Folk music is a paradox unplugged, accompanied by a riddle playing stand-up bass and an enigma singing high harmonies; the whole kit and caboodle (which just might be the name of the group) sits in the corner of the Coffee Shop of Self-Doubt, gnawing at bagels and sipping at fair-trade coffee, wondering where it's all bound. Once in a while they get up and sing.
For an intense two or three years in my late teens I was a folkie. It was the late '80s: how did this come to be? How did a child of a Republican household in the Later Age of St. Ronnie come to spend his afternoons and late nights lost in the sounds of the Kennedy years? In a sense, the question answers itself: I knew I wasn't a Reaganaut, and I was looking for something else. And I kept finding these interesting-looking old records in the local Goodwill and Salvation Army stores - we had a lot of thrift stores in suburban Anne Arundel County, and they seemed to have been stocked by Boomers who'd grown up and out of the same youthful obsessions that were now, and at a bargain price, mine. I picked up most of Peter, Paul & Mary's oeuvre this way, on old vinyl (so much heavier than the vinyl of new records), scratches and pops and clicks and faded labels with "Susan K." written in blue magic marker on them; I found Joan Baez's first two albums that way. And of course that's how I got my first Dylan...
At the time it was a lifeline to a better, vanished age. Within a few years I was learning about the people these folk-revivalists had based themselves on, the sources of their repertoire, and I was getting lost in the knotty question of authenticity; I left them behind (and followed Dylan's muse, truth be told, re-enacting in my own belated fanhood his gestural rejection of the Newport crowd). But for a couple of years there, PP&M and Joan Baez, Glenn Yarbrough and the Limeliters, were the beacons showing me the way out.
Most of what passes for folk isn't really folk. Right? "Folk" has to be somehow connected with the folk, right, the people, the tradition: a folk song by definition has to be a song that has been handed down by generation after generation of singers who taught it to each other manually, orally, preferably in an isolation enforced either by poverty or geography or both. A folk song isn't the product of any one person's genius or craft, but rather the collective genius and craft of many people, mostly anonymous: the People.
That's a naive and even essentialist view of it, to be sure. Study the liner notes to the Harry Smith anthology and you'll realize that for every traditional song that really is as old as the hills there's another that can be traced, if not to a creation out of whole cloth, than at least to a very specific innovation made by a particular, named, individual at a particular time in a particular place. Put another way, Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie can be seen as auteurs at least as easily as they can be seen as autochthonous products of the People.
Still, there's a lot of miles that separate someone like Johnson, who may have been exercising his individual genius but was doing it within a context that was rich with the tradition that gave birth to him, that created the idiom in which he was expressing his genius, from someone like my former neighbor in Cambridge, who sang pretty much only songs he had written himself, based in equal parts on his own musings and whatever he had learned about music from exactly three formats of radio: classic-rock, college, and talk.
My neighbor sang solo, accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar, and sang sensitive, earnest, melodically shaggy songs that went well with coffee and bagels. I'd call that, if I had to give it a label, singer-songwriter: he had more in common with James Taylor or Jack Johnson than with Bascom Lamar Lunsford or Mississippi John Hurt.
If it ain't old, if it ain't rooted in what's old, it ain't folk music, is what I feel.
And yet, of course: if Robt. Johnson was singing what he knew, and what he felt, and drawing inspiration from his immediate musical context, not considering it particularly old in relation to himself, most likely, and drawing, let's remember, from whatever he'd heard of Tin Pan Alley as well as the Delta, how is that different from my neighbor? Was not my neighbor being authentic in drawing from the music that surrounded him, no less than Mr. Johnson was?
This brings us to two points that might fairly be considered the rub here. First, authenticity, that dreadnought of a word. Second: the radio. Mass Culture.
I'm aware that I'm not saying anything many others haven't said better before me, by the way.
Authenticity. I'm prepared to grant my neighbor (and I'm sure he's quite relieved) an authenticity somewhat on a par with Mr. Johnson's, if we stipulate that authenticity to mean being true to one's musical context. RJ's was the Delta Blues, with snippets of mainstream pop here and there; my neighbor's was radio. Both take these materials - accept them, meaning maybe challenge but not reject them - and filter them through whatever they may have of personal genius and craft. If I like one better than the other, it's either a matter of responding to the genius of one over that of the other, or a question of liking the raw materials of one over the other.
Which I do, and do; no problem, end of debate. It's a question of taste (and I do believe taste can and should be accounted for: given account of), but not of authenticity or embeddedness in the folk process.
Unless. Unless you see a crucial and definitive difference between person-to-person transmission from one singer to another and mechanical transmission from one singer to thousands of listeners who have never met the singer and have no clue as to how the singer's culture may or may not be reflected in the music. Unless, in other words, you see folk music as being fundamentally impossible in the (wait for it) age of mechanical reproduction.
