people for thousands of years have learned, performed and passed on all kinds of music without using written notation, and what happens in that chain of knowledge is not voodoo. There are skills, and there are things to learn and practice.

Instead of having a piece of sheet music that represented the way someone wrote and everyone plays a piece of music, folksong collectors quickly find that any given song or melody exists in a wide range of versions. None of these is necessarily any more accurate or correct than any other, though for music that was composed and then learned incorrectly by ear there is of course a measurement standard. It is clear when a Mozart piece is being played right or wrong, and anyone who was trying to organize and catalog things could just keep one copy of that. (Though of course there are examples in classical music of revisions and alternate versions, but I think you understand the point here.) The more versions of "John Henry" or "The Elfin Knight" you can track down, the more versions you have. There are also plenty of instances when a particular version of a song was passed down intact from a book into oral tradition, or is traceable to a popular version or one that appeared in a published form. Many oral-tradition folk songs and melodies were also put into books. This allowed them to solidify, but also to spread more widely and in different ways. Folklorists typically tried to compile and merge the individual versions into a composite version, but later came under fire for editing and modifying the content of the folk songs.

Its no secret that blind musicians have done more than their share of the heavy lifting by carrying music around in their heads, and they show up a great deal in folklore research as rich sources of musical information. The Greek harper/poet Homer was blind, and he carried the Odyssey around in his head, if he was indeed a real person. It's possible that part of the reason that African-Americans had such an impact on American music in the early 20th century was because in general blind Americans who were black didn't have access to learning Braille, which was just getting established at that time. There were a large number of blind African-American musicians playing on streetcorners who were recorded by early record companies. When you can't see, it frees up about 2/3 of your brain processing power, which allows blind musicians to excel at non-visual things like hearing, learning and feeling. There also weren't many other career options available to those folks. Because somebody bothered to record them, we all benefitted from their situation. The recording and broadcasting technology greatly magnified the value of their contribution to American music.

Maybe everything should be looked at as just learning, and not divided into "folk-style" learning and "non-folk-style" learning. The concept of "folklore" as I see it revolves around a set of fantasies and several types of tunnel vision that the folklore folks have applied to the world of music they have been trying to appreciate, understand, describe and catalog. I have lived and played music my whole life in a world surrounded by their concepts and terminology, and it may be time to help at least some of those ideas die. Admittedly, that may be hard to do, since public conceptions and romantic images are hard to kill. It is comforting to cling to the ideas of "pure country honky-tonk music," "pure Irish stepdancing" or "pure bebop" as we are being blasted by the 21st century cultural fire hoses, and everything is interbreeding and mixing with everything else.

People hear and learn songs from all sorts of sources now, though in the past, when information pathways were simpler, it was often easier to determine what pathway a song took as it moved around. When we are talking about vernacular, unschooled, oral tradition music, there isn't a trail of evidence like there is with paper sheet music. Until we figure out how to extract music from the walls of old buildings or the fibers of clothing, we aren't going to be able to peer into the musical past with things like MRI machines or electron microscopes. If it preceded the era of recording, and wasn't either written down or able to be written down, we can't know what it really sounded like. We don't even know how to pronounce things in Latin. We have the written language, but have lost the sounds.

A Brief History of Folklore

Harvard professor Francis Child (1825-1896) is generally regarded as the “father” of what we think of as folklore study, though of course others preceded him. In 1765, Irishman Thomas Percy assembled Reliques of Ancient Poetry, a 3-volume set of minstrel poetry that set the stage for Child's work. Child labored for decades to assemble, catalog and organize a group of 305 British Isles ballads (now known as "Child ballads") into a series of books. The first of his books appeared in 1860, and Child focused on what happened to ballads as they migrated to North America and passed into and through the younger American culture. The idea at the root of Childs' work was that old songs from the British Isles were preserved in North America by descendants of earlier colonists. This isn’t a shocking or radical idea, though it apparently hit a bit of a nerve when it came out. I’ve always heard that the French Canadian dialect of language was to a large extent a preservation of an older form of French that came to North America centuries ago.

Francis Child’s work, that ultimately filled 5 volumes and 2500 pages, led to a number of collectors and “songcatchers” such as Cecil Sharp and Frances Densmore who exerted considerable effort to collect old ballads “alive” in rural America, especially in the Southern mountains, where it was believed that the oldest and purest ballad remnants were. In the early part of the 20th century, the idea that there was something of academic importance in the music of the American rural South spread quickly, spawning quite a bit of mythology and romanticism about the music and about how musical information itself spread. There was a sense of urgency that drove folklore collectors a century ago, growing from their belief that they needed to capture the last of the dying breeds of folk song performers before modern technology “destroyed” the ancient art forms. This same urgency seems to be a permanent part of ethnomusicology, and there is no shortage of examples of people chasing the lingering vestiges of older cultural (and technological) things. Thomas Percy lamented greatly that the troubadours of old were already gone. Some customs, words, recipes and musical ideas have always died out, while others have survived and mutated, and romanticized notions of what is “important,” “cool” or “authentic” have always colored the landscape of our understanding of our cultural heritage.

The work of the 20th century folklorists casts a long shadow over the modern landscape of folk & roots music. Pioneering folklorist John Lomax and his son Alan, as well as Charles Seeger and his sons Pete and Mike commendably labored their entire adult lives to open the eyes of as many Americans as possible to the value and breadth of American folk music. The good news is that modern folklorists are much savvier and careful, but the public conceptions of a lot of things were shaped by the earlier generations of less-savvy and less-aware folklorists. Early folklorists opened many of our eyes to the value of folk music, and succeeded in capturing a large amount of recorded material that is very valuable to us now, in spite of all the music they failed to capture or notice due to their lack of a wider-angle lens to look through. Alan Lomax had the vision and energy to carry cumbersome recording equipment to a dizzying number of places, and in spite of what we may think of his ideology, his taking ownership of copyrights from his folklore sources, and his weird theories of cantometrics (that he tried to use to "scientifically" show that black people had better rhythm than white people), we all owe him and all folklorists a great debt for their hard work. But let's not just heap praise on them and forgive their transgressions.

