Saturday, February 24, 2007

Jottings: Part 1

[Editorials written for Ceilidh Columns, the official Publication of the Eisteddfod, an annual folk festival held at what is now called U. Mass., Dartmouth. All text not otherwise credited was written by Karl Eklund.]

Now that it is almost 2000, if we live through the millennial Computer Glitch we are probably due for another "folk-revival". I got hooked in the last stages of the folk-revival of the 1940s, when one of the few places you could buy records of people like the Almanac Singers was the local left-radical bookstore. That revival died when Henry Wallace lost to Harry Truman in 1948. Everybody knows about the revival of the 1960s. That turned into "folk-pop" and "folk-rock".

It wasn't so obvious to those of us who were in it, but there was another revival in the late 70s and early 80s; and for a lot of us it centered on a small annual festival with a funny name, "Eisteddfod", in a funny place, a college campus in southeastern Massachusetts. During the height of that revival, from 1978 to 1982, there was a publication, Ceilidh Columns. Howard Glasser used that name for occasional publications he had published, but he asked me to edit Ceilidh Columns when it was the official publication of the Eisteddfod.

My reimbursement for this job, and for running the flats to the printer at 6AM the day after the deadline after working all night pasting up, was that I could write the editorials. You who are used to the Internet will never have the thrill of knowing that more than one person at a time will read your thoughts.

When the Eisteddfod faded to the point that it couldn't support Ceilidh Columns I thought I'd put together some of the things I had written in a little booklet. I made a few copies and gave them to friends. For that booklet I wrote the following:


The SMU [Southeastern Massachusetts University, now called U. Mass., Dartmouth] Eisteddfod in its lifetime, 1971-1996, has had a major influence on my life.

I met my wife there from trying to teach a group how to 'doublethumb' an autoharp. Because of that I moved to the region to live on a dairy goat farm in the hamlet of Myricks. From that I learned the significance of practicing the palpable crafts, rather than just appreciating them. By the time the Eisteddfod was ready to spawn a publication I was more than ready to articulate my opinions of the folk-revival.

The Eisteddfod was a very suitable occasion. It was itself the product of the opinions of one man, Howard Glasser. Glasser is a professor in the art department at SMU, a calligrapher of the first rank, who had been exposed to 'folk music' in the same mileau that I had--New York City in the 1940s. Finding himself teaching in Pittsburgh he provided an opportunity for like-minded people to make music, calling his gatherings Ceilidhs from the gaelic word for an evening of music.

Later, teaching at Southeastern Massachusetts University, he was asked to organize a grander enterprise, a weekend of folk-music, and chose for it the name Eisteddfod, the welsh.word for an annual gathering of bards and scholars.

He had used the title Ceilidh Columns for an occasional newsletter, and it seemed appropriate to use the title for a publication that would be program and commentary. The essays and revues collected here are from the issues of Ceilidh Columns that appeared between 1978 and 1981.

The folk revival was, and is, a polymorphous beast. Howard, in fact all of us on the 'committee', knew what we wanted to have at the Eisteddfod but aside from saying 'yes' or 'no' to a particular audition tape none of us could tell you exactly why it was 'yes' or 'no'. It was, and remains, an intuitive judgement.

There were some distinctions that could be made on the basis of established labels. What we were looking for was not 'folk-rock' or 'folk-pop' or even contemporary 'country'. There was a style of presentation that was distinct from the tune or the lyrics, and while the styles of two ethnic backgrounds could differ radically from each other, it was generally possible to distinguish between "folk' and 'pop' from a given culture.

It was too easy to slip into pejorative labels--like saying that the music we wanted was 'honest', implying that the other was 'dishonest'. But that helped very little. 'Pop' culture has its own kind of validity--it just wasn't the kind of validity that we were looking for.

It was also too easy to slip into the scholar's prejudice--that 'folk' is something produced by someone who is rural, uneducated, poor enough not to be strongly influenced by radio or television--in other words 'uncivilized'. By this definition "folk art' is no longer produced--all the folk are dead except for a few certified specimens of great antiquity who are carefully carted around to prestigious festivals by academic caretakers. This is convenient for the scholar because it gives him a closed field to operate in--only that material that has already been collected has to be looked at and listened to.

It makes it hard on the collector--but there is always the hope of finding a shangri-la in the Ozarks with a geriatric source that hasn't been tapped. If that was what we were looking for we weren't going to find it by listening to our contemporaries, much less the vigorous young people working so hard to be part of the revival.

There is a kind of scholarly revival, exemplified at its best by the outdoor museums like Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation, in which the scholar-curator takes on the robes of the teacher-entertainer. Here, on the basis of the best possible information, an attempt is made to create a fully accurate reproduction of the certified genuine antique folk culture. In the folk-music revival this takes the form of the living tape recorder; the performer who precisely (and often tediously) recreates a recorded performance of a genuine certified folk-musician. This is not without value, because the living tape recorder is peripatetic and self-starting, and thus more of an evangelist than a vinyl disc; but it still wasn't what we were looking for.

Out of these negatives, and out of commentary on the best (and sometimes not the best) of the exemplars available to us, we have come to a conclusion: the folk-revival is an art-form with consistent (if implicit) aesthetic principles.

It is based on 'genuine' folk-art the way the 'back-to-the-land' movement is based on pre-industrial agricultural practices; but it is no more 'folk' in the scholar's sense than a rototiller is an ox-drawn plow. It has its own validity independent on its source--it contains its own examples of good art and bad art. It is an aesthetic universe in which worlds can be created.

These essays record that awakening realization and try to articulate some of the implicit aesthetics.