What could that difference be? What would you get from having Robert Johnson himself teach you "Terraplane Blues" that you couldn't get through learning it from a record? Musical fundamentals such as chords, tunings, rhythms, ways to produce and modulate the human voice? Background knowledge about the lyrics, what they mean, and why they mean what they mean? Why he's singing about a Terraplane? A greater familiarity with all the musical techniques, cultural knowledge, and experiences that lie behind "Terraplane Blues"? Something less definable - some kind of subverbal sharing that might arise naturally and gnostically from the type of intimate relationship that alone would have made it possible to get Mr. Johnson himself to teach you "Terraplane Blues"?
Shared culture, is that what we're talking about? Participation in the creation, maintenance, and transmission from which "Terraplane Blues" emerged organically? Are we saying that such participation is definitively different than cultural transmission into the midst of which mechanical capitalism - radio, records - have intervened?
Well, it is different, isn't it?
If you're a middle-class white guy in Cambridge, Mass., in the early '00s, and you play acoustic guitar and read books and are honest with yourself, you know that you can't get away with singing Robert Johnson songs, not really, because you didn't learn them from him (not strictly necessary), or from anybody who learned them from anybody who learned them from him. Not personally. You're not part of the folk tradition that Robert Johnson inhabited: you don't have the same right to the songs as he did.
If you're interested in authenticity, this poses a problem for you. You have two options. You can either sing them anyway, in which case your peers will think you're a poser and clueless and maybe a thief and not listen to you. Or you can sing what you know, trying to be as authentic to yourself as possible. In which case you end up sounding like James Taylor or Norah Jones and you're boring and lame and I don't listen to you. No big loss there, which is why folk music sounds the way it does now.
Is there still a folk tradition anywhere? A lot of us seem to think there is - I think that thought is what's behind a lot of the F on the NPR DORF lists. The periodic appearances of people like Caetano Veloso, Buena Vista Social Club, or things like the O Brother soundtrack on bestseller lists seem to speak for a yearning to believe that there is authentic music out there, somewhere, and people who can perform it authentically. I also think it's what's behind the surge of interest in a local music scene that you sometimes see - the assumption that a music's incubation in dark clubs and basements before the bright lights of the music biz are turned on it is analogous to, if not a manifestation of, the folk process. CBGB was just like a juke joint, in this line of thinking. Sugar Hill is the Delta. In this way of thinking the folk process can be boiled down to the idea of the proletariat, or kids (same thing, to rockists), reacting honestly to the world around them, as a community.
I don't think that's folk music, even if it is a good thing in other respects. An appreciation of the other respects in which it's a good thing is what led, to use a now-obscure example, Nora Guthrie to deliver Woodie's cache of lyrics to some indie-rockers and an agitprop songwriter, people who could speak to youth of their day, rather than to somebody who had some kind of appreciation for the musical context in which Guthrie worked. I would have loved to hear what Dylan or Cash did with them. That might have been close to folk music. Mermaid Avenue wasn't. It was shaggy singer-songwriter music with a pleasant indie murk and unusually pithy lyrics. (And, to be fair, a couple of tracks that make me smile to this day.)
Again, I don't think that's folk music. Shouldn't folk music, no matter how impeccably engagé it is, have something to do with old music?
I listened to Peter, Paul & Mary's first album today. After many, many years in which my love of folk music was indulged solely by exploring old music, I've recently decided to give the Folk Revival another look. And I started by picking up PP&M's first six albums, their all-acoustic ones. Their "folk" ones, before they embraced folk-rock in Dylan's wake.
I hear many things in it now, mostly problems. The kind of problems that turn you off, not on. Like:
They're upper-middle-class urban white people, sons and daughter of privilege, singing songs plucked mostly from poor, rural, often non-white contexts. Appalachian ballads, African- American spirituals, calypsos, blues. What right do they have to these songs? Aren't PP&M just part of a long line of whites appropriating black music, putting a presentable face on it, and making money from it?
Does it make it better or worse that PP&M are performing in a style that, mostly, sounds like themselves, not their sources? Unlike, say, early Dylan, they're not trying to sound black, or Southern, or rural (except on "Bamboo," where they seem to be trying to sound Caribbean): they're singing pure notes, not bent, in carefully-tiered harmonies. Peppy rhythmic arrangements, very tight - very poppy. Of course PP&M were decidedly on the pop side of the folk revival... Is this them being true to themselves - authentic?
Does it make it better or worse that they seem to have had the best of intentions? That they marched on Washington, stood up for civil rights, really exerted themselves in causes - and that their repertoire also included good contemporary examples of the other strain of thinking about folk music, the new-but-political strain?
It seems to me that when it began, the Folk Revival was about repertoire, and then it became about stance, and then it ended.
That is, in the '50s there were some people who realized what the age of mechanical reproduction was doing, or had done, to the folk process: destroyed it, or all but. And in the face of this loss, it seemed to fall to those few people who lamented the loss to document what was being lost. So you had people like Alan Lomax going around and recording the last of the traditional singers; you had people discovering some of the traditional singers and trying to bring them to new audiences before they breathed their last.
