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Category: FOLK is such a bad name for a genre
Loosely, you will find in here Blogs pertaining to ‘Folk Music’, by that I probably mean (because the word ‘Folk’ is so problematic I feel), traditional music, music that speaks of the common experience.
To me that means the Beatles were probably more ‘Folk’ than Jimmy Shand!
It seems odd to review an L.p. first released in 1972, but hey, this is new to me, so it may be new to you too. Or you may have been trying to decide to get it or not since 1972 and this just might make up your mind.
I first ran into Lal and Mike Waterson’s own song writing and output as a result of listening to the Anne Briggs’s ‘classic’ L.p. ‘The Time Has Come’, which features a recorded version of ‘Fine Horseman’ by Lal Waterson. ‘Fine Horseman’ is a sublimely poetic song populated by Hardy’esque imagery and it had me intrigued in seconds. Then, when quite by chance I happened upon a re-release of ‘Bright Phoebus’ the 1972 L.p. by Lal and Mike Waterson (and others) which contained Lal singing her own version of this, the song she had penned, I just had to pick it up.
As a brief background, Anne Briggs was sometimes known as the honorary fifth Waterson of the Watersons, a British group of folks singers mostly (during its original tenure) from the same family, one that virtually defined traditional unaccompanied folk song tradition in the folk clubs of Great Britain during the British Folk Revival of the earlier 1960s. What many now lovingly refer to the ‘Wax on me finger’, or ‘Finger in the ear’ genre of folk. (Actually that’s a lie, but they might do for all its urgent self righteousness)
The L.p. has already seen two or three re-issues on c.d. and vinyl and was for a time an underground classic, passed between devotees on ropey self duplicated tape cassettes. This issue from 2017 sees Domino Recording Co Ltd re-issue it on REWIGLP102 in a gatefold format with a good quality booklet and sleeve notes, telling the story of Lal and Mike’s development from members of the traditional singing group into songwriters, and the story of this L.p.’s recording.
The album initially gained rave reviews in much of the music press, but simultaneously alienated stick in the mud brigades of ‘don’t you mess with our traditional music’ fans (who had lots of wax stuck on their fingers, and fingers in ears), which slowed acceptance and sales. The L.p. crept into collective memory and slept on the back shelves of old dusty record stores. However it has since become a wonderful example of musical creation and invention and of the power of musical Art to conquer ears and stupidity over time.
In my mind the album links the Watersons traditionally bound unaccompanied singing style, and that school, with the development of Folk Rock by those such as Fairport Convention. I think it little surprise that Richard Thompson, Ashley Hutchings, Dave Mattacks, Tim Hart and Maddy Prior are all helping out in various ways on ‘Bright Phoebus’, it makes perfect sense. Sticking the two together with guitar glue is Martin Carthy. Having redefined English Folk music by translating it to an instrument not traditionally used for it, he’s the all too important chain link in the album’s musical integrity I believe. Richard Thompson will I believe always be a Rock guitarist who got interested in Folk, not a Folk guitarist who has dabbled with Rock; and so it is Carthy that translates what Lal and Mike Waterson are trying to do here into something we can all ‘get’.
So I’ve alluded to some of the collective that combined to produce the music on this L.p., but what about the songs? As usual it’s such a personal thing, what a song means to any person that I am loathe to impose my opinion on you the potential listener and would much rather you shelled out your hard-earned moolah for a copy, and made your own mind up. However one thing is certain, they are dark in the main, mystery laden, intangible, phantom like songs. You expect the Hound of the Baskervilles to howl on backing vocals, you can hear the creak of the Reddle man’s wagon through the marsh mist rising from the ground as you drop the needle. The rain drizzles onto the stone Church’s boundary walls it dusts onto the heart’s tongue ferns and into the grooves of the record, hope dies, and in the morning sun, is reborn.
The bouquet it hit me like a tonne of bricks, a tonne of sweet-smelling hay and straw bricks, made of Summer daze, lazy riverside ramblings with sylph like cheesecloth bedecked Timotei maidens; it hit me like thick hashish smoke; I envisioned the whispering of caterpillars, of heat laden grass, the shifting cool of shaded lambs under neatly tooth trimmed trees and the quiet beckoning of a hidden mystical hand, a tune came drifting amongst the tree faeries and water sprites and alighted upon mine ears… . and it was good,… and it was UK Folk Psych. I asked for the menu and it was given of freely in little pieces and I complained and was told, ‘no mate it’s only the tasting Menu’. ‘Well bring me something HEAVY’ says I, and so it came to pass, and so it was that it was done.
