Saturday, February 24, 2007

Jottings: Part 2

Here we are again!

We nearly, lost it, but somehow the Eisteddfod did survive. A little white-faced and shaky, perhaps, from the close brush with extinction; but it made it through one more year. It is very gratifying to all of us who have worked diligently on the Eisteddfod Committee, and particularly Howard Glasser, who have been pumping life into the Eisteddfod this last decade, that it is taking on a life of its own.

Let us look again at what we are doing here. Under the trappings of an ordinary "folk-festival" is a hidden agenda. We take the art created by European peasants, hardscrabble swamp yankees, delta sorghum cutters, and Hamtramc mill-hands and, using its intuitively-created aesthetic principles, try to create a new art that is valid for our present condition.
Does that sound ominous and pretentious? It is and it isn't.

We all know, deep in our hearts, that we exist in a time in history that corresponds to the fall of a civilization. We have been teaching the world for several generations that the be-all-and-end-all is to catch up to the Joneses (we are the Joneses), and we suddenly come to the realization that there isn't enough to go around and that they've got some of the most important stuff: A depression close to the Great Depression had to be generated just to get OPEC off our backs for a little while, and they are only waiting for us to get tired of cutting off our noses to spite our faces before they pull in the reins again.
Things are going to get worse before they get better. Things are certainly ominous enough to satisfy anyone, and all the establishment knows to do about it is to try to recreate a fantasy world of 1890's economics.

So what has that got to do with the Eisteddfod? In order to create a new art on traditional aesthetic principles it isn't enough just to follow book rules or phonographically copy what a Collector collected. In order to create you have to let the traditional art soak into your soul (or intuition, if you prefer that term) and sit there long enough to become comfortable. When you do that, some of the traditional attitudes toward life seep in along with the art.

And those traditional attitudes evolved in the direction of survival. Neither the European peasant nor the swamp yankee nor the cane-cutter nor mill-hand was ever far from disaster. A bad winter or summer, an economic downturn, and a lifetime's hard labor could go down the drain.

There was no point in being sorry for yourself (or at least only a point when "false true-loves" were con concerned), because that didn't help you to survive. Better to maintain an attitude of gallows-humor and shrug and hunker down till the disaster passed. You can work more effectively and think more clearly when you are chuckling (even if bitterly) than when you are whining. The traditional aesthetic, like the traditional ethic, is pointed toward survival in the real world.

We members of the corporate-governmental bureaucracy are insulated from the real world. Even our disasters are bureaucratic: a merger or a congressional budget-cut and we get riffed out of our positions. We don't even have the dignity of Setting fired: we just get shifted to the unemployment lines where we are still part of the bureaucracy, only shifted to the bureaucracy's nether end where the product comes out. If we tried to create an aesthetic out of the values inherent in our jobs and lives it would come out in precisely the kind of whine that the traditional aesthetic avoids.
When the final collapse comes in, probably drifting in like a ground fog, but with the nasty yellow-green of smog, those people who have, however indirectly, absorbed some of the traditional aesthetic will have a marginally better chance to survive. And when they do hunker down they will feel a lot better with their ironic joking than those who know only the electronic whine of establishment art. It may be a small margin, but in desperate straits even a small margin is better than none.

So the Eisteddfod is necessary. It is also fun. And, after all, civilization may last a few more weeks. Enjoy it while it is here; and if the sense that it is contributing to your survival releases the puritanical inhibitions against simple enjoyment, maybe even this editorial will have served a useful purpose. Maybe there will be enough enjoyment, along with the recognition of value, to let the Eisteddfod survive even next year!


The Eisteddfod is an entertainment, it is an educational experience, it is a reunion of friends, it is a time to enjoy. In addition to all that, it has a point to make.

All of us who participate, by making or listening to music; by doing or admiring craftsmanship, value something we call "traditional". The arts and crafts that were common in small, isolated rural villages were carried through the generations "by ear"... people heard or saw what they liked about the way other people did things and did the same, more or less. They emphasized the things they especially liked and forgot the things that didn't interest them. Many years of this process gave the traditional arts and crafts a special kind of beauty, expressed through a local style.