Music and culture are and always have been complex forms of information that follow channels and pathways into and around all of us. They behave like networked information that computer people study mathematically, and they probably also follow models nearly identical to the way disease germs move around. Enough people create and learn certain music so that some of it gets passed on, while a lot of other music gets lost or modified. It’s of course hard to be aware of the music that is not being played anymore, since all the songs no one knows anymore and the lost styles of playing are mute and say nothing unless they exist as media in a book or a recording.

Folklore at its heart may really be a paradox. Think of all the orally-transmitted music that was lost before it was recorded or filmed. Does it really keep it alive to have a video of it, or is it a sci-fi film of an organism being kept alive in a laboratory, connected to wires and tubes? The arrival of the recording and film media might have been the very force that caused the old music to die out. Languages are changing and dying too, and people are working desperately to record and film the last speakers of languages, but will those films really save the language? Young people aren't learning the old languages because they are watching TV shows and movies with newer or more powerful languages in them. It's a tough question as to whether the technology will ultimately preserve or destroy more of the past culture, skills and knowledge.

We also have to understand that the early 20th century folklorists did a lot of their critical work in the all-important transition period when recording and broadcasting were just entering the American music scene. It's impossible to overstate the importance of how much and how quickly these new technologies changed our musical landscape. People did learn music for centuries by certain methods, yet in a very short time they started learning from recordings and the radio. Many people who cherish early recordings feel that they can hear the sound of a now-lost generation of musicians who were for this reason fundamentally different than those who followed. The epicenter of this transition was the mid-1920s, when the new "electrical" recording methods ushered in a quantum leap improvement over earlier mechanical methods. The arrival of radio at the same time meant that the American music scene probably got a much bigger jolt from the changes in the 1920s than even the explosive hi-tech things happening today. Pandora definitely opened a big box during that era. The fundamental question is whether we lost or gained more with the arrival of those technologies in the 1920s. Folklorists felt that valuable processes and delicate information threads were irreparably damaged, but music fans and musicians reveled in their new ability to hear, enjoy and learn all sorts of new and exciting things. The level and breadth of what people were able to be exposed to and to learn after the arrival of broadcasting and recording is unmeasurably large. As a musician, I would vote that collectively we gained far more than we lost, and I shudder to think of a world without music we have learned and enjoyed from audio and video sources.

Musical information pathways were easier to study or catalog in the days before modern media, though again it was the newfangled tape recorder that allowed Alan Lomax to make recordings of folk artists and not just clumsy written accounts as previous folklorists had done. Before recordings, you could only learn about yodeling if you saw or heard a yodeler in person. (I have never heard of a form of yodeling written notation.) Traveling musicians carried musical information with them, and observers picked up chunks or snippets of what they were doing. The only ways Marco Polo could have brought any music back from China was to learn to play some himself, bring a musician back with him, or write something down on paper. It’s likely no Chinese musician would have been willing to walk thousands of miles to come home with Marco, and play for people in Italy who wouldn’t understand a word or a note of the music. Marco could bring herbs, silkworms and spices, and even technologies like porcelain, but he couldn’t take a cellphone video of a Chinese band or bring one of their CD’s back to Venice.

Popular poet Carl Sandburg was an early advocate of American folk music to mostly literate audiences, and a fan of the work of John Lomax. He toured around on the lecture and Chautauqua circuit spreading his version of the beauty and value of the people's music to packed houses across the country. He sold millions of copies of his 1927 "American Songbag" book, and amid his lectures he lustily sang "Buffalo Skinners" and "John Henry" to incredulous audiences who knew little or nothing about American folk songs. A little tribe of other “folk music evangelists,” with considerable assistance from record company people along the way like Moe Asch, Ralph Rinzler and John Hammond Sr., all did some important work to help us all embrace the idea that there was great artistic value in the vernacular music of the nation’s diverse peoples. Instead of being repulsed by its “savagery” and “weirdness,” (as some said 100 years ago) since the 1930s or so we have been encouraged to celebrate it against the stifling backdrop of “high music” that drove composers, symphonies, and church music throughout most of our nation's history. The Seeger/Lomax coalition determined correctly that most of the music being taught in schools was of European origin, and part of their master plan was to find, assemble and propagate a more suitable body of "American folk music" to instill in students. They did a surprising amount to educate America about its music, though of course they made a number of what we now would call mistakes.

The folk evangelists had help from some powerful people and institutions, including the government, universities and even powerful individuals. It's not insignificant that Henry Ford himself was a great believer in the value and purity of traditional fiddle music and dance (he owned a Stradivarius and tried to play fiddle music on it), and the story of his considerable efforts to popularize and promote it in the 1920s and 1930s sounds fictional. I'll mention but not dwell on the viewpoint that Ford's musical crusade likely stemmed from a racist, anti-Semite and white supremacist outlook. Ford and Hitler both kept photos of each other in their offices (!!), and Ford was reportedly motivated to popularize fiddle music and traditional dance to resist and reverse what he saw as the abhorrent influences of Black culture on American popular music. It was also not insignificant that Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor were big folk music fans, who attended rural folk festivals and often invited folk performers to the White House. During Roosevelt's long time in office (1933-1945) quite a bit of federal money was diverted to folk music, which undoubtedly helped propagate both music and myths, and embed them into my generation and that of my parents.

Is The "Folk Process" Itself An Antiquated or Romanticized Notion?

The idea of "the folk process" itself says that the pathway (or imagined and romanticized pathway) taken by the musical information determines something about the validity of the information, which may not be true, or even something that can be determined to be true or false. True folk music supposedly was learned orally and locally, spanned generations, was not commercial, and involved unknown authorship. I can easily understand why someone would go in search of such a rare and elusive animal, and also that those who had trouble finding it could have faked it or skewed their research to make it look like they found it by the way they presented their findings.

I have run into folklorists ever since I went to my first bluegrass festivals in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina in my teens. Somewhere someone has recordings of me and my buddy Steve Weih in our overalls jamming (me on autoharp, Steve on jew's harp) and sipping moonshine with hillbillies at the Galax fiddlers' convention in rural Virginia in about 1973. Steve was the best jew's harp player I have ever heard, and I was doing very advanced things with an autoharp then. We were blending in, having fun, and were playing along nicely with "Flop-Eared Mule", "Soldier's Joy" and "Redwing," and we were as shaggy and dirty as any locals, though we probably had much better teeth. I remembered thinking as I looked up and saw the tape recorders in the hands of the geeky urban guys that just as the folklorists were looking for "pure" examples of rural American music and found us, the rural musicians being observed could have been winking at each other to indicate that they had located a particular pure strain of folklorist. Both forms of human are easy to spot; though I doubt that any rural uneducated people were impersonating folklorists that weekend, nor do I think the folklorists could have known that Steve and I were "imposters" to glance at us.

