Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Me & Folkmusic, Part Six

To have a term for what "folk" meant in the 1940s, a new term had to be adopted. When I use "traditional" I mean music that is:

a survival from or a copy of music of a rural community in the pre-recorded period or

music that is an attempt at reconstructing what pre-recorded folk music may have sounded like, done with a sensitive interpretation of the style of such music as is available through scholarly sources.

Louis Killen was my introduction to the latter sense of "traditional". At his best Louis is a better singer than any of the elderly gentlemen from whom he learned some of his songs: I have heard field recordings of Sam Larner and his contemporaries. I suspect that Louis is a better singer than any of them ever were in their prime. Louis can take a ballad with an excessively plain tune and overipe lyrics and, by a subtle use of pacing and decoration, give the words passion and make no two verses of the tune identical. Louis was not brought up in an isolated rural community so that the traditional aesthetic was the only one he knew; but he was brought up in a family that sang harmony, so he has an intuitive sense of how much a tune can be varied and still be "the same", and he has an ear for what can be done to a tune and still leave it within the bounds of a musical aesthetic and how that variation can be used in another tune.
And he has the intelligence to do the scholarly homework that allows him to place that tune in a geographical, temporal, social and occupational context.

Over the thirty-odd years that I have been listening to Louis I get a greater appreciation for his art. At times it was only when I tried to duplicate one of Louis' performances and fell short that I was able to hear what it was he was doing. Louis can be an education in the traditional aesthetic by himself.

But the notion of traditional style was not restricted to Great Britain. The vanguard of the american traditional folkmusic revival was Mike Seeger, Pete's half-brother, who, with John Cohen and Tom Paley formed The New Lost City Ramblers. Mike Seeger's home page says "Mike learned the old ballad Barbara Allen at age five from the singing of his parents. Soon he graduated to their collection of early documentary recordings. He began playing in his late teens, learning from Elizabeth Cotten, and later seeking out guitarist Maybelle Carter, banjoists Dock Boggs and Cousin Emmy, and autoharpist Kilby Snow. Mike's love for traditional music led him to produce documentaries and to organize countless tours and concerts featuring traditional musicians".

He says elsewhere "Old-time music was the old-time name for real mountain- type folk music. It is the kind of music that Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and in fact most rural people prior to the mid nineteen twenties, were raised with. It is the old unaccompanied English ballads like Barbara Allen, new American songs like Wild Bill Jones, old fiddle tunes like Devil's Dream, and newer banjo tunes like Cumberland Gap. It's a rich and varied heritage of music - as rich as the roots music of any country. "

Even in New Haven we could feel the beginnings of a new phase of the folk music revival. When the interest in folkmusic and the number of excellent performers outgrew the back room of a bookstore a Folk Coffee house was started. This gave our group of enthusiasts a degree of coherence.
When the City of New Haven suggested that it might be good to put on some programs during the summer in school auditoria we formed the New Haven Folk Music Society so that there would be an organization that the city could deal with. That summer program was a disaster (neither local kids nor Yale undergraduates ever showed much interest) but there was a steady group of faculty, grad students and townspeople.

One of the members ran a restaurant, so The Society then had the opportunity to do singing gatherings during their slow time on Sunday afternoons. I was the first President of the Society (probably because I was older, and therefore more respectable than the rest of the folkies) and I began to do some performing, at least partly so that somebody (me) would be doing something on the stage when all the other performers were late.
My repertoire consisted of songs cribbed from Ewan McColl's records, from my hearing of Lou Killen and Sydney Carter, and various other bits and pieces that I remembered from years of listening. I occasionally played the autoharp and the harmonica.

By leaning heavily on the songs learned from Lou Killen and Sydney Carter, which were entirely unfamiliar to even a sophisticated American audience, I managed to disguise my lack of skill as a performer. Eventually enough practice made me more at ease on a stage.

About this same time the Indian Neck Folk Festival expanded from a weekend house party for Yalies and the Folkie friends of their girlfriends to an invitation-only festival for performers. The only "event" at Indian Neck was a Saturday Night concert for all comers. I never got comfortable with an audience of seasoned performers, but there were some memorable moments. The rest of the weekend was spent in sharing ad hoc music with whoever was around.

I'm an early riser, so one of my favorite memories of Indian Neck was hearing Alan Block playing softly to himself in the soft dawn light.
Indian Neck provided another venue and an opportunity to hear performers doing a variety of different styles. What continued to interest me were those people who were trying to capture the essence of traditional music without merely being biological tape recorders.

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