We no longer live in isolated rural villages---we are connected to ''official'' culture by television, by radio and records, by the plastic implements bought in supermarkets and discount stores. And some of this has its own kind of beauty or function---but it is not the kind of beauty of the old, traditional arts and crafts.

Some of us who especially value the beauty of tradition have tried to capture it ourselves---and this has been called the "Folk Revival." Some of us try to be living archives; attempting to reproduce folk art as we perceive it. Some of us try to find the essence of some particular tradition and create new things in that traditional style. Some of us apply the style of one tradition to a fragment of another---creating an original in spite of ourselves.

All of this, and more, is part of this ''revival1" that does a lot more than ''revive". As we do this we need contact with the preserved fragments of tradition---the field recordings of collectors, their books and raw notes , and the artifacts dusty in museums or shiny in antique shops. But more important than this is contact with a live person who creates traditional art. A recording can tell you one way it was done, but not the hundred ways it might have been done. It can't distinguish between accidental variation and personal intent. It can't pass on the essence--the subtleties that make one artist differ from another and yet belong to the same tradition. This can only be learned in the traditional way---from one person to another. This, then, is the point of the Eisteddfod---that it is a time and a place where the performers and craftsmen of the folk revival can meet and learn from one another.

It might happen in a concert, or an exhibit, or a workshop. But it might also happen between two people talking quietly in a corner. Without this we would enjoy the concerts and exhibits, enjoy meeting old friends and making new ones, or just enjoy a friendly ambiance. But without the learning it wouldn't be the Eisteddfod. We hope you enjoy yourself---and learn something that you will value.


With amazement, and some pleasure, we recognize that it is fall again. The air is brisk and clear (barring hurricanes), the kids are back in school, and the frost is on the pumpkin (or almost). It is time again for the Eisteddfod, time to greet old friends, time to anticipate new musical surprises Howard has garnered for us, time to show off new things we have learned and to be prepared to learn new things from the old and new friends we will hear.

Time again to celebrate our new tradition, which is to annually celebrate the old traditions: folk art and culture.
Folk art? There is a sense in which it doesn't matter if what we are doing is art--it is enough that we enjoy what we are doing, and that we do it well in our own eyes. And we certainly do that. No one who comes to the Eisteddfod to perform is coerced by fees they could not afford to refuse--most of our performers are lucky if they break even. Even with that, there are always many more who want to come than could possibly be invited. They must enjoy something about the Eisteddfod or they wouldn't work so hard to get invited.

Still--folk art! In a historical period when our consciousnesses have been raised to be aware of the political implications of being female, or-'ethnic', can we afford to be unaware of the social slur implicit in our celebration of folk art and culture!
"Good enough for folk music" is a performers' joke to cover the recalcitrance of a new string or an old guitar--but isn't it a self-denigrating joke like the minstrel's shuffle! Or, if you think of it as applying to the other people on the stage, isn't it as chauvinist a joke as Dr. Johnson's joke about women preachers!

If our art is a minor art, a second-class citizen of the artistic world, why are we busting our chops looking for excellence? If the best we can do is inherently inferior to lieder or opera, to consider only the product of the human voice, why don't we stop kidding ourselves and relax!

But we don't really believe that--at least none of us do who are part of the Eisteddfod-and maybe it is time for us to raise our consciousnesses in that direction. Maybe it is time for us to be a little more militant--even if only for the benefit of our own heads. Artists arise! You have nothing to lose but your chains!

Make art not.......whatever.

There are people in the world, some of them pivotal people in our part of the artistic world, who believe that you can't be a 'traditional' 'folk' artist if you have been born in or near a city or since 1900. To them folk culture means an absence of "real" culture, a homemade substitute good enough to fill the vacuum left by the absence of civilization. Obviously such a weak culture would be immediately driven out by any contact with real culture, vital culture, official city culture. Thus if you have not been brought up in a poor rural village or farm, if you have attended a school or even listened to a radio or television set you are contaminated. You aren't inferior enough to be considered genuine folk. You aren't a curious anachronism fit only for a museum (or folk festival), you are just an ordinary person; and if you prefer the aesthetic values inherent in folk culture it must be because there is something inferior about you. After all, if you thought you were a good musician, why didn't you go to Juliard?