Psychotic to like UK Folk Psych?
It’s mad, I collect Reggae and Jamaican music, what the hell am I listening to ‘Psychedelic’ Folk music of the late 60s and early 70s for? Nope.. not a clue? Me either; though it may have been that while I rambled musically I started separating out a sound, a style, and began to distinguish the genre as distinct, of itself, not of this earth. Then my ever musical girlfriend bought me a decent introductory Cd compilation, ‘Dust On The Nettles’, and down the slippery slope to more record collecting I flew. I’d been searching for a female vocalist that I could actually say I really liked all my life and this too led me in the direction of this sub genre of a sub genre of a sub genre of a sub genre of a fractal like musical sub genre disappearing into the abyss of my fractured mind,… and this too led me in the direction of this sub genre of a sub genre of a sub genre of a sub genre of a fractal like musical sub genre disappearing into the abyss of my fractured mind,… and this too led me in the direction of this sub genre of a sub genre of a sub genre of a sub genre of a fractal like musical sub genre disappearing into the abyss of my fractured mind,… and this too led me in the direction of this sub genre of a sub genre of a sub genre of a sub genre of a fractal like musical sub genre disappearing into the abyss of my fractured mind,… to a place where Sandy Denny appeared each night, where Bridget St John still spoke French like a native, where Anne Briggs lived in a hole on a beach in Ireland amongst the Gorse and the Furze and cared not for ‘our’ world and wrote songs that would put us on a spaceship to the place we should have been born unto, to another planet, another beach, another life in and on a parallel dimension.
I’d always wanted to explore the Incredible Stringband’s music and they are probably the starting point most oft launch padded upon for those entering these sacred fields of discovery; and so I shall launch this little ship of fools off the cosmic slipway and onto a sea of meanderings via the ISB (as you will see below), where I outline my listening pleasures and give you, perhaps, a starting point at which to remove your denims and dive headlong into the this little mill-pond of music. Thing is the ISB weren’t really Psychedelic Folk, actually, scrub that, de-gausse that. Thing is the ISB were really Psychedelic Folk, but they aren’t representative of the genre wholly, they are too much ‘the other’, too strongly, of their own ilk, too different, too original. HOWEVER… phew! They are the starting point (and perhaps ending point) I shall start (and end?) with.
Their first Lp – ‘The Incredible String Band’
And so they recorded their first Lp, the result of happenstance meetings and gigs and a club they ran in Scotland, connections made, decisions decided upon, quickly… and then one buggered off to North Africa with his share of the proceeds (Robin Williamson), one kept on gigging (Mike Heron) and one was left by the wayside, probably because he didn’t take enough Acid to ‘fit in’, ‘tune in’ or ,.. oh no, actually.. he did ‘drop out’, or slide out, or ooze on down the line, whatever…, or he just fancied carrying on playing Parlour Banjo tunes, and frankly, that ain’t got legs mate, not for late 60s UK ‘projects’. Like all first Lps, the ideas were there, it was all in place, but they hadn’t realised it yet, when they did, all shit would break loose, crap would happen, faeces would smack the fan up. When Robin Williamson returned from North Africa clutching his fucking Gimbri he and Mike Heron hooked up, (Mike had been gigging more traditionally around the folk clubs of Greater Britain during Robin’s absence (and no I can’t even be bothered to mention the other bloke, no that would be rude, right.. Clive Palmer, Mr Victorian Banjo Gt Britain 1966) they recorded the scene changing, prop wobbling record you will see below. See it??
5000 whatnots on the layers of Huh?
The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, actually.
A veritable deep space 9 of tunes. Just look at that COVER! Overall this is my personal favourite Lp by them, though everyone goes on about Hangman’s, there are of course stand out songs on all others, but this just hangs in totality to my taste man. Like the other Lps that originally came out on Elektra, tizz goodly, tizz very goodly.