But were we really imposters? This is a crucial question. Steve and I were from Maryland, and were hanging around D.C., home of the world's richest urban & suburban bluegrass music scene. Don Reno was playing at Shakey's Pizza a few miles away. The Country Gentlemen played every week at the Shamrock bar on M street in Georgetown, where suburban kids went bopping on weekends. I was playing music in the streets with Buzz Busby, Johnny Snyder and Jack Stoneman. My first paying gig was earning $15 playing dobro with Buzz, Johnny, and fiddle legend Carl Nelson for a birthday party at the American Legion for one of Buzz's prison buddies. It was so smoky that I had to play with my eyes mostly shut because my eyes burned and tears streamed down my face when I opened them. Lamar Grier, Billy Baker, Lucky Saylor, Russ Hooper, and other bluegrass legends were around, showing up at parties and playing lousy local gigs. Steve and I went to bluegrass parties as often as possible, where we jammed and listened, and met Reed Martin, Bruce Hutton, Steve Hickman, Dudley Connell, Jody Chalk, Al Petteway, and others who were to become a new generation of masters of their craft. The Bluegrass Cardinals were living in their bus a block from my apartment in College Park, MD. Steve and I were absorbing bluegrass music, but because we were not from "musical families" and did not fit the stereotypes of what folklorists wanted us to be, we were considered imposters, though we were part of the next generation of students learning the cultural knowledge. Folklorists would have been appalled that my parents were math teachers, and if one of them taping me at Galax found out that I had gone to college to "study math," they would have turned off their tape recorders, even though the bulk of what I did at college was play music. (I sure don't remember any of the math.) The Johnson Mountain Boys used to come every week to an open mike I ran in 1977, before they ever had a gig, and they were also suburban D.C. kids who grew up on Bob Dylan, Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel music. But because they were attracted to bluegrass, got good at it, and chose to adopt the sound, repertoire, mannerisms and clothes of the 1950s bluegrass bands, they were hugely celebrated for being an "authentic" bluegrass band. They earned the highest honors from the bluegrass community for sticking to the script, though it would not be wrong to classify them as "bluegrass theater" either.

Implying that anyone who learned music any way other than by the "true folk process" is "impure" or "tainted" reminds me of schoolteachers today telling children that they are not allowed to use Wikipedia for research. All the things we are learning about "fake news", "alternative facts" and "spinning stories" in the media today should give us pause in any feelings we have that we are certain about anything that involves information transmittal. The vaudeville and minstrel shows of the 1800s can be seen as a kind of "musical fake news" where the musical ideas and skills of African-Americans were inaccurately portrayed, distorted and exaggerated through widely-circulated channels. Yet they had a huge impact, and you cannot dismiss or ignore their importance if you are trying to understand American "roots" music.

Francis Child adhered rigidly to a philosophy that today seems absurdly narrow: he focused entirely on ballads in English that pre-dated the printing press, feeling strongly that its arrival (it showed up in Britain first in 1475) sullied the folk process and damaged something in the “purity” of the transmission of cultural information. It's even sort of contradictory that he insisted on making books of music that wasn't learned from books. Following his methods would be like saying that anything we learn from a book is a different, inferior kind of knowledge than what we might learn from a person. (So maybe we should ignore what is in his books and only learn about folk songs orally from our families and neighbors...) Now that there are several more forms of information transfer, we might wonder if someone might try to distinguish between the purity or “importance” of things learned by handwritten letter, by audio recordings, or by video media. Now that media is so all-pervasive, we are perhaps in a better position to accept that culture is just complex information, and it travels from person to person or place to place by whatever methods are available and always has.

How many brilliant musicians came and went in their small villages, with their skills and innovations unknown to the rest of the world? The traveling fiddlers and wordsmiths came through town, played their stuff, and the locals who heard them got what they could from hearing it, depending on their ability to remember, and on how long the travelers stayed around. The difference is that now you can make a tape or a video, and capture exactly what was being done, and in older times you could only remember snippets. So musical ideas and plots of songs and catchy lines moved through the people who played and heard them, and in the past were constantly changed by what they used to call in folklore “creative forgetting.” This kind of imperfect absorption is the essence of “folklore” transmission of musical information, typically involving neither an exact memorized copy or a faithfully reproduced performance of something that could be written down. This is how jokes, ideas and what they now call “memes” move around, and probably how language itself stretches and adapts as it grows and spreads.

Folklore has also never stopped happening, and we have not stopped learning from each other. People are still learning songs, jokes and recipes from each other and copying each other's fashion ideas. It's the pathways of information that have changed, not the fact that people learn via whatever pathways they have. The venerable Pete Seeger, who I guess I mention too often, since he is one of the key people who shaped our entire concept of how we look at our folk culture, made a comment late in his career that maybe some kind of modern folklore was going on in cities and suburban settings. Duh. Of course it is. Kids in their basements banging on guitars while writing and learning songs with their friends are absorbing musical information from what is around them just as their ancestors did in log cabins. What is different now is that they are more likely to learn from a YouTube video than from their own family or neighbors.

The Mythology, Shortcomings and Myopia of American "Folklore"

Most of what we have to work with to understand our musical past is what the academics or the record companies collected, so we have to be happy that we have some things to enjoy and study, though we should constantly remind ourselves that this information they assembled was shaped by the lenses of the perceptions and intentions of the assemblers and collectors. It's important to remember this, and tempting to take a few jabs at the narrow-mindedness of what was done, hoping that I don't rankle too many younger, more culturally aware folks who are interested in their musical heritage. I have been living my whole life in a musical world whose perception of music and of itself has been colored and shaped by what I now see as antiquated, simplistic and sometimes condescending notions of both folklore and the commodification of the "people's music." I have inherited these perceptions of folklore and the marketing of music as much as I have inherited the actual music.