We are beginning to see that official city culture is a dead end. Personally, I find lieder and opera, particularly those produced in recent years, sterile and mechanical--but interesting, in their own way, as anachronisms. They are as out of date as the Cadillac. the downtown office building, the superhighway and the other physical manifestations of city culture. The raucous hysteria of popular music is paralleled by the quiet desperation of economists and politicians trying to find ways of revitalizing the dying dinosaur--even if only to ride it one more term. If we define city culture as 'real', is it a wonder that we are inevitably drawn to fantasy and nostalgia for a Golden Age that never was!

When you!look at it th?t way, the 'Folk Revival' makes a lot of sense. Sure, part of it is the same hokey nostalgia as the '50s craze [and ask Pete Seeger if he is nostalgic for joe McCarthy!]. But there is a part of it that is a searching for a set of aesthetic values that are consistent with things that made sense in an agricultural economy: respect for the land, and each other; the kind of egalitarianism that produces mutual sharing and help with problems; the things we now might label sane ecological values.

City art is the anachronism: traditional folk art can be the aesthetic basis on which we can build the an that will help us to survive tomorrow. more self-denigrating jokes, please. When you put folk art down you aren't just putting yourself down, and the rest of us, you are siding with the dying dinosaur and against our children's hope.

Arise, ye prisoners of starvation! Before that becomes more real than metaphor.


As we began to put together this issue of Ceilidh Columns, we discovered that there was something of a theme developing. The theme was the answer to a question we hadn't fully realized needed to be asked: "What is this thing we call a 'folk music revival' anyway?" The sticking point, the thing that immediately removes it from the category of "obvious" and "common sense" and "take it for granted" is the gallery exhibition of pieces from the collection of Russell Daly. We call that exhibit "Eccentric Folk Art"; and while that label seems to fit, it also slaps it down hard on the horns of the dilemma.

Folk art is, if it is anything at all, the art of a community: an art that had connections with city art at one time or another [so that, for instance, Appalachian ballads use medieval church modes as their harmonic basis]; but an art that was propagated within a relatively isolated community [of Ozark hill-farmers, say, or rural English villagers alienated by social stratification] by the pre-literate technique of oral transmission.

The style of that folk art is characteristic of the community, not of the individual artist. It is a product of tradition, not innovation.

In contrast, the notion of originality, of stylistic individualism, is an invention of post-Renaissance European city art, of academic fine art. The folk artist knows what the aesthetic rules of his art must be because they are the only rules in his community. Those rules are art: the only art he knows.

The contemporary city artist must thread a path of his own through the myriad influences of a world culture till he comes to an individual, original statement--not only in content, but style.Woe be to him if the critic finds too strong evidences of his major influences.

The artists exhibited in the gallery share one powerful difference from folk artists: they stand out from. and apart from, their community.Their work is reminiscent of folk art, but their position in the community is reminiscent of the cliche fine artist: neglected, ignored, perhaps persecuted or left to starve in a garret. This is emphasized by the peculiar occupation of one of the artists, Gerry Kamrowski.... He is a 'fine artist' by trade who chooses to work in this style to satisfy himself; just as Jesse Howard is a farmer who chooses to work in his style to say what he wants to say. Their work has the same flavor as folk art; it is as primitive and naive as folk art is; it shares enough characteristics with folk art to cry out to our intuitions for that label: yet it is also individualistic, original, intellectual and strongly creative in the most powerful sense of that most abused word.
And if for Jesse Howard and Romano Gabriel and Manuel Bizarre it is the only style they know how to use: for Gerry Kamrowski it is a matter of deliberate choice among the many styles that are available to him. What we can say, therefore, is that this exhibit is of a kind of art that, like folk art, is constrained by a set of implicit aesthetic conventions, that derives from folk art and shares much of its flavor, but which has enough scope and power to permit a range of people from 'ordinary folk' to 'professional artists' to use it to make individual statements.