Look I can’t be bothered with this anymore, I’m not going to go through each Lp, critiquing them, these are just suggestions for listening. So go get copies and listen, make your own mind up, just like Bucks Fizz did. Then the next Lp, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, and the next Wee Tam & The Big Huge and, and and and… until they petered out signed to Island and nailed by the musical virus ‘differences of a musical and or artistic nature’. And this brings us neatly to other shit of a Psych Folk vein to check out…
other shit of a Psych Folk vein to check out…
I spent a long time thinking that this stuff was childish, fay, thinnish, and was Hippie music; that as such it was something that I should grow out of, move away from, and I did in my early 20s, only to realise recently in my late 40s, in part to the revolutionary nature of John Peel’s Dandelion label, that this music was as out there as the German feedback and noise bands Peely played on his show in the 1980s. So I became baited and hooked again. And now I’m up to my bollocks in new music, casting my fly, bobbing for apples, spearing for melodic and well-odd’ic fishes once again.
Currently Marc Brierly, Bridget St John and the less Psychedelic but equally as ‘Folk’ Anne Briggs all interest me in particular. Alongside these the more ‘Folk Rock’ John Martyn, Steelye Span and Fairport Convention all beckon, and I’ve got one more Incredible String Band Lp to get to complete the set.
There is loads out there to find, and I expect to be exploring for a while. Come with me on my trip.
The Hotfoot Specials – Kickin’ Up The Dust Cd Album Review
Firstly I have to state a conflict of interests here, this is my brother’s band, BUT and it’s a big BUT (that’s why I put it in capital letters!) he and you should know that I am utterly and independently critical and will not pull my punches, hold back from the truth, or as he knows all too well, restrict myself from telling it like (I think) it is.
Frankly this is a whirling dervish of Cajun music, as authentic as Cajun gets outside of Louisiana. Leader and Melodian player Chris (my Bro) Murphy is an American born, but most importantly American folk culture bred, Cajun Melodian player with a deep and dark history as keyboards player in various bands, signed bands, pro bands, really proper amazing Pop bands with US tours and stuff.. he comes from a long line of musical family and swore that he would never perform live again (after years of torturing himself in Los Angeles). Thank GOD he met Kirsten Hammond one of the best Violin (Fiddle to you Folkies) players I have ever seen heard and enjoyed who encouraged him to leave the swamp of his front room Bayou and, with her, move into the real mainstream world of performance again.
Together and with Dan Stewart a fine Guitar player (he plays other stuff in other bands including ‘Fiddle’ and Banjo), Grant Allardyce a choice drummer of subtle stylings, who is a teacher of drumming, an also session player and chief drumming personage from Brighton Sussex band ‘The Mountain Firework Company’, and my Mom, Mary Murphy, ace triangle player, they have formed a truly kick arse Cajun outfit that could get your dead Granny up out of her seat and two steppin’ ’till the break of day.
They all live in East Sussex and hail from far and wide geographically and culturally, but they sound like the band members could’ve all been born and raised on Shrimp (go on say it without sounding like Forest Gump!). There’s a lot of touting people as the best sounding ‘British’ Cajun band, the most this, the most that, the most authentic, yawn, snore, break wind, but, and I know I’m saying it myself, they are the best UK Cajun band I have ever heard… and yes you would have seen me at too many Womad festies in the 80s and checking out ’nuff folk music far and wide..
Check ’em out, they seem to be playing just about everywhere these days, Gloucester, Cantebury (opening the Cantebury festival) the North Shropshire Cajun Weekender Broadstairs Folk Festival, Cecil Sharpe House’s File Gumbo club, their home territory of the South Coast and the Cajun Barn in Tunbridge Wells and probably somewhere near you.. soon.
The cd is cheap, the cd is fab, the cd, particularly track 10 – Opelousas Two Step ( a nod to Cory) will have you twirling on a higher plane, in an outer body experience, rapt with the hypnotic sounds of the Hotfoot Specials.
The cd is a well recorded ‘live’ recording and really captures the sound of the band going to it. Well balanced and most importantly well played it let’s the players talents and skills shine forth, there are no in studio histrionics, effects, no overloading the ‘mix’ with production values and to all intents and purposes it’s a Mono recording, with EQ left to do the work of pulling the instruments out of the mix. A little compression and off to the pressers it went. I should know I mixed it.