DISCLAIMER: Before I get going here about what bugs me about growing up amid the theories and publications of folklorists, I want to explain a little of why I seem annoyed by things, so you will maybe be more sympathetic and cringe less when I complain. I'm a respected acoustic musician, and I have worked for almost 50 years to learn to play my music and to master my instruments. I have helped develop and pass on songs and playing techniques, and feel like I am an active participant in the chain of knowledge of the people's music. I am involved in the activity of traditional music moving through time and people, and I honor and respect that role. A big chunk of what I do is to work up my own versions of traditional songs and tunes, and I have always found a lot of meaning and pleasure, not only in the music itself, but in the idea that I am a part of the roots and branches of the cultural tree. But I am self-taught and self-aware, I don't come from a musical family. I don't play at a role of being part of an established regional music style, but I have always read books on history and music and I have a pretty good understanding of where I do and don't fit. I often create my own music that isn't an attempt to sound like old traditional music, I play an occasional Bach piece or Rolling Stones song. These parts of my artistic pursuits are essentially a list of "sins" that apparently disqualify me from being interesting to folklorists or to the people who control the folk festivals and National Council For the Traditional Arts concert tours. Those are nice gigs, with good pay, respect and publicity. But there isn't a chance that I'll be written about in any folklore journals or get booked into the National Folklife Festival to play my autoharp, fingerpick some tunes or sing some old songs. Those gigs go to a certain type of archetypical musician who has to meet a certain set of criteria, foremost among them being that they shouldn't be professional musicians. I am proud of the fact that I have made a living playing my home-made music for 45 years, and it never made sense to me that that would prevent me from playing some good-paying gigs that feature traditions of American music that I know a lot about. In the eyes of the people who make those decisions, I am hopelessly "tainted," as much as anything by my awareness of who I am and even by my dedication to what I do. It bugs me to see a bulldozer operator from rural North Carolina on the big folk festival stage playing sloppy blues, but pushing all the buttons and adhering to all the stereotypes that thrill the folklore presenters and audiences. Add to that that I have to personally pay royalties to the Lomax estate every fiscal quarter for the sales of my Song Train boxed set, because it has a folk song on it that they own part of, immorally in my opinion. So that confessed, let me go on...

Trying to determine what is or isn’t "authentic" music is apparently an old issue. Its sticky web has ensnared all sorts of artists, listeners and critics who sought to either celebrate authenticity or shun things they saw as unauthentic or fake. It's really easy to think that you are pursuing something authentic, and it's also easy to be led astray or to fail to see other vital things amid a pursuit of authenticity. This issue is so pervasive and complex that there are many books on the subject, and I posted an entire blog on musical authenticity. A yardstick often used by academics and folklorists to measure a crucial type of folk music authenticity was whether or not the song was learned orally from a person rather than from a recording or broadcast. Folklorists have long cherished the idea that when people in a culture or cultural subgroup learn their art from their families and neighbors, it was somehow more “pure” or “authentic.”

If you go to the headwaters of the field of folklore, beginning with the work of Francis Child, you immediately find a number of glaring omissions and problems. Child himself completely ignored the music, focusing entirely on the text of the lyrics of his beloved ballads. Some of the later songcatchers who followed in his footsteps made a point to also document the tunes, though I question their ability to notate the subtler and more complex rhythmic and harmonic elements of rural American folk music. Pete Seeger's stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, was a celebrated composer and hard-core classical musician who understood musical notation as well as anyone. She also reportedly spent hundreds of hours transcribing old 78's of blues and hillbilly music into written notation for the folksong books being published at the time, and her work hasn't to my knowledge been much revisited or questioned. Sorry, Ruth, but even you aren't going to portray the nuances of Lemon Jefferson's "Blacksnake Moan," Harry Choates "Draggin' the Bow", Blind Blake's "Police Dog Blues" or Dock Boggs' "Country Blues" in little quarter notes, triplets and rests. The note-readers and the "ear players" might as well be from Mars and Venus, so nobody who knows the music pretty well bothers to investigate how poorly the notation captures its essence. Since the source of the music was a recording, anyone who really wants to learn it does so from the audio, not the paper. The bends, slurs, syncopations, punctuation and dynamics of so much music just doesn't map properly onto a musical staff. Syncopated fiddle-bow techniques and fingerpicking guitar rhythmic complexities defy notation and have to be learned orally.

Another crucial thing we haven't been told is that the rural musicians that were sought out as sources by early 20th century folklorists were surprised to find out that the collectors were only interested in the older "folk songs" they knew. Apparently the results of all folk music collecting were significantly skewed by a bias away from anything that the collectors deemed "popular," or even music that was learned from books or recordings. The story of Alan Lomax's first recordings of Muddy Waters in 1941 is typical. Lomax was looking for blues music, and Waters (McKinley Morganfield was his real name) knew how to play all kinds of music, including waltzes, polkas and country songs. He even played every week in a square dance band with local fiddler Henry Sims. Lomax ignored everything Waters did except the blues he wanted to hear. Folksong collectors likewise generally ignored original or contemporary songs that their sources knew and liked.

20th century folklorists made a lot of assumptions and did a lot of editing. It makes sense that if you collect 10 versions of a song that you might boil them down and only print the song once in your collection, but how do you do that "correctly?" It's sort of like mangling an archeological site to get the dinosaur bones. So when you look in a Lomax folksong book, the verses to songs might have come from several versions, and the Lomaxes edited and even added some of their own verses. It seemed to them and their publishers like a reasonable thing to do, but it is now considered a folklore "faux-pas" to consolidate and edit the song lyrics or tunes. Buit no one wants to make or buy a whole book of all the different variants that have been found to one ballad.

The issue of folk music being "tainted" by commercial or popular music has always been a thorny and dangerous one in folklore study. A large number of "folk songs" that have been collected have been discovered to have been written and published previously. A lot of the older ballads so revered by folklorists originated as cheesy pop music from a previous century, where they were sometimes in song collections or distributed as "broadsides" and spread around individually on sheets of paper. And of course there has never been anything to prevent a song from going in and out of the "oral tradition." There are myriad known cases where printed versions were made of folk songs, and where songs that originated on paper became orally-transmitted songs that behaved just like folk songs. High-profile folklorists have made endless errors by collecting songs from seemingly rural and "folk" people, without either the source or the collector knowing where the songs really came from. Now that information is so available, we are learning the true sources of a lot of songs that we never before knew where they come from. John Lomax put "Home on the Range" in his seminal book of cowboy songs. He "collected" it from a "Negro saloon-keeper" in San Antonio in 1908, thinking it was a folk song, not knowing 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 and was the president'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 provenance of songs, and it was really easy for folksong collectors to make this kind of error, and now we can find out that a mistake like that wasn't rare or unusual.