If it is to be more than an antiquarian hobby aping the dreary pedantries of museum curators and university professors, the 'folk music revival' must be that same kind of art. This says nothing new to those who have read these pages in earlier years, or who have truly listened to what the Eisteddfod has to offer. But it may be worth beating a dead horse one more time.
It is not enough to take a traditional text and marry it to whatever tune happens to fit the meter. It is not enough to sing an English ballad in the style of a forties' crooner or a seventies' country-pop star. It is not enough to be cute, or hokey, or to justify a slipshod performance by patronizing the material.

There is nothing less than the best you have to give that is "good enough for folk music"!

This is not to say that the folk music revival won't survive the slipshod, the cutesy, the academic patronizing and the contemptuous exploitation of the quick-buck artist. It has, and it will continue to survive that, and worse. It has the power of any valid art form: the power to inspire and awaken and the power to corrupt and degrade.
It is we who won't survive if we don't understand the rules of the game we are playing!


For some of us the slight nip in the air is as reviving to our spirits as the first warm breeze of spring--it is time again for the Eisteddfod and the faint strains of music rouse us from the doldrums of August.
It is certainly time for a rebirth: the political "swing to the right" has made for a bleak year for the holders of liberal values, and they probably constitute the majority of the folk music community. When military bands receive a larger share of the federal budget than the National Endowment for the Arts it sends chills down the backs of even those who were not in the anti-war movement.

But, when you think about it, does it really matter? Labels are deceptive--sometimes deliberately. One would think that "conservatives" would admire traditional values, and thus be supportive of the arts and crafts that embody the traditional values -of America and its various immigrant ethnic communities; but the label is deceptive.

What they wish to conserve are the traditional values of one small segment of American culture, the entrepreneurial traditions of the business community. If it can't be marketed on a large scale they aren't really interested.
Besides, folk music has been a vehicle for protest and satirical commentary and, worst of all, it has been associated!ed with the political left. It is not one of the things conservatives want to conserve.

On the other hand, for all their concern for the poor, for labor and for the disadvantaged of various kinds, "liberals" are not often very liberal. They tend to see people as statistics; and statistics only respond to massive solutions operated by vast bureaucratic institutions. They are full of definitions and categories: "this" is folk music and deserving of a federal grant, "that" is not and deserves only rejection to a chorus of academic scorn. Those who can adapt themselves to institutional needs, who can learn to smell like bureaucrats, prosper; the unwashed masses don't.

In the process of adaptation some of the folkmuaic community have lost their roots in the true folk culture and values. For most of us, those who are involved with folk culture more for the sake of our spirits than our pocketbooks, who are more interested in saving our souls than our performing gigs or our academic tenure, the accident of who won the last election is totally irrelevant.

If it is harder for us to. experience the performances of our idols, we will spend more time practicing our own craft; if there are fewer festivals there will be more parlor ceilidhs. Folk culture may be transmuted by circumstance, but it doesn't die.
Folk music has seen its highs and lows just in my lifetime. It had a mild high in the late forties only to go underground in the fifties. It had a new high in the sixties only to turn into folk-rock and folk-pop in order to follow the market. We have seen respect for traditional folk music develop steadily in the seventies, stimulating parallel revivals in the ethnic communities.
If the institutional forms that have grown up around traditional folk culture suffer from inflation and conservative economics it need not affect the cultural values that the institutions were created to serve. Aesthetic appreciation and the satisfactions of craftsmanship are not transient fads, they are inherent in the nature of the human species. The Eisteddfod resonates with the same needs that produced the cave paintings in Altamira and the shaman's song of the arctic tundra.

The forms change, the particular embodiments come and go, particular kinds of expression become easier or harder, but the human values that are expressed most directly in what we call "folk music" for want of a better name are universal.
Enjoy your reaffirmation of the fact on this Eisteddfod weekend.


howard t glasser said...

Ah well - part two -
Good interest continues in our ideas -
Mary Betts has now started her sessions at The Coggshell Farm in nearby Rhode Island - sounds like they are much like our old ceilidh sessions -
Like the Assonet River - no stopping it - the water is stronger than the whisky - Hopefully we can get some publications - on paper - going again - through the University Archive -
We have been given good credit in a number of books published during the past few years - Howard

howard t glasser said...
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