Letters - Feb : Jul 2001
With very few exceptions, most fiddlers seem very reluctant to play a tune through more than three turns. No matter how much you assure them otherwise, they worry that their performances will seem boring at greater length. The exceptions that prove the rule are musicians like Owen Chapman who will play longer but only if he has an elaborate set of variations in mind that he intends to visit. Of course in the context of a square dance, the same tunes will be played much longer but the musicians regard that as a rather different musical experience (one that, unfortunately, largely died out many years ago).
In my estimation, the "jam session" of which Fred Weston writes is (largely) a more recent social convention with which many old-timers feel quite uncomfortable. The issues here are complicated, but important enough that I recently took exception to Jeff Titon's introduction to his forthcoming collection of Kentucky fiddle tunes on the grounds that he assimilated revivalist or bluegrass venues too readily to the more traditional settings where an exchange of fiddle tunes would have taken place (certainly most old-timers I've met would be furious if anyone tried to play along with them). It might be also observed that some issues of field recordings in recent times have had their lengths artificially extended, largely because the owners of the companies involved had become accustomed to hearing the tunes played at 78 era length (despite the fact that Clark Kessinger and Doc Roberts both complained of the degree to which they were forced to repeat tunes).
On bowdlerization and Run, Nigger, Run I couldn't agree more with Fred McCormick that such titles are usually an important indicator of genuine African-American (as opposed to minstrel show) involvement and they should not suppressed. The wish to do so is invariably that of the performers - most Appalachian Southerners are mortified by the thought that their tunes might offend anyone. I sometimes have to beg permission to get the old title in the notes.
In the case of J.P.'s Run, Johnny, Run, other variants of the tune under that retitling had already been popularized by the Nashville fiddlers Tommy Jackson and Howdy Forrester - indeed, I think J.P.'s version shows a lot of Jackson's influence. The exception I know to this rule is Doc Roberts, who did complain that the record company "did a damn fool thing" when they transmuted his version into Run, Smoke, Run. It is true that my record company would now be unhappy if I allowed a title of that sort to appear on the outside cover (but the more serious problems of unhelpful prissiness still lie in the sexual arena).
But I think Fred goes a bit too far in reading J.P.'s Going Down the River as a memory of slavery; in fact, longer versions of the song make it clear that J.P.'s quatrain is part of a prescription for how to deal with a nagging wife (more bowdlerization issues there!). Genuine artifacts from our peculiar institution do show up occasionally in fiddle tune lyrics - in Nigger Trader, for example, or Owen's Rock Andy - and also in minstrel songs composed by abolitionists (Lorena, Nancy Dill, etc.). In my writings, I have tried to emphasize the importance of the former as an important indicators of the probable nature of nineteenth century black instrumental music.
Mark Wilson - 23.7.01
Editor: North American Traditions Series, Rounder Records
As you know, I recently went into production with a CD-R and book of my own creations, called The Song I'm Composing. Unfortunately, it turned out to be an inauspicious launching, for the re-writer I was using to cut the discs gave up after a very small number had been run off. It now turns out that one or two of these don't play so well on certain CD decks. I presume this problem must be tied in with whatever caused the re-writer to stop working.
Therefore, if anyone has a copy which is giving them problems, could you please write or phone or e-mail me as below, stating where you bought it, and I will rush you a replacement. Do, though, make sure you hang on to the packaging and the booklet. I will be replacing the CDs only. I will not be replacing the associated items.
2 Orchard Grange, Moreton, Wirral, Merseyside Tel: 0151 678 6311 E-Mail: Fredamhran@aol.comFor anyone contemplating a purchase, the good news is that I have replaced the writer in question with a brand new Memorex 12 speed. This has burnproof technology, cuts like a knife through butter, and returns crystal clear results every time. Potential buyers can therefore rest assured that The Song I'm Composing represents excellent value at only £6-00 for the CD and book.
Fred McCormick - 17.7.01
Thank you for your in-depth review of Folks, He Sure Do Pull Some Bow in MT. I appreciate a review that's well-informed and offers strong opinions. Although we disagree on several points, I think we probably agree on far more.