Lomax also published the song “Buffalo Skinners” in his hugely influential 1910 book “Cowboy Songs.” He reputedly sang the song himself at lectures, as did the very famous Carl Sandburg, who learned it from Lomax’s book. They both made a point of celebrating the song as a remarkable example of American folk ballads, without either of them knowing that it was a modified cowboy version of a lumberjack song from Maine that was collected and published in the “Minstrelsy of Maine” book by Fannie Hardy Eckstorm and Mary Winslow Smyth. Two of the leading folklorists of their day, and the men who may have done more than anyone else to call America’s attention to its own folk culture, were unable to trace the origin or know much about a song Lomax found someone singing in Texas and assumed to be an “authentic” folk song from that region.

folk song kit (1927) "Minstrelsy of Maine"

The folklore collectors who got the whole folklore mythology ball rolling also chose to ignore local songs that their sources knew or wrote, focusing instead on promoting the grander idea of old songs as a cultural thread connecting regions and generations by passing through them. Songs that didn't span regions or generations were ignored. There is nothing wrong with savoring the idea that an old song might have either changed or stayed the same as it floated merrily down the cultural stream, but overlooking or misunderstanding all the other kinds of "people's music" is not OK in my book. It is indeed quaint, charming and maybe even commendable that music was passed down orally as much as it was, but to focus only on that mode of transmission is more than a bit myopic.

The folklore world also went through some pitched internal battles over the classifications, origins and purity of folk music, and of what was deemed worthy of more attention or of serious study. Early folklorists with their recording machines trying to capture “pure” folk music scorned the early record companies, who many experts now think did a much better job of documenting, collecting and preserving all sorts of music, with simpler but very different motives. These disputes and mutual antipathy were very real and urgent to the people involved in them, though in the light of history and with hindsight, the issues they argued over now seem petty and pointless. The folklorists were often trying to collect music for reasons involving personal ego, viewpoints and opinions mixed with scholarly issues, and early record companies were focused on artists whose recordings they could sell. It's something to ponder that the event so often credited with sparking the 1950s "folk revival" was the release in 1952 of the Harry Smith-curated boxed set "Anthology of American Folk Music," which consisted of 84 songs that had all been released as commercial 78 records between 1927 and 1932. None of them were recorded by or deemed worthy of study by folklorists or academics.

There is also the massive problem of musical racism, perhaps unconscious, in 20th century folklore. The ballad collectors who roamed through the Southern mountains a century ago primarily collected songs from white people, and most of them managed to completely ignore African-American and other non-white cultures, which were often flourishing in very close proximity and intermingling with the white culture. Some of the most important collectors who did pay attention to Black music, especially Lawrence Gellert and John Wesley Work III, have been overlooked by history and popular understanding. And when the first folklorists began to focus on African-American culture (most notably father-son pioneering folklorists John and Alan Lomax), in their enthusiasm they applied some pretty sketchy ideas about race to their academic work. Admittedly, it's really hard, with modern perspectives, to properly get inside the 1930s and 1940s mindset of people like Lomax to look at this issue fairly, but a lot has been written about the Lomaxes and their almost obsessive relationship with their imagined concept of what African-American music really was or wasn't.

The Lomaxes worked tirelessly doing their chosen work in American folk music, but it’s now pretty easy to see how romanticized and myopic they were about a lot of things, particularly the issue of race. John Lomax is credited with being the first American academic to take African-American musical culture seriously, and to not just chase the Child ballads, and for that we should be thankful. He also seemed to believe that black people were fundamentally different, and strove to find "pure" black music, untouched by white culture, as the Holy Grail of his searching. He got the idea of going to prisons in the South as a way to find "untainted" black music. This does makes some sense as a way to find interesting music, but significantly shrinks the size of the pond to be fishing in, and can hardly be seen as the place to get an accurate barometer reading of African-American music. Maybe it should be seen as just a barometer of music in Southern prisons. Many people today make the claim that the Lomaxes in their zeal unwittingly imposed racial boundaries and categories onto a musical world where the black and white musicians and audiences actually knew each other better and shared a great deal more than was generally understood at the time.

Lomax actually wrote in his publicity material, trying to promote the music of Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), whom he discovered in Angola prison in Louisiana: “Leadbelly is a nigger to the core of his being. In addition he is a killer. He tells the truth only accidentally… He is sensual as a a goat, and when he sings to me my spine tingles and sometimes tears come.” (This is one of many examples of this kind of output from Lomax.) People who knew Leadbelly after Lomax brought him to New York said he was a quiet and pleasant man, who enjoyed nice clothes, and understandably resisted a great deal when Lomax insisted that he wear prison garb and sit on hay bales to sing for the white folks in the big city. Lomax's son Alan, who may have had an even larger influence on our modern concept of folklore, similarly had some ideas about the relationship between race and music that no one today would dare to propagate.

Luckily for us, Ralph Peer and other early record company people discovered that they could sell record players and records to ethnic audiences if they recorded musicians of those ethnicities, so racist or not, they pressed and sold a lot of interesting records that modern people are now very glad to have. The story of how the Paramount company of Port Washington, Wisconsin was started in 1917 by the Wisconsin Chair Company, and came to record some of the most valuable early blues music is quite remarkable. They went out of business in 1935, and collectors are still scouring the country for lost copies of some of their old 78's.

The Lomaxes also ignored what educated Black people were doing, as if it was irrelevant, and pursued a mythology of what they thought African-American music was or should be. In Lomax's defense, it's understandable that he didn't have modern ideas about race; he was born in 1867 and raised in rural Texas. His son Alan was born in 1915, not exactly a period of racial enlightenment either. If you aren't put off by his racist views, read the last couple chapters of his 1947 autobiography "Adventures of a Ballad Hunter."