These essays would not have been written without the encouragement of Howard Glasser, although he would certainly not agree with every word. But equally they would not have been written without the support of my wife, Sally Snow Eklund, who read every word in manuscript and gently kept me from the grosser excesses of rhetoric. Sally has been the coordinator of the manual crafts at the Eisteddfod and has contributed to and organized some of the gallery exhibits which accompany the festival (see the essay "Yankee Ingenuity" in particular). Without the example of her superb craftsmanship as a quilter I would have understood much less; and without her tolerance of the ritual of pasting up Ceilidh Columns many fewer of these essays would have been seen in print.

These essays are only a small part of the contents of the four issues of Ceilidh Columns that were produced, and, in particular, this format cannot reproduce the splendid graphics that adorned its pages. Those interested in the graphic arts should try to get copies while they still exist.

Howard hated to see any brags on himself in Ceilidh Columns but, sensing that we weren't going to have more chances, we put this in the last issue.

Howard's Work of Art

In the late 1940's a young artist bought a record album; an obscure and unrecorded event that has affected our lives. He was struck originally by the cover, but the music caught him despite himself.
That was the way Howard Glasser was brought into the Folk Revival of the 1940's. As he developed as a calligrapher and designer he also continued his interest in folk music, something that wasn't hard in New York even in the Fifties. Then he accepted a call to teach in the boondocks- in Pittsburgh, of all places !

Pittsburgh was a long distance from Greenwich Village. But as any artist can tell you, what does not exist must be created. Howard proceeded to establish an opportunity for others who were interested in folk music to get together. They were called Ceilidhs, after the singing gatherings of the Scots, whose music Howard had come to hold in special affection.
The Ceilidhs grew and Pittsburgh was a place of special vitality during the folk revival of the Sixties. Howard brought the Ceilidhs with him when he moved to Rhode Island, and later SMU. Here he sensed a need for a somewhat grander event- a weekend gathering that would bring together musicians from distances too great to travel for a few hours singing. Singers would come from all over the United States, from Great Britain and Europe.
This more formal and grander event needed a grander name, so one was borrowed from Welsh gaelic. Eisteddfod was, in the old tradition of Wales, a national gathering of bards and poets.

The Eisteddfod grew over the. decade of the seventies into a loved and respected tradition. It was a 'Folk Festival' to be sure, but one without mob scenes or media celebrities. A unique festival, one stamped with the taste and personality of Howard Glasser.

But though many have judged from Howard's taste and erudition that he is an academic folklorist, he is instead a graphic artist of wide reputation. The years devoted to the Eisteddfod and the folk revival community were years taken away from his art; that could not be endured forever. Howard has had to step back from the Eisteddfod and let it continue in the hands of his friends and apprentices.

So much is simple history. But it is not too soon to assess a deeper significance. "Folk Music" is the art of a community that is isolated from formal culture by geography or social stratification. The "Folk Revival' is a revitalization of that music by people aware of formal, classical and commercial popular music. Folk themes and styles reach something in these revivalists that city music doesn't; and they imbue their recreations with their own aesthetic and personality.

The best products of the folk revival stand comparison with the best of any artistic medium. It was Howard's unique contribution that he recognized that, and created in the Eisteddfod a way of fostering and expressing that art. Under Howard's direction the Eisteddfod was a Work of Art itself!
Though collectively (and sometimes casually) produced, it was a coherent expression of his vision of the folk revival as an artistic medium; and the recordings he made are a priceless history of its development.
Like any work of art this did not come easily. There were times that the Eisteddfod was as much incubus as beloved. It was not just an annual event; it meant a continual effort, fostering and nurturing the folk revival community. How many of us took Howard's hospitality for granted? For how many was he a volunteer agent and promoter? How many repertoires were built from his unparalleled collections? the folk revival community owes a great deal of its vitality to Howard's unstinting efforts.

We owe Howard more than thanks (although we have not shown simple appreciation as much as much as we could have!). We owe him the tribute of passing on our own contributions to the folk community and to the Eisteddfod. It is not easy to maintain an artistic vision in the confusion of committees and the drudgery of administration; it is not easy to express our sense of the occasion during the too brief events of the annual reunion.

So we make this call to the folk community to thank Howard by making the Eisteddfod a continuing occasion for the best that the folk revival can create. Share with us your ideas and feelings about your work, articulate for us what the revival means to you as an artistic medium, contribute your visions to the collective effort. Let us continue to make the Eisteddfod an expression of the artistic vitality of the folk revival.

Karl & Sally Eklund

This will be continued.


howard t glasser said...

Karl & Sally - You are the smiths of words and ideas.
Thank you for remembering my part in all this - but more importantly - what our project was about. I just stumbled on this site. Are you at the farm? How is Sally - and yourself? I have had a very bad year ('06)
Almost didn't make it. I am living in a small apartment in Fall River to be near doctors and labs.
1820 Highland Ave, Apt 33, Fall River, MA02720
I look with pleasure to rereading - and reading the rest - only the very best wishes from Howard

howard t glasser said...

Ye gads - now April 2010 - the year of the great flood - and your farm almost became - "the ark" -
I am back in my 300 year old farm house in Assonet - with Peasoup - my one year old feral -
My - our - Eisteddfod has continued on in NY for 6 or 7 years now - and in our good fashion - The New York folks payed attention - understood what we were trying to do - and thought it important to continue - This years ("SMU") Eisteddfod-NY will take place early in November in the Catskill mountains -Sadly - they have not continued our "Ceilidh Columns" Interest in this material - and your thoughts are still slurring things up -
still - old Howard

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