Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Me & Folkmusic, Part Four

By 1961 I had finished my Ph.D. and was working at an industrial salary for a company on Long Island making research equipment. I was still living at home on the scale of a graduate student so when I read a review in the New York Times of a british folksinger at Gerde's Folk City in Greenwich Village I could afford to drive into the city, have dinner at a Levantine Restaurant where George Mgrdichian was playing Oud, and go to Gerde's to be astounded.

There was this young scottish girl who sang the big ballads unaccompanied, with such a crystal clarity that an accompaniment would have been disturbing. She also did comic songs, ceilidh standbys, mouth-music and a hauntingly magical seal song. Nothing before or after has had the effect of my first hearing of Jean Redpath.

It opened up a whole new aesthetic world to me.

My experience of english folksong had been Percy Grainger art-song arrangements, field recordings and Ewan McColl. Jean made me understand that scottish songs, at any rate, could be sung with such artistry that they made lieder take a back seat and yet be consistent with the tradition. Jean is still singing around the circuit and, while neither of us is as young as we were in 1961, hearing her is still an experience that shouldn't be missed.

I haunted Gerde's for a while, and was there when Jean Ritchie made her first appearance in a "bar", along with Doc Watson and Roger Sprung. The repertoires of Doc and Jean overlapped mostly in Carter family stuff which helped me understand American traditional music better.

Roger Sprung also helped me understand that one could be a marvelous instrumentalist and still "not get it".

I kept an eye out for records of british traditional singers (which was mostly Ewan McColl). McColl was born in Scotland in 1915 as "Jimmy Miller". Ewan was a playwright during the 40s, but turned to promoting British traditional music during the 50s folk revival in the UK. With his wife, Peggy Seeger, he produced a series of radio-ballads for the BBC, from which we get "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face", "Shoals of Herring", "Sweet Thames Flow Softly", "Dirty Old Town", and "Ballad of Springhill" among others.

While not folksongs in the purest sense, the McColl-Seeger songs could be very catchy. I was driving in Nova Scotia on one rainy night in the area of the Sprinhill mine, and the windshield wiper beat out the Ballad of Springhill for hours.

At the end of 1962 I had a fight with the president of the company I was working for so I arranged to rent a car in Paris in the summer, did a couple of consulting jobs in the spring, and took off.

In London I ran across Colletts record store on Oxford street: a whole store dedicated to nothing but folk and jazz. After arranging to get a king's ransom of records shipped home, I asked the clerk what was happening in folkmusic around town. "This fellow can tell you better than I", she said, and introduced me to Louis Killen.

Louis Killen was born in Durham, outside Newcastle, in 1934. He opened the Folk Song and Ballad club in Newcastle in 1958. He performed on the folk circuit and was living in London in 1963.

For the next couple of weeks I pretty much went to whatever folk club Louis was going and listened rapturously to everything. One evening when Louis was otherwise busy I went to a pub out in nowhere to hear a young man named Martin Carthy, and on another occasion I heard Cyril Tawney. I think I heard four distinct versions of the long ballad "Bonny Bunch of Roses", which is similar to "A Grand Conversation on Napoleon".

Eventually I left for Paris to pick up the rental car, but by then I had learned the tunes of some of Louis' repertoire and scribbled a version of the words, and a smattering of what else was going around. There was no chance that I could sing the grand ballads with Louis' skill because I could barely hear the subtleties of his performance, but Bob Davenport was singing them with vigor rather than decoration and I could always fall back on Sydney Carter's comic songs like "Down Below", the sewer ballad.

I spent the next four months driving around Europe, from Paris to the Norwegian Arctic, to Greece, to Lisbon and back to Paris again. I stayed for a while with relatives in Finland and a couple of weeks with a fellow physicist in Rome, but I only heard a "folk" singing a "folksong" once: in the Tower of Belem a maid was singing "Meninas vamos o vira" while dusting the inside of a massive fireplace.She stopped, embarrassed, when she realized a tourist was in the room. I was charmed, because it was one of the few Portugese folksongs I knew myself.

I had planned another few weeks in Paris and in London, but I had a message waiting that my father had had a heart attack, so I flew back. He survived for a few more years.

Not long after I got a job as Assistant Director of the Nuclear Structure Laboratory at Yale.

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