Sunday, February 25, 2007

Me & Folkmusic, Part One

In a sense I learned my first folksongs very early, but they were in swedish and I didn't relearn them until many years later.

"I" am Karl Eklund, the guy described in the sidebar, and a memoir of my life is not terribly interesting, except that I got involved in "American Folk Music" during the revivals of the 1940s andthe 1960s, when "folk music" was regarded as something primitive rather than being a type of popular music characterized by having the performer claim tohave composed the music and written the lyrics. The transition from objects of scholarship to popular music is somewhat interesting, and not many people remember it any more.

As I said, I learned some swedish folksongs early. I was born to an immigrant couple who had come from Finland and were living in The Bronx. So I usually date my discovery of "folk music' [as a thing separate from all the other harmonious noises] as being in Evander Childs High School, in the Bronx, in 1945-6.

There were actually two strains of folk music but I didn't connect them up till much later. One strain was the songs we learned to sing in assembly. They included things like "La Paloma", from the Argentine, and "Chee Lai", the Maoist anthem from the Chinese partisans. You can hear Paul Robeson singing "Chee Lai" in concert style.

It was toward the end of World War Two, the notion of the United Nations was in the air and we were all very much into international cooperation. We learned songs from other countries on "our side", i.e., russian and chinese rather than german and japanese. In only a couple of years Nixon and McCarthy would learn that it was politically profitable to be anti- communist and songs like Chee Lai and other anti-fascist partisan songs would be banned from the curriculum.

The other strain of folkmusic was unofficial. In our High School we had a traditional "Senior Day" when seniors wore silly costumes featuring the school colors (orange and black) and wise teachers figured out something that would keep us from being disruptive. Our economics teacher brought in some records from his private collection: Josh White, Burl Ives and a group called "The Almanac Singers" who had an album (78s came in real albums) called "Talking Union". He played the title talking blues from that album and grabbed the pickup just before the singer said, about the boss, "He's a ......".

I naturally had to get a copy (from Macy's as I remember) and find out that the next word was "bastard". Later, I would find out that the Almanacs were the singers later known as "The Weavers" plus Woody Guthrie and others not identified.

There wasn't much of this folkmusic to be had in normal channels in the mid-fourties, but Moe Asch (who later produced "Folkways" records) was putting some things out on the Stinson and Asch labels in 78rpm, there were a couple of albums by Josh White, Richard Dyre-Bennett had recorded some delicate english songs and ballads that sounded more like leider, Joseph Marais had a radio program singing South African (Boer) folk songs, and there was always Burl Ives.

By the time I went away to MIT I had a fair collection of 78rpm albums. I also had some odd singles that I had picked up used on The Avenue of the Americas [which we still thought of as Sixth Avenue]; russian army songs, arabic solos, a version of "Romania, Romania" in theatrical yiddish by Aaron Lebedov that I can still hear in my minds ear. I had learned about these records, and where to get them, from an early evening radio program by Henry Morgan, a very funny fellow who played even funnier records. He didn't call them folk music, though. It is what is now called "World Music" anything that is traditionally styled pop from another country.

When I was at MIT I was involved in the campus radio station and, one year, had two folk music programs per week: one using records and one live show. Dick and Beth Best (whose book of song words and chords satisfied the need for group singing in the '50s) ran the Outing Club and had occasional singing gatherings that let me recruit performers.

Folkmusic records could still be found at reasonable prices at "The People's Book Store" near Boston's chinatown. Like the dozen or so firms called "People's This" and "People's That" with offices in the Little Building on the same corridor as the Communist Party, USA, it was undoubtedly what was then called a "front" organization. Harvard students used to go there for cheap copies of Das Capital and the Manifesto.

I was generally broke and record albums weren't cheap at best, so I was always peeved at Moe Asch because when vinyl lps came in he priced his Folkways records at $1 more than the usual records and never discounted. Since I was a student and broke I never got many. I got a chance to bitch at his son years later, when we met in London, but I'm sure he had no idea what I was talking about.

There were interesting records in the MIT and Harvard libraries (Harvard had the Library of Congress 78s) but they were reference and couldn't be borrowed.

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