Folklorists and song collectors commonly took ownership of the copyrights of music they "collected" from folk musicians. So did the record companies, but they were more likely to have the artists sign a contract to the effect. Not to always pick on the Lomaxes, but they were among the highest-profile perpetrators of the bunch. Look at the copyrights of Leadbelly's music, and the songs like "Goodnight Irene" or "Rock Island Line" say "words & music by John Lomax and Huddie Ledbetter" in the credits. That has always rankled me, especially because I recorded my own versions of some songs partly owned by the Lomaxes and I am always uncomfortable writing royalty checks to the lawyers who manage their estates.

When the legal dust finally settled on the copyright issues surrounding the 1960 #1 hit song "Tom Dooley" by the Kingston Trio, the result was interesting. Though the Trio claimed they learned the song from a guy at an open mike in San Francisco, the court settlement determined that they got the words from a recording that came from a folksong book published by Alan Lomax, and not from the 1929 public domain Grayson & Whitter recording. The royalty money from the song was divided 3 ways: Frank Proffitt, whose 1937 version of the song was collected by folklorists Frank & Ann Warner, and was licensed to Lomax for his 1947 book "Folksong USA" got 1/3. So the Warners got 1/3, Lomax got 1/3 and the estate of Frank Proffitt got 1/3. How is this fair? Why should folklorist/song collectors make a recording of a person singing a song and then make 2/3 of the royalty money? At the time it was no big deal, because no one expected that folk songs would ever be worth anything. It's always been amazing to me that people would go around, collect songs from compliant people, put them in a book and slap a copyright notice on everything to claim ownership. Some things people took ownership of are still under copyright almost 100 years later, because there have been 11 extensions to copyright law added since 1798, most of them in recent years to keep valuable intellectual property (especially Mickey Mouse, ©1928) from falling into the public domain. I'll try again to find some justification for this, since the courts have upheld this sort of thing, maybe I am being legally naïve. I found this quote that explains but doesn't justify the theft: "the intellectual property rights of traditional singers in folk songs were considered highly questionable or non-existent." The Lomax heirs argue that Alan Lomax was not greedy or unscrupulous, but it's a messy legal situation that works fine until a lot of money suddenly come in when a folk song becomes a popular hit, which happens now and then.

We also now we have the tricky issue of whether learning from a YouTube video is a new kind of oral transmission, or a new embodiment of the old, hallowed one. It looks like oral tradition learning, smells like oral tradition learning... I'm curious what 21st century folklorists have to say on that topic, though all their published scholarly articles I can find these days are hidden behind serious paywalls, indicating that they don't want us reading what they have to say unless we buy into their club.

Early record companies that we also romanticize as having a special connection to the pure roots of our music also skewed the results of their collecting by offering money to musicians to record only specific genres or styles. They rewarded blues musicians, jazz bands, or fiddlers, usually to copy the success of a previous recording, while ignoring other musicians, or even other kinds of music the same musicians might have even preferred to have recorded. It's likely that a lot of our ideas of what musical genres there are and what they consist of were created in the early days of marketing by record companies.

As I scratch my head to ponder these things, I am reminded of a workshop on “Women in Bluegrass” I once attended at the bluegrass music trade show. The older women were anxious to talk about the discrimination they had faced in the past, and the difficulties they had experienced in a male-dominated subculture. The young women were refreshingly frank as they said that they had seen none of what the older women described, and from their perspective they didn’t feel discriminated against and couldn’t even really understand or inhabit what the older women had been through. Similarly, younger musicians now trying to see and understand their place in the chain of musical knowledge may have difficulty understanding that those who came before them faced a different cultural information matrix, and young musicians who were not indoctrinated by the viewpoint of folklorists may not even understand what I am bothered by as I write this. Maybe there will someday be a reality TV show where modern musicians agree to live for extended periods in a Survivor-like environment, where they can only learn music orally by the folk process from other people, and not from any media.

Living "Folk Culture"

After ballad hunters like Francis Child and Cecil Sharp first spread the idea in the late 1800s and early 1900s that musical relics of the past still lived in remote cultural backwaters of rural America, folk music and traditional songs began to be seen as valuable or at least interesting to educated people. Over the course of the “exploration and discovery” of American folk music in the 20th century, this perception eventually gave way to the obvious idea that there was a huge and vibrant musical scene not just preserved from the past but actually currently going on all over the nation. It seems incredible to us now, in the Age of Information, that supposedly educated and aware people could be so ignorant of vibrant and vital music that was going on under their very noses. It was found to consist of all sorts of people creating and performing all sorts of living & breathing ballads, blues, gospel, jazz, Cajun, cowboy, Hawaiian, Klezmer and other musics, all of which had real immediate value far beyond merely academic interest. It was alive, and not just a fossil record. To his credit, Alan Lomax saw the value of this music sooner then most, and made field recordings of a lot of it, though again it's questionable why he felt like it was his right to take ownership of any of it. When folklorists started trying to trace the roots of old ballads, they were confronted with a vast sea of living music that they and the general public were generally ignorant of and uninterested in because it didn't fit their concepts of what folk music was.

It was most likely the attempts of the record companies to sell some of this "weird" music, combined with the power of broadcast technologies, that lit the fuse on the explosion of exciting music that has been burning like a wildfire for decades. The folklorists seemed to be so wary of anything commercial or new that they missed a lot of the party next door.

folk song kit (1959) Electra Records "Folk Song Kit" LP set

The Arrival of Recording & Broadcasting

For the first 275 years here in America, music information was transmitted only when played by people or if it was written or printed on paper. Throughout human history, people with various skills could of course pass them on to others, but only in person or perhaps using handwritten documents once paper and writing showed up. Information generally moved more slowly long ago, and there was not much cultural interaction between different isolated geographical areas. Languages, cultures and styles of art had long periods to flourish and develop in isolation from each other. Isolation was essential for genres and styles to form and solidify. It’s how things like the Norwegian Hardinger fiddle or Swiss yodeling came to be, since they had local value and were able to evolve in remote communities for significant periods of time. As the world has grown more interconnected through advances in transportation and communication, there has been a steady increase in the mixing of various cultures, as well as the DNA of the people themselves.

The arrival of audio recording technology in the early 1890’s started the next revolution in the ways that musical information moved around. Change in our musical landscape happened blindingly fast after the advent of microphones and sound recordings, and is only speeding up as new technologies emerge.