I do want to quickly address the following:
Marshall Wyatt - Old Hat Records - 23.5.01
Just read Tom Walsh's review of A Dossan of Heather. Ouch!
It seems the text pushed a few wrong buttons with him. Fair enough. I have to agree with him about the banality of the one quotation he chose to make.
But he produced no evidence in support of other gripes:
"every small skill or idiosyncracy [sic] [being] reverently invested with a huge significance (maybe on the basis that the greater the elevation given to the subject, the greater the assumed importance of the publication, by association)", well what a grump your man is! Our attitude is that Packie is a gas character, an original, and we simply tried to bring that out in the book.
Tom Walsh begins his conclusion by saying "To be fair..." Are we to take this as an admission that much of the rest of his review is unfair?
Stephen Jones - 14.5.01
As I remarked in my previous e-mail to you, I've been extremely busy in the last few months with a funding-application here, as a result of which I've not been in a position till now to get back to the 'Musical Traditions' website. However, having just had a look at the correspondence about Bess Cronin that has taken place since last I looked in I'm afraid I have to say that I find the Editorial standard of the letters page - insofar as there is any standard - objectionable, at least as regards the Bess Cronin debate. As a Review-Editor for a reputable Medieval Studies journal I'm well aware of the need for vigorous discussion and debate of matters at issue between scholars. Your own addendum as Moderator of the 'Musical Traditions' discussion-pages to Fred McCormick's initial review led me to believe that you shared such a view. However, publication of the ignorant and offensive letter by Dr Mike Brocken of Liverpool University seems to me to indicate that there is, in fact, no meaningful moderatorship of the letters at all.
I'm at a loss to understand why the views of a self-declared ignoramus in the subject should be given the freedom of your pages. Dr Brocken describes himself as an individual who has 'only a limited knowledge of Irish folk song', and 'not qualified enough to delve too deeply into specifics'. With no expertise, and what appears to be a limited understanding of English, he flourishes instead his mastery of 'academic theory', with its 'semiotic conclusions' and 'binary concepts', and all the other useless baggage of the genre. Armed with this mish-mash of half-baked ideas he parades a series of criticisms about my Bess Cronin work based almost entirely on the second-hand opinions of Fred McCormick (who at least knows SOMETHING about the subject!) and a rag-bag of bizarre misunderstandings all of his own making. His comments are just too silly to merit any reply, but in view of the fact that he was allowed to air them at my expense, I must - reluctantly - withdraw my previous offer to publish the newly-discovered Bess Cronin material in your pages.
Dáibhí Ó Cróinín - 30.3.01
P.S. I too look forward to the day when 'The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin' shows up in Dr Brocken's local remainders' shop. That way he can buy his second copy of the book, as I did the second copies I have of Peter Kennedy's 'Folksongs of Britain & Ireland' and Sam Henry's 'Songs of the People'.
[For background to the above-mentioned 'offer to publish the newly-discovered Bess Cronin material' and my comments, please see the current Editorial]
Really enjoyed Mike Brocken's The Tarnished Image. Didn't agree with a single thing he said, but it was a hoot to read!
As a participant in (survivor of? victim of?) the folk revival in the States, my response to Mike can be summed up as "Been there, done that, didn't like it, wouldn't do it again." and "Thanks, Mike, but your cure is worse than the disease."
With no offense to Mike intended (obligatory, insincere disclaimer), he certainly sounds young - a typical 'whippersnapper'. He sees an obvious problem. He sees the obvious causes. He sees the obvious solution. He cannot understand why the old geezers who have the problem are not doing the obvious. He thinks they don't understand. So he explains. No response. So he talks slower and louder ... still no progress. What it takes a while for whippersnappers to learn is that if geezers are not dealing with a problem in the way whippersnappers think is 'right' there is probably much more to it than meets the eye. Whippersnappers need to learn to take seriously the possibility that they see only the tip of an iceberg.