Kickin’ Up The Dust
PRICE £11.50 inc Postage & Packing UK Mainland
1. Two Step d’Amédé
2. Eunice Two Step
3. La Valse Criminale
4. Les Flammes D’Enfer
5. Port Arthur Blues
6. La Valse d’Orphelin
7. Bosco Stomp
8. Tits Yeux Noirs
9. Opelousas Two Step ( a nod to Cory )
10. Johnny Can’t Dance
11. Jolie Blonde
12. Tout Ca Cest Dur A croir
13. Acadian Two Step
On and off I’ve been part of the U.K. ‘Folk Scene’. I have both performed as a dancer and played and sung in a number of local clubs and I was interested to get a deeper insight into the clubs and players and singers who frequented them in the past.
If you take a passing interest you are going to be informed by the book and it features everyone living you could possibly expect to be in it, talking about their experiences; Ewan McColl, Peggy Seeger, Martin Carthy, Ian Campbell, The Watersons, the list goes on.
It is a collection of their views, little more than a vox pops, or transcriptions of their memories and opinions, spoken directly. Unfortunately I think it suffers from this and becomes repetitive and rather pointless. The book in and of itself doesn’t interpret, it makes no assumptions, there is no larger discussion. No digest of the interviewees views. Page after page of text doesn’t really tell you anything new. You knew McColl was controlling, you knew that folk music was linked wholeheartedly with the C.N.D. and with left-wing politics, there is very little of revelation in it.
Possibly the closest I got to a joyful discovery was that Ian Campbell’s sons are the leading lights of UB40, a predominantly white U.K. Reggae ‘supergroup’.
It only confirms the frustration I have always felt with the Folk scene; where traditionalists were only ever sold a different version of the same old story, the same sell, the same hype. Yet pompously they then defended it as immoveable God blessed historically accurate tradition and refused to be swayed by those who wished to create a living breathing self-sustaining musical world. The book confirms one thing, it was folk music that killed off folk music and there is more music of the people and by the people in one Beatles melody than 50 verses of some snoring dirge from the Outer Hebrides.
And yet I feel I’m being overly harsh, for those that were there or those that have surfed dangerously on the edges of folkdom it can be a rather cozy and self satisfying read. As a participant you may have met and talked to those in the book. When they speak you are standing listening; to Martin Carthy, Liza, Martin Simpson, and Ralph Rinzler in my case.
I don’t think the book would attract a newcomer, but it would comfort a past participant and perhaps it did. Maybe I’m just a little too close to the reality of enduring Tina’s performance of her ode to marine mammals ‘seal seal, how does it feel to be a seal‘ to ever fully recover an open mind when it comes to ‘folk music’. I have great difficulty even using the term. To me it’s redolent of homespun sheep’s wool pullovers, real ale, nice people being nice to one another, dishonest suppressions of performers egos, quiet one upmanship, corn dollys and cold nights of tented sleeping next to human repositories of beery methane.
I was kind of hoping that the book might persuade me that I’ve always been a bit wrong, a bit ugly and a bit cynical about the world of Folk, but in the end..
It’s just one of those books you read to the end because you think you should rather than because you really wanted to.
Often it is the professional writer, a well-known musician, archivist or college educated musicologist who is held on high for promoting or recording for posterity certain musical genres, songs, artistes or histories; but I believe that traditional music is preserved for the future in the hands of the dedicated enthusiast more so than it ever will be by musicologists and ethnographers.
I would include my father who recently passed away in the category of dedicated amateur, though he certainly blurred the divisions comprehensively during his over 50 years of interest in the traditional music of North America. He was as he himself described, verging on the obsessional when it came to the history and culture and sound of American Traditional Music.
In writing this musically driven obituary I want not only to honour my father, as would most sons, but to share one man’s journey into music and in so doing to prove the theory above AND trace a musical lineage as it continues to live into a future that he no longer can.
By using his life long passion for ‘Folk’ music and the music in particular of North America I hope to illustrate a key moment and movement in recent popular musical history and the way in which he and many like him make music from the past come alive in the present.
The perfect soundtrack
While reading this you may want to have some of the music he loved playing in the background, just hit the below link to make that happen. You can put this music on pause when you come to a video or soundfile in this article that you want to listen to.
Born in 1930’s suburban London Dad became interested in Traditional Jazz in London in the 1950s, attending concerts in the city and also notably at Chiselhurst Caves a venue now almost legendary for its place in the history of Jazz and later, Rock music in the UK.