Other people heard this music and felt something in it, something that touched them despite, or more likely because, it had nothing do to with their world, their own context. It's the authenticity question, but in a period in which it seems this stuff is all but snuffed out, don't the benefits of trying to keep the tradition alive outweigh the potential violence you do to it by performing it out of context? Hedy West came by "500 Miles" authentically, but it touches you deeply, as well, and so why not sing it? Keep it alive, pass it on?
If you're really into the traditional music itself, for its own sake, then I think the answer's yes. But if you're coming to this scene a little later, attracted by the thoughtfulness of the performers, for example, or the simple beauty of the human voice/acoustic guitar combination no matter what it's singing, or by the politics, or just by the fact that everybody around you was into it (the Folk Revival was the original college radio music), then I think maybe after a while the authenticity question gnaws at you enough that maybe you step back and start looking for ways to incorporate a little more of yourself into your music. Your first album maybe is filled with Rev. Gary Davis and stripped-down Bill Monroe songs, but your third maybe has things by Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, and by your fifth you're trying to find your own songwriting voice.
Which is a healthy thing, I think.
But what about the old songs? Who's singing "500 Miles" now? Nobody. The tradition is not just dead now, but twice dead. Dead and abandoned. Dead and forgotten.
Maybe it could never have been any other way. Since, as we've seen, things are never the same again after radio and records step in.
Let's go back to that moment when "500 Miles" has touched you deeply. Check the Wikipedia entry out: Hedy West was from rural Georgia, daughter of a union organizer, and she learned "500 Miles" from her grandmother, who'd learned it from her forebears. That's the folk tradition, in case you were wondering. I don't know if PP&M learned it from West when she hit the folk-revival circuit, or if they learned it from her record, but either way, they're not from rural Georgia. Peter was born in NYC, Paul was born in Baltimore and went to Michigan State, and Mary was born in Kentucky but moved to Greenwich Village when she was 2. This wasn't their music. Hello, elephant. If you're middle-class in America in the middle 20th century or later - probably it started earlier - you have no tradition. You were raised on TV and radio, and chances were you lived somewhere very different from where your ancestors had lived, very far from whatever community may have once nurtured them. It's the great dislocation of modernity, right? Wherever you are, whoever you are, you probably don't feel connected to a community: you feel atomized, isolated, and alienated.
And that brings us back to the dreaded authenticity question. The Folk Revivalists, many of them, had a genuine love for that music, but for most of them that would have been inextricably bound up with a hunger for an authenticity, membership in an organic community, that they felt the circumstances of their birth and upbringing had denied them. Maybe it's an illusion, maybe it's essentialist, maybe it's yet another unwitting manifestation of unexamined privilege, but you hear "500 Miles" or "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" and you hear that, and it's something you want, something you want to honor, and in the honoring become (or is it the other way around?).
Is it so wrong to sing those songs, to make them part of your repertoire? And if you can sing them well, so that other people want to pay to hear you sing them, is it so wrong to charge admission, so that you can buy the time and means to learn more songs like them, and perform them to more people?
Maybe it is. Because they can never be your songs, no matter how well you sing them.
Dylan solved the problem by plugging in: by radically remaking the songs so that it was obvious to all that he was adding something new. That was '65 and '66. But if you listen to what he's done ever since, you realize he's never stopped trying to find his way inside those songs, find a way to inhabit them. To make them his. He's an antiquarian, in some ways, and it means that he's always been bedeviled by the authenticity question - it fuels much of his brilliance.
Listening to Peter, Paul & Mary's first album, I can't help but think of A Mighty Wind: that movie nailed the folk revival, and specifically PP&M. Hilarious, and all in good fun, right? But while Spinal Tap didn't destroy heavy metal for me, A Mighty Wind might have destroyed folk music for me. The scholarly pretension, the naivete, the jejune rhythms and antiseptic harmonies, the utter cluelessness about where one falls in relation to the authenticity question - that's what the movie grasps. Certainly I can hear that in the music, clearly now where I couldn't when I was younger.
Has it ruined it for me? Or can I still enjoy PP&M for what they were, rather than scorning them for what they might have been trying to be? That's what I'm here to decide. I'm not sure if I can. Certainly every time I've played this disc in the last few weeks since I got it, I've been sent off on reveries like the one above.
This in spite of the fact that the record offers quite a few surface pleasures. I really like their harmonies - a rich blend where you can still pick out each individual voice for its qualities of personality. I like their arrangements: tight rhythms, well-honed accompaniments. They bring in the best aspects of pop: the professionalism, the attention to detail. And I love their repertoire: as something of a musical antiquarian myself I have to thank them for turning me on to such a wide variety of sturdy songs.
But I can't surrender myself to it like I once did.