Saturday, May 10, 2008

Folk And Faux

Maybelle, Sarah, and A.P. Carter(L) Woody Guthrie

:Harrison Ford. mentioned that in college he hosted a folk music and
: blues show. Leno asked him who the hot acts were - "would it be the Kingston
: Trio" (well, THAT got my attention) and Ford's answer was peculiar...he said
: something along the lines of; no, he did the "REAL, ORIGINAL folk music like
: B.B. King"...WHAT?! I thought the Kingston Trio was about as real and original as you
: could get in those days!

--Betty Cominsky on Kingston Crossroads

Well, I guess it just means that old controversies never die - and they never really fade away, either.

First, as an almost 50 year KT fan, I wouldn't take any exception whatsoever to Ford's remarks. I remind all of the prominence of the Dave Guard quotation in the liner notes of the very first album. This is from memory, but I'm betting it's very close to the actual quote :

"We're not folksingers in the accepted sense of the word," says Dave Guard, acknowledged leader of the group."But it was our interest in this kind of music that brought us together."

Clearly, at the very beginning of things and at every turn since, the KT never claimed to be purveyors of "folk music." That they became identified as such by the general public - and to the chagrin of people who identified themselves as "real" folksingers, in Greenwich Village and elsewhere - is doubly ironic given Guard's up-front comment and Bob Shane's continual reiteration of the same.

The outrage of folk purists at the "commercialization" and "popularization" of traditional music by the KT was ironic in its disingenuous rejection of the attention that the Trio brought to what had been before them (a few songs by the Weavers, Gateway Singers, and folkier efforts by the massively popular Belafonte excepted) a strictly niche market of no Grammy, virtually no widespread airplay - and negligible sales.

The Trio's phenomenal popularity in its first two years especially (late 1958 through early 1961, the peak time of their record sales according to KTOR and other sources) changed all three of those permanently and opened the door for everything that followed - as we fans know but the general public has forgotten. (Digression/allusion - as I noted below in my post about the JS tribute - both Timothy B. Schmitt of the Eagles and Lindsey Buckingham were lavish in their praise of the Trio - Schmitt: "When I was 13 or 14, I was way into the Trio....(smiles) WAY WAY into the Trio (Laughs)... WAY WAY WAY into the Trio." - describing then what we all did, pouring over pics and liners, wearing out grooves....)

Many a true folkie paid his/her rent with money generated by an actual and not mythical example of trickle down economics, with the hurricane of Trio sales spinning off into golden showers all around the landscape of acoustic music.

But there's more, much more. Many of the various patron saints of of true folkiedom did exactly what the Trio did - but neither as smoothly or as lucratively. Cases in point:

1) A.P. Carter: Remember John Stewart's quip on College Concert about stumbling into the local coffee house with a tape recorder and automatic copyrighting machine? Well, change "coffee house" to "holler" or "rural front porch" and you have AP's exact modus operandi. His extended trips away from his family were usually song-gathering expeditions; he'd return home with a passel of field recordings, work out arrangements with his wife and sister, hit the recording studio - and sell lots of records. And oh yes and by the way - copyrighting his usually slight rearrangements of what he had heard. Does this sound familiar? Yet AP Carter is a figure of reverence in folk circles, and NBD (who did a lot more updated traditional folk numbers than NBJ) are derided to this day for doing the same.

2) Woody Guthrie: Woody was far from the rube image that he half-created for himself (and was half attached by the public) - he was smart, sophisticated, and canny. (I always thought that our local business sharpie and promoter extraordinaire Bob Shane would have gotten along really well with WG). Guthrie wrote many great songs and sang as many traditional ones - but he was not in the least troubled by taking old tunes and rewriting them with his own words. There are dozens of examples of this, but KT fans would be most familiar with the rewrites of "Wildwood Flower" into "The Sinking of the Reuben James" and "Pretty Polly" into "Pastures of Plenty."

3) The Weavers: The earliest Weavers' recordings showed much of the same musical fidelity to traditional sources as the slightly later New Lost City Ramblers did (and like the Ramblers had that odd costume thing going [tuxes and suits vs. vests and ties]. But the Weavers always played fast and loose with material. They recorded original songs by Lee Hays ("The Hammer Song," "Wasn't That A Time" and more), Hellerman ("Two Soldiers" and more) and Seeger's rewrites of "Wimoweh," "We Shall Overcome," and many many more. Take for example just one (great) Weavers album - Traveling On. The liner notes themselves describe massive rewrites and additions to "Twelve Gates To The City," "Greenland Whale Fisheries," and "Oh Sinner Man." All were traditional, but no 19th century whaler or camp-meeting congregation ever sang what the Weavers did.

And by now, thanks to the Trio - the music industry category of "folk" is exactly what the purists of the 50s and early 60s hated - commercialized pop music done by performers who aren't really even truly acoustic any more and who are writing their own material without even a feint in the direction of traditional authenticity any more. Talk about ironic.

No less a cultural luminary in America than The New Yorker magazine addresses the issue (and makes a single positive reference to the Kingston Trio) in its April 28th issue in a long article entitled Where can folk music still be found?. Unfortunately, it's not yet available online or I'd post it here. It's long, but it propounds and tries to preserve the definition of what folk mean to people like the Lomaxes and Moses Asch - and what it still means at universities around the world. (One of the great programs in folklore anywhere is at UCLA - and they don't do Dylan and "singer-songwriters" in the music classes in the program - they do real folk music. So does the Seattle Folk Life Festival - a story for another time.)

So I'm guessing Harrison Ford was trying to make the same distinctions of "traditional" versus "commercial." I didn't see the show, but I doubt his comment was barbed in any way.

We'll just have to wait for Bill Bush and Bob Shane to finish their books and hope that the promotional flair that Bob has always exhibited will take the true tale to at least some of the general public.

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