His interest in Trad Jazz mutated into a much more all-encompassing interest in Skiffle, a hybrid of Jazz, Blues and American Traditional music that became the ‘do it yourself’ musical phenomenon of the late 1950s in the UK. Much like Punk in the mid 1970s adherents were encouraged to pick up an instrument, learn a tune and go and play it in front of others.
The ‘King’ of Skiffle Lonnie Donegan was a big influence and a selection of his hits appear in the You Tube video below.
In amongst the repertoire of Skifflers like Donegan, Long John Baldry and the Chas McDevitt Group was traditional material, music that was still being played by artists in America who could claim direct lineage to the songs, people like Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White and Leadbelly. It was to this deeper tradition, an unbroken line of song, that people like my father, who were interested in a fuller understanding turned for education and then aspired to emulate.
Pick up thy Banjo and Play
The youth of Great Britain began to pick up instruments and play, my father too. In his case a Banjo and a Guitar.
Though it was the instrument of choice for any newborn ‘Skiffler’ guitars were incredibly difficult to find or purchase in Britain during the 50s so by using woodworking skills picked up mainly by building model aircraft and then by training as a pattern maker, he made his first instrument sometime around 1959. He made a 12 string guitar sometime shortly thereafter in honour of Huddie Ledbetter, and to my Dad’s desire to play Leadbelly’s songs. This was apparently such an unusual and remarkable feat that his local newspaper took note of it and published an article ‘The man who refused to wear a tie’ in their local edition. An early case no doubt of reporting a youth movement that stretched an establishment’s ability to understand what the hell their sons and daughters were up to. Skiffle it appears was quite the revolutionary youth movement of the time and wearing a beard and opened toe’d sandals an open act of rebellion to established norms!
Yes… you’re right, it all sounds very tame now, but like Rock N’ Roll which appeared a short time later, Skiffle and Skiffling was a statement of separateness and an establishment of a youth culture that goes virtually unrecognised in our now entirely cynical world.
Dad and many like him played Banjos, Guitars, Fiddle and sometimes Tub Bass badly on the Circle Line, travelling all evening for the price of one ticket, going round and round, staying warm by playing the few tunes they had hence learnt. Most likely I would guess to the total bemusement and annoyance of their fellow passengers.
At this time in North America the musicians and singers who retained these songs for the future were generally only of interest to the folklorist or cranky half crazed song collector, people like Alan Lomax or Moses Asch, Charles and Pete Seeger or the Library of Congress.
Yanks in the UK
The Skiffle revolution however helped to pave the way in the UK for tours of some of the musicians who held American traditional music within their repertoire and whom with their first hand knowledge were linked to an unbroken history of that music. People like my Dad and his friends were crying out to hear American music first hand, instead of something translated into an entertaining but poor imitation by UK Skifflers.
My father talked particularly of concerts he went to in London by Big Bill Broonzy and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot as essential to the growth of his interest in American Traditional music. Elliot though not an artist who could claim the music as part of his bloodline was a lynchpin about which both Traditional American music and its hybrid ‘Skiffle’ turned. You can download some Jack Elliot here – HFTVJ at Podomatic.
Learning the Banjo from an expert…
Having started playing, ever the perfectionist and wanting to learn how to play the Banjo ‘properly’ Dad spoke with Peggy Seeger, half-sister of Pete, who said that if he could get a small group together for lessons she would teach them how to play. Amongst those she taught with him was yet another ‘name’ known to the U.K. folk world, Pete Stanley. Years later I would find out that a girl sharing my digs at Art College in West Surrey and also studying a fine art degree was Pete’s daughter. The world is full of strange little connections.
Putting on the style
What was being seen in the late 50s in London England in regards to Skiffle and the growing interest in American Music were the early stirrings in the UK of what would become the 60s U.K. Folk Music revival. A movement in music that gave birth to the succesful careers of countless recording and touring artistes on both sides of the Atlantic. It also led eventually to the re-fashioning of ‘Folk’ as Folk Rock and then towards the era of singer songwriters and the musical troubadour. Artistes like John Martyn, Cat Stevens, or Roy Harper for example, a trend echoed in even later years in the outpourings of Ron Sexmith or perhaps in a group like Mumford & Sons.
This modern movement was of course being defined in the USA too, particularly on the East Coast where musicians like Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan took the baton from predecessors like Woody Guthrie and finally ran with it.