We now know that ordinary people can play awesome music without help from intellectuals or sheet music. And we also collectively seem to understand that music is just information. We get it where we can. When the only places we could get music was from a printed page or another person, our understanding of how music knowledge got into a person was limited to what could happen within those pathways of transmission. That led to the idea of folklore, and bolstered the use of paper to write musical scores. When broadcasting and recording arrived, a giant new pathway opened that quickly steamrolled the others, and now the internet, video and computers are blasting away all the paradigms that took root during the 90-year reign of the sound recording. All sorts of people are learning all sorts of music using all the previous information pathways together with the new ones, and it’s a brave new world of musical information transmission. The days are over of local and regional music, people without access to the “outside world,” and other hallmarks that folklorists used to label and catalog the various “species” they felt that they were finding “living in the wild.” 12-year old kids from Australia are now playing great-sounding blues guitar. One of the best bluegrass banjo players on Earth (Jens Kruger) is from Switzerland. And this sort of thing has to be OK because it’s here and probably here to stay. Granted, it’s easier to learn French if you grow up among French-speaking people, but theoretically anyone with an internet connection could learn now.

It took a long time before the musical intellectuals and “elitists” who embraced European classical music were forced by the success of the recording and broadcast industries to realize the enormity and value of the “low” music as compared to their “high” music, but as I write this in 2017, the war is mostly over.

Jazz, blues, rock & roll and country music and all their cousins and offspring have now swarmed over the castle walls, and the whole world has reverberated with the echoes of the “peasant music” of America, pushing the “high” music back to a marginalized and isolated place it has not occupied since the beginning of the Dark Ages. We all get it now that an unschooled musician can be a genius as well as a schooled one, and that home-made, non-conservatory, non-sight-reading music is now likely the alpha male in the music world.

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 their 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 in universities 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 the fiddle the way he did, 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 went nuts. When the young Iowa white boy Bix Beiderbecke first heard jazz it blew his mind. When Scotsman Lonnie Donegan heard Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie recordings it galvanized him, and when those Liverpool Lads and the young Mick Jagger first heard recordings of Howling Wolf, Leadbelly, Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, they went nuts too. It's dangerously narrow-minded to characterize learning by audio as being somehow impure or not valid, since that is what stirred the pot the most for about 90 years beginning around 1920. I wouldn't have learned much by seeing Doc Watson or Leo Kottke come through town and play once at the railroad depot, but with my record player and my guitar in 1972 I was able to really penetrate their complex styles of playing.

Now, after the storms, the teaching and preaching and proselytizing are pointless. We get it. There is no longer a need for didactic guys like Pete Seeger to constantly urge us to take the people's music of America seriously. Thank you anyway, Pete, though the Cajuns and the Mississippi Delta people and others who lived in the areas where those powerful forms of folk music came from didn’t need your cheerleading. It was mostly the (supposedly) educated, cultureless white people who needed to be taught, though it maybe did benefit the Cajuns to be able to learn about blues if they wanted to, and for anybody anywhere to be able to get the blueprints to the music from almost anywhere else.

Nice Theories vs. Messy Real Life

In school the math problems we get usually involve triangular or square-shaped farms, with round numbers and straight lines everywhere. The "chaos theory" of mathematics grew out of dealing with the "messier" parts of measurement, math and science. And music is no different. People didn't just do one thing, live in one place, or learn one way. Some of them did, but not all. One of the things we are learning in the Age of Information is that the simplified models we have in our heads of how rural communities in the past passed music around are like the perfectly square fence around Farmer Brown's pasture. In the past people sometimes moved around more often and faster than we realized, carrying cultural information with them. Some of us cling to the idea that people stayed in their villages, participating in regional styles of music. In reality, there was a constant trickle of movement of people and music in and out of all communities. People visiting relatives, young men going to sea or joining the military have always come back home with new ideas.

I just finished reading Jennifer Post's 2004 book "Music In Rural New England Family And Community Life 1870-1940," and she confirmed my suspicions about the "purity" of the information channels and of the folk process itself. In the remote villages in Northern New Hampshire and Vermont, due to isolation and difficulty in travel, some people indeed learned to sing, dance and fiddle from their families and neighbors, just like in our romantic conceptions of such things. But some of the families used books, went to college, learned from people who visited, and locals sometimes traveled and brought back new music with them. When radio, TV and recordings came along, people there quickly started learning from those sources also. Post has a job as a folklorist at a college, so she was understandably reluctant to talk about how much of what she observed and documented didn't fit the classic models of the "folk process." However, she did a beautiful job of documenting the existence of an older world where people sang with each other and played their own music to entertain themselves in the days before mass media. You can't help but think that we have lost something valuable by relying so heavily on electronic entertainment these days.

Elijah Wald did a nice job in his book “Escaping the Delta” of showing how the Mississippi Delta region, known as the primary spawning grounds for what we call Delta Blues music, was far more connected to the “outside world” than blues historians or blues fans had previously imagined during this “birthing” period for this style of music. The conventional wisdom was that this area was a cultural backwater whose isolation was a key factor in its role as a "petri dish" for the Blues. What we now see more clearly is that there were telephones, telegraphs, railroads and mail service, and people came and went in and out of rural areas to big cities, bringing ideas, books, songs and recordings with them. Maybe movement was not as fast as today, but the cultural information was not as stagnant or static as we perhaps romanticize it was. The musicians there in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1935 didn’t just learn slave songs from their grandparents or absorb old hymns in their churches. They also had a jukebox at a prominent restaurant in town, and the study of the data of which songs were played on it there showed that a surprising amount of the latest music from New York quickly made it to this out-of-the-way place in a surprisingly short time after it was released in the big city. Wald also argues very convincingly that Robert Johnson was a very skilled, methodical and trend-conscious musician who was seeking his fortune in the music business, rather than some unaware, "folk artist" discovery.