I also wish he had done a better job of making clear what his article was about. 'Folk Music'? I sometimes use the term 'folk music' because it is so vague in just the right way for me. For example, it sometimes comes up in the course of idle conversation with people who do not know me very well that I am an amateur musician. The invariable question is "What kind of music do you do?" I have two answers depending upon my mood. If I am not in the mood to begin an extended discussion, I answer "folk music". The invariable response is "Oh, you mean the kind of music that [insert name of any artist or group who has ever been characterized as 'folk'] does?" To which I respond, "Yes", no matter what artist or group has been named. At which point the questioner moves to another topic. You see, the nice thing about 'folk music' is that everybody thinks they have at least some notion what I am talking about. And almost everybody thinks they know enough about 'folk music' to know that they are not very interested in that particular genre. Thus 'folk music' serves as a nice, polite 'conversation stopper'. If, on the other hand, I am in a garrulous mood I respond, "Old time music". The invariable response is "What's that?" I kick into my didactic mode and begin a lengthy explanation. However, I don't think such imprecision is suitable for an article.
I also think the article was misguided in a subtle but fundamental way. I want to make a point about the article with an analogy, so work with me. I do computer support. I deal with people all day who cannot talk the talk. They don't know how their computers work and they don't know the jargon. Thus they have real difficulties talking about their problems. They are embarrassed to sound like laymen but when they try to use the jargon they invariably fail miserably and they know it. One real problem is that when laymen try to talk about the problems they are having with their computers they unwittingly often give me a diagnosis rather than a report of symptoms. "There is something wrong with my mouse. When I double click on that icon my computer crashes." The second sentence is a symptom report. The first sentence is a diagnosis. I have learned the hard way that users are not to be relied upon for a proper diagnosis, but with proper coaching they are 100% reliable when describing symptoms. Now, in my job, criticizing the user's often hilarious attempts to talk the talk will get me nowhere. If I keep correcting the user to demonstrate my superior knowledge I end up with a disgruntled person who just wants me to go away. I must be willing to ignore the techno babble and keep asking the right questions until I have the symptoms clear.
Now, in his article, when Mike critiques the ideologies of people and organizations, to my way of thinking he is critiquing a diagnosis, not a report of symptoms. No matter how outdated, outmoded, and unfashionable these ideologies might be, and no matter how much fun it is to take ideologues to task, he cannot hope to offer suggestions that they will take seriously until he gets beyond the ideologies and deals on the underlying problems that they are concerned with.
The problem the ideologues are talking about is well known, at least to people of my generation. No matter what ideology is espoused and no matter what terminology is used, what we've noticed is that when an attempt is made to change significantly the target market of the product, the product itself changes significantly. We even have lots of terms for it, "going Nashville", "going Hollywood", "selling out", etc. These terms are unabashedly pejorative, but at least they are ideology-free. No one who lived first through the folk scare and then the 'gentrification' of American 'country' music doubts the existence of this phenomenon.
Similarly, No matter what ideology is espoused and no matter what terminology is used, the people and organization who are the focus of Mike's article view such significant changes as undesirable. Since they perceive the changes as undesirable, they try to prevent them.
If I believe that X causes Y, and I avoid doing X because I don't want Y to happen, and Mike wants me to do X - he can:
It also appears ill-considered to take as axiomatic that authenticity and commercial success are antithetical, since both can logically be components of the same accomplishment.A perfectly good theoretical argument that completely ignores empirical evidence. To point out that two concepts are not inconsistent might get you somewhere with the readers of Mind but it won't do much for us aging folkies. My attitude about changes that I perceive as undesirable is based not upon what is theoretically possible, but upon what I perceive as actual. I've learned enough never to say "never." But I've also learned that you'll lose more money than you will win by betting on the possible rather than the actual, the 'should' rather than the 'is'.
The problem with the rank categorization of musical parameters is that there is, quite literally, no area in music (not excluding Gregorian chant) that has not at some time or other been visited and uplifted by musicians of a commercial persuasion.A definite knee-slapper, this! I can only characterize "uplifted" as quaint. I loved the Kingston Trio - but if someone told me, with a straight face, that they "uplifted" the music of Frank Proffitt, I would be unable to contain my hilarity.