Blues with its feet firmly planted in the (re) discovery of this once ‘Popular Music’ as a folk tradition by those such as Lomax was to be redefined slightly later than this first wave of ‘Folk’ enthusiasm by musicians like John Mayall, The Yardbirds, Peter Green and the Rolling Stones. But the parallel is glaring.
Will Folk Move Yah?
This Folk ‘movement’, if that’s what we can call it (or want to); which had sat festering in the musical and cultural background for some time, nurtured by musicians and political activists such as the very famous (but in my opinion overly earnest, tedious and saccharin as all hell) Pete Seeger now through the jump-start of the Skiffle beat, began in earnest in the U.K.
In the U.K. singers and song collectors like Bert Lloyd and Ewan McColl were the centre about which a London-based ‘scene’ revolved and it was to this scene that my Dad adhered, becoming known and making himself known to the circles that gathered around such figures.
He knew both men and in 1982 when Bert Lloyd passed away our family was invited to his memorial concert at the Barbican Centre in London. As a young teenager I was impressed, meeting some of the names Dad mentioned from time to time from his days in London. I can still remember as a youngster enjoying the company of Charlie Sayles a blues harp player who had performed at the concert. Sitting with a childish teenage boy on the stairs of Lloyd’s Greenwich town house must have been an odd moment for a bona fide ‘Bluesman’.
Dad it must be said, was less ‘friendly’ with Ewan McColl.
Rude to Ewan!
At a London gig of the time (the 50s), when asked by Ewan McColl, (a comfortably middle class song collector who sung about the travails of ‘the workers’ for whom he felt a solidarity) if he had enjoyed the selection of songs in his performance, my father, a working man during the week on poor pay, said ‘frankly when I come out to be entertained on a Friday night I don’t expect someone to sing about how shit my life is during the week’. I’ve always admired my Dad for his frankness, though it sometimes got him in trouble!
I think what Dad was expressing was an irritation at the ransoming of Folk culture and music by the Political Left at the time. Not only in the USA but the UK too. Folk music had become overly entrenched in its relationship with Unions, protest, and Communism.
I think my Dad’s thinking behind his blunt statement to Ewan McColl may have been that there was no reason why Folk music, just because it was of and about the people (and mainly hard-working people at that) should lean to the left.
Those that worked hard wanted a damn good party on their night off and they needed the right soundtrack for that purpose. It seems entirely reasonable that this was likely not to be some mud wallowing finger in the ear dirge of leftist struggle, emanating from the mouth of a righteous Bohemian.
The residue of Folk music’s kidnapping by the left to this day clings, and smells slightly wiffy and puts people off ever stopping long enough to listen.
Meeting Ralph Rinzler
All this time Dad was working and training as a Pattern Maker with Vickers Armstrong and travelling into London from the Kentish suburb of Eltham in the evenings and on the weekends to listen to music, and to mix with others of like mind.
It was while tracking down and listening to traditional Irish music in the East End of London that he met and became friends with Ralph Rinzler, who was then studying in France and visiting the U.K. on weekends to satiate his appetite for the music he also loved. Ralph would later become a lynchpin of the Smithsonian Centre for Folklife in the U.S.A.
Meeting Ralph was going to be for my Dad (although he didn’t know it quite yet) perhaps the biggest single turning point of his entire life.
It was while attending gigs where artists like Seamus Ennis and Margaret Barry played that he and Ralph put together the Lp. ‘Irish Music in London Pubs’ on Moses Ash’s Folkways Records, a label that is legendary in its reputation for excellence to those interested in Folk and World Music. The sleeve notes hint though at a not all together un-enjoyable process of recording and collection!
Recorders Ralph Rinzler and Barry Murphy thank the proprietors of these buildings for giving them use of the recording machine and “the facilities of the place, …. including drinks.”
Later Ralph returned to the U.S.A. and became involved in establishing the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a festival that continues to this day. He also played a mean Mandolin in Bluegrass band The Greenbrier Boys! Check out their rendition of ‘Sleepy Eyed John’ if you don’t belive me!
Keep Calm and Carry On
My father continued his training and apprenticeship in pattern making, whilst restoring his old motorbikes, (one of which is now in the Beaulieu motor museum) attending gigs, learning how to make further musical instruments, such as Appalachian Dulcimers and collecting bits of exotic wood and old Banjo bodies. Something he was still doing up until his death in August of 2011
But let’s get back to the early 1960s!
