Cisco Houston Web Site

Ol' Pals

Robert Shelton (Page 2)

Notes from The Folk Box


One of the things keeping many lovers of fine music from an appreciation of folk song has been the strange breadth of "acceptable" vocal qualities. There is, indeed, tremendous latitude in vocal quality among native folksingers and even among the leaders in the urban revival.

A whole new set of standards must be taken into account in the appreciation of folk music. Granted, a beautiful voice and instrumental virtuosity are universally appealing, whether in the backwoods or the conservatory. Beyond that, standards for folk and primitive versus bel canto are worlds apart.

The voice of a native singer can be beautiful even if it is rough, scrappy, harsh, bellowing, lacking in nuance or subtlety. This is not to say that a Memphis Minnie, a Jean Ritchie, a Bulgarian peasant woman singing in incredibly complex intervals, a Tom Ashley or a Leadbelly are not capable vocalists. They are. So, too, are the "city" singers, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Ed McCurdy, Theodore Bikel and dozens of others.

But it is the middle ground of stylists that seem to cause the greatest problems for those bringing a set of classical/operatic/bel canto standards to folk song. Other things than vocal polish are important. The content of the song, the expressiveness of the lyrics, the involvement of the singer with the meaning of the song, the method of delivery -- whether dramatic or theatrical, or even in a traditional ballad singer's deadpan absence of emotionalism -- all these are more important in folk song than clarity of tone, subtlety of shading, range, etc.

Unfortunately, folk singers themselves have clouded the issue of standards in performance. Because of the looseness of measuring quality of rural singers, many professional singers of folk song have taken greater liberties than they should with matters of technique. Also, many youngsters singing mostly for themselves have been unwisely moved into seeking careers when the intrinsic talent was simply not there.

The standards for listening to folk music are diverse and must remain flexible. So many regional idiosyncrasies enter into the picture -- women in the mountains have nasal constricted voices, Negro women have large, sinuous, open-throated styles -- that no one standard of esthetic merit can be applied. But even in the most primitive of native folk singer's voices there is a new sort of beauty to be discovered. The roughness or crudeness of some archaic styles have a distinct beauty of their own. Repeated listening and a resetting of standards to incorporate new elements of musical beauty will open the doors to a fascinating new language of musical expression.


For all the wholesome currents in the folk song movement, there are many strange and inconsistent elements that have also kept "outsiders" from understanding the social patterns and music of folk music. There was a time when folk song was widely regarded as an adjunct of a left-wing political movement. At still another time, it was only the roseate, let's all pull together world of the Campfire Boys and Girls. Today, the urban revival has borrowed from this past, but has gone on to incorporate other contemporary social movements.

For a time, young intellectuals, despairing of any outlet for their art or philosophies, entered into a phase of nihilistic hedonism -- the beatnik. The beats espoused freedom, anti-authoritarianism, unconventionality in dress, speech, manners. They saw their only salvation in being on the road, talking the feeling-denying language of the jazz hipster, the liberation and the anti-social "kick" of smoking marijuana. The transcendence of the beat was to be found along the highways, outside the inhibiting, constraining city.

Some of the elements of the beat world have gravitated toward the urban folk revival. For them it is a better and more socially responsible outlet. There is still freedom, there is the romanticism of the primitive, the noble savage, there is the weapon of direct honesty in being and saying what is felt.

The unconventionality of some of the young urban folk leaders should not detract from their validity as people, artists, spokesmen or leaders. The rigid, conformist world of Madison Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue has not done such a good job in running American life that it can dismiss a widespread current among the youth simply because of a few surface idiosyncrasies.

Most important is that the young rebels who have found direction in folk music are maturing with the more basic, less complicated standards of rural life and mores. They may feign the life of being Negro bluesmen or mountaineers, but it is an honest search for a better set of values than their middle-class life has presented them with.


In pre-history, all human knowledge and culture were transmitted by sign language, then through song and speech. Then the written word and the printed word were used as conveyor belts on which one generation would leave its accumulated learning, to pass on to future generations.

Until recently, folk song, tale, legend, myth and riddle were transmitted almost as they had been in pre-literate societies. The leap from mouth to ear, from elder to child was the route for passing a large body of music. But mass communication and electronics have changed all that. Folk song, ironically, was preserved and codified not only by rural singers but by a few earnest scholars who saw here the profiles of an oral literature, an oral history that deserved preservation and study.

A brief history of the background of the present revival touches on many persons, but must simultaneously omit many. Only a few of the most important contributors to today's revival will be mentioned.

The most celebrated of the 19th-century ballad scholars in America was Francis James Child, a Harvard professor. His collection, "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads", is a landmark in poetry scholarship of that century. Child was primarily interested in the literary content of balladry, rather than the musical or sociological facets. He codified the 305 principal "classic" ballads of the English-speaking world, in a canon that is still used today to identify this or that ballad as "Child No. 12" or "Child No. 204." His work has recently undergone the long-needed revision -- the addition of the music and variants -- by a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Bertrand Bronson, in an invaluable series being published by the Princeton University Press.

Another giant in the study of folksong, John A. Lomax, was a different sort of man completely. Lomax did not work in a library, but took his research into the field. Beginning with a fascination with cowboy songs and songs of the Texas negroes, he began a lifetime of travel in search of Americana. He and his son, Alan Lomax, who continued and expanded on his work, are among the greatest collectors in the history of folk song. Long before the world recognized any intrinsic worth in these tunes, the Lomaxes had tried to light the fires of enthusiasm for the riches existing in folk song.

Another famous collector was the Briton, Cecil Sharp, who carried his quest for old English songs to the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky, where he was to find many intact in the daily singing of families such as the Ritchies of Viper, Ky.

Falling somewhere between the academics and the field collectors was Carl Sandburg. A poet in the vein of Walt Whitman, Sandburg could not avoid being fascinated by the poetic outpouring he heard in the farm houses and on the ranch lands. While touring colleges in the late 1920's, amassing research for his famous biography of Abraham Lincoln, Sandburg sometimes "sang for his supper." Inevitably, he sang folk songs.

Charles Seeger, head of the famous Seeger clan, was a musicologist at Harvard who was quick to sense the depth and substance of folk song. He became one of the earliest "ethnomusicologists", a new breed of specialist who studied the music of folk and primitive peoples stylistically, ethnologically and comparatively. The elder Seeger is the inventor of a still little-known device called the Melograph, a machine that has transformed the nature of studying non-western music by visually recording music that could be notated on a graph.

During the 1930's, there was a great deal of folk and topical song connected with the labor movement. Aunt Molly Jackson, Jim Garland, Harry McClintock and others dominate this era. Songs of an earlier era in labor history, those of the Wobblies, returned to popularity at this point, but there was much being written for the struggles of the Pennsylvania and Kentucky coal miners, the textile and auto workers, and elsewhere around the country.

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