Although there is a history of folk artists leaving the revival for the sake of commercial success (the names include Isla St Clair, Billy Connolly, Mike Harding, Gerry Rafferty and Barbara Dickson), it is easy to show how inconsistent this negative attitude is, since all of the above-named artists, among many others, have proudly drawn attention to their folk origins.There's inconsistent and there's non sequitur. It is not inconsistent that I prefer what Barbara Dickson did in the past to what she is now doing (however we characterize that). But pointing out that she is currently proud of her 'folk origins' is a non sequitur if that is intended to address my preferences. It does not make me dislike her current stuff less, nor should it. It might even increase my pain to remind me that things have changed in a way that I don't like.
... the music of the folk 'movement' (if it may still be described as such) remains largely hidden from, and consequently unheard by, the vast majority of the general public.As we say in the states, "What's the down-side to that?"
...the folk music 'industry' continues championing, and attempting to merchandise, a way of life that is in several respects whole decades out of date.I really liked this one. Hell, son... it was out of date 50 years ago! That was one of the attractions! Why does Mike think we got interested in the music in the first place? We saw it as an alternative. It was different. Everything about it was different - music, musicians, attitudes. We still love the fact that it is so different. Why would we waste any time trying to turn it into something significantly less different, less alternative?
Similarly, the amateurishness which Mike complains about was another one of the things that attracted us in the first place. We liked small, amateur, inefficient as opposed to big, slick, professional, and efficient. We liked simple as opposed to complex and overproduced. We wanted acoustic as opposed to electric. We wanted participatory rather than entertainer/entertainee. We wanted noncommercial rather than tarted up ... etc., etc.
Three million go to festivals but how many of these are the same people? Are we really reaching new audiences?We've seen obsession with growth and we've seen where it leads. It is not pretty.
It is now possible to speak of (and market successfully!) a hip-hop tradition or a surf tradition quite easily. Yet the folk media's theoretical development since the glory days of quasi-Marxism has been modest, and a simplistic hate-love attitude towards popular music and urban society still saturates most folk writing, leaving the reader with a composite image of the twisted dialectics of inextricable contradictions about the apparent over-abundance of cultural product.If Mike truly thinks that as far as his basic points are concerned there are no significant and important differences between folk and hip-hop and surf, why would any aging folkie want to prolong a conversation with him?
If we aging folkies think we learned anything, it is that the medium really is the message. We learned the hard way that it is naive to think that you can take a basically sound product and 'package' it while leaving the product unchanged in all the important ways. It is silly to conceive of the product as distinct from the package and view the package as external, nonessential, etc. What we saw for ourselves - time and again - was the packaging forming the product, not conforming to it.
I am curious as to why Mike cares. Why is he wasting his time, energy, talent, and passion on bemoaning the fate of folk music? Surely he cannot be hoping to make a buck from it. If he's interested in successfully marketing a product, he should write a book to be made into a movie accompanied by a line of action figures, or the next Harry Potter series.
If I may hark back to my days in academe, I would like to prose a 'thought experiment'. Imagine dealing with, say, Vic Legg's I've Come to Sing a Song. Is Mike seriously suggesting that with appropriate marketing ('more dynamic, less staid'), then 'legions of youth' are going to buy this album? I'm not saying that the music isn't wonderful. I'm not suggesting that if 'legions of youth' were 'exposed' to it in some non-threatening way that some of them might respond positively and a few might actually purchase it. But is he really suggesting that sales resulting from such marketing would even cover expenses?
I have a friend who bicycles to work - very rare in the States. If I wished to convince him to trade the bike in for an automobile, I would not try to do it by pointing out the obvious - cycling to work takes a lot longer and is a lot harder work than driving. It he didn't already know that and hadn't already factored it into the equation, he is an idiot who should be avoided.
Are our children really going to insist on making every damned mistake we did?
Keep up the good work.
Russ Hatton - 15.2.01
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