I play the autoharp, an instrument that was invented in about 1883, and very popular in the 1890s. There are some great photos of people in that era playing them, but thus far nobody has found any cylinder recordings, so we have no idea what they were playing on them, even though 300,000 instruments were made and sold in the U.S. in that era. The first recording of the autoharp was by Virginian Ernest "Pop" Stoneman in 1924, who likely played in a very different Southern style. Likewise, the first written reference to slide guitar and the blues was in a letter by W.C. Handy who heard a man at a railway station in Tutwiler, Mississippi in 1903 playing his guitar with a knife and singing a blues song. We have no idea what it really sounded like and never will.

arly autoharper (1895) Aldis J. Gerry with concert autoharp

Sometimes we don’t even know where we learned or first encountered a song that we eventually internalize, and when we focus on a specific song and a specific person, flaws in the idea of the "folk process" become obvious. Who taught you “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”? When did any Cajun fiddler first learn "Jolie Blonde?" (a very well-known Cajun song.) Oddly, the earliest memory I have of any song is my mother singing the chorus of what I have been able to determine is an 1851 song “The Poor Old Slave.” I learned it when I was about a 4 or 5-year-old child in Michigan around 1958 or 1959. My mother was not a musician or from a musical family, and I have never heard anyone else sing or even mention that song in my entire life as a musician. She undoubtedly learned it at summer camp as a child in the Midwest, likely without having any idea that only kids in summer camps sang that song. (I have found that it is also in Boy Scout songbooks, and it seems to have proliferated and survived entirely within the realm of summer camp music and compiled books of folk songs dating back at least as far as the 1865 Heywood and Son's "Up-to-date Collection of Nigger Songs and Recitations.”) The song is credited with being written in 1851 by G. W. H. Griffin, though it could easily have been a published adaption of a genuine folk song.

1865 song bookpoor old slave (1865) Up-To-Date-N----- Song Book "The Poor Old Slave"

So did I learn “The Poor Old Slave” by the "folk process?" I learned it by the "oral tradition," from the singing of my mother, without teachers, sheet music or other media. The words I learned from my mother were "The poor old slave has gone to rest/No more of him we'll see/His bones they lie, disturb them not/ way down in Tennessee." There was nothing commercial about me learning it, and the authorship of the song was unknown to me for nearly 60 years until I tried today to find out where it came from. But the chain of transmission into the past hits a snag right away. My mother didn't learn it from her family, but she did learn it, probably orally, at camp. Is it even actually a “folk song?” Probably not. Does it matter? Depends who you ask. Is the somewhat insular and contrived world of summer camp songbooks weirdly a place where the so-called "folk process" is actually real, and people actually learn songs from each other? If it is "real," it is a contrived environment, like Jurassic Park, though real people sometimes learned real songs there. These are tougher questions to answer when they apply to us than when we glance at others and judge their “authenticity.”

I don’t know how I learned a lot of songs– some of them washed over me and I heard a number of recordings and musicians perform them on streetcorners and at parties, and they took a form inside me that was an amalgam of what I had heard, rather than a copy of any given version. I learned most of the songs I know from recordings, though other "folk" songs, like “Rye Whiskey” I think I absorbed from hearing people sing them at parties as a teenager. I have no idea where I learned the version of Barbara Allen I do. I can’t locate a recording that is the same as what I sing. Was me learning those folk songs the “folk process” even if whomever I learned it from got their version from a book or a recording? Do you blow a whistle for some kind of a violation when a folklorist finds someone singing a folk song, prints it in thousands of books, which essentially artificially inseminates it into the infomation stream, causing it to be much more popular or widespread than it really was on its own? That's just like the Jurassic Park, when the scientists started making their own dinosaur species.

Some of the music I know is traceable and some is not. I made recordings of those two songs, and others could have learned them from me by now, further clouding any possible purity or folk process provenance. But I learned to play some Beatles and Rolling Stones songs by the same methods. Is that something different because we know where those songs came from? I learned to sing "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" on the school bus in 1961 in Maryland, along with another song I just Googled and found out is also a true folk song of unknown origin called "The Hearse Song." ("Did you ever think when the hearse goes by, that you might be the next to die/ They wrap you up in a bloody sheet, and put you down about 6 feet deep... etc." I know at least 6 verses.) I learned Chuck Berry songs from the radio and from records, and Scott Joplin's Entertainer and a few Bach pieces painstakingly from notes in a book, though I don't read music. So how do you classify my music education? What is the point of classifying anyone's music education?

Songs naturally mutate as they move around– even really well-known songs, and even hymns in church. Try to find consistency in the prominent versions of the extremely well-known song "You Are My Sunshine," or even to "Joyful Joyful (Ode to Joy)," the hymn made from lyrics added to Beethoven's 9th Symphony theme. The words, melody, and chord changes are slightly different in all the versions I examine. By some kind of "folk process" people have either learned it wrong or changed it on purpose. Nobody sings the somewhat mean verse in "You Are My Sunshine," that goes "But if you leave me and love another, You'll regret it all some day," because it is perceived as a happy song. Janis Joplin changed the chorus of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" from "...nothin' ain't worth nothin' but it's free" to "...nothin' ain't worth nothin' if it ain't free". When you sing the right words now people think you don't know the song.

The process of endless variation through inaccurate remembering is the heart of the Folk Process, but it must have been tough for somebody who actually wrote a song, to have people stealing it and changing it everywhere they went. At least creators now can get some credit for what they do, copyright it, and people can learn it correctly if they so choose. In the past it was also harder to catch people plagiarizing than it is today, where there are robots that can search the web in seconds for similar or stolen text. Whether this will lead to artistically better or worse music is an unanswerable question.

As Terence McKenna said so beautifully, "Information is loose on Planet 3." People are learning, sharing and enjoying music like crazy, and there is no way anymore to classify or log what they are doing or not doing, or by what specific pathways or methods they are doing it. Instead of worrying about the purity of the ways people learned, maybe we should just enjoy the music we like, skip the stuff we don't and enjoy the fact that we have access to so much of it now.

The "folk process" is now on steroids, the "musical information highway" is a 16-lane freeway, and the melting pot burner is turned up to "high." The dinosaurs are breeding on the island. The genies have all escaped from the bottles. Let's all lean back a little, enjoy, and drink in the amazing new kinds of soup that musical people of today are making from all the various pure and impure ingredients they are getting their hands on. There is nothing any of can do to shape or stop this information juggernaut, and hopefully more and more of us can enjoy the fruits of what these new hybrids are bringing us, rather than complaining that we can't find what we used to or that music isn't as "authentic" as it used to be.

This is another posting where I'm trying to raise issues, questions and awareness in the world of modern troubadours... You deserve a reward or a door prize for making it to the end. Please check back to look for new posts as I get them done. I plan to cover a wide range of issues and topics.  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,