Meanwhile, in America….
Dad’s friend Ralph Rinzler had returned to the States and was busy organising Smithsonian Folklife centre concerts, he needed someone to help him transport older and less than worldly-wise musicians to these and other gigs, many of whom hadn’t ever been outside of their County let alone across the State line in their lifetimes.
It’s also possible having recently read the only available Biography of Alan Lomax’s life, that Ralph, who had been employed by Lomax to search out artistes for the Newport Folk Festival was at this point busy transporting those very same artists and that Dad became in turn his assistant, in much the same way Rinzler had been helping Lomax.
Simply put what happened was that Ralph contacted Dad and asked him to come to America to help out. My father in a move that would define his life, sold his lock up garage of vintage motorcycles and used the proceeds to purchase a ticket to New York on the Queen Mary passenger liner. On docking in New York harbour he stayed for a short while in Greenwich village, the place that was to become, and was at that time fast becoming synonymous with the 1960’s American folk revival.
A Duty of care
So Dad began his duties meeting with and recording old-time musicians and taking them to the concerts that Ralph Rinzler was busy organising. To go to America and be introduced to the very carriers and originators of the music he so loved must have been a thrilling and exciting adventure beyond his (or my) wildest dreams.
On one trip he recalled often he took Clarence Ashley across country, enjoying not only the experience of coping with an irascible, demanding and cantankerous musician but also the North American landscape passing outside the ‘scenic’ carriage of the train they took. Perhaps this was the beginning of a love affair with the USA, one that would last until the mid 1970s when homesickness and economics sent Dad back to the U.K. He never really left America though, keeping in touch, travelling back and nurturing American culture in the U.K.
Clarence Ashley is an important figure in the history of the 1950s Folk revival, if only for the 1927 recording of ‘Coo Coo Bird’ included on Harry Smith’s legendary ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’, a compilation album originally released in 1952. It was a three album (6Lp) set that was enormously influential on musicians of the 50s and 60s revival. Notably Bob Dylan who performed and recorded the song in 1962.
In the last couple of decades of his life Dad revisited the USA frequently to attend festivals and conventions, see his friends and even met his hero Ramblin’ Jack Elliot again 30-40 years after first seeing him play in London. Ramblin’ Jack claimed at the time to remember him.
Just like Alan Lomax before him, he and Ralph searched mountain roads for even more obscure dirt tracks; where on arrival and a sometimes initially suspicious greeting, they would record and interview people who Dad grew to love and admire. On one notable occassion he was pulled over by the local police while travelling through Hazard County in Kentucky, where the officers took him for a communist agitator, and grilled him as such back at the Police Station.
At that time many young left-wing civil rights protesters were agitating in the southern states and the officers had assumed he was one. Apparently all it took at the time to appear suspicious to the conservative South was the wearing of a beard, something my Dad did nearly all of his life. Even my maternal Grandfather, a Southern Man if there ever was one barred both his sons from growing beards. He must have had a real problem with his Daughter’s husband, my father.
Crafty old Bugger
It was not only the music that he loved, but as a maker of things in wood he admired the crafts and skills of rural Americans too. His journeys were often as much a discovery of the artistic skills of the rural working classes in America. As a child I remember the then rare but now famous set of Foxfire books always lying around , frequently being referred to by Dad and Mum. Foxfire Books.
Dad was taken and introduced to Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley by Ralph Rinzler who was managing both of them at the time. Ralph had collected Dad and taken him back to his apartment, where Doc was already staying. (Check out the pictures of Newport where Dylan is sat and Doc and Clarence are in the seats next to him).
Soon after, Dad was on his way to California with Clarence Ashley where he met up with Doc, Rosa Lee, Clint Howard and Fred Price where they performed at Berkley. He worked on the door of the Ash Grove to pay his way, taking tickets and payment.
Doc’s playing is now world renowned as the blueprint on which so many country pickers have based their style. People like Tony Rice for example.
There is a fabulous photographic slide somewhere of Dad firing Willard Watson, Doc’s cousin’s long hunting gun off the top of the hill near Deep Gap where Doc lives to this day. He and Doc remained friends throughout Dad’s life.
Dad often encouraged Doc to get his Banjo out to play, an instrument he may not be associated with, but according to Dad was no less skilled upon. Somewhere there’s a picture I need to dig out of both of them playing Banjo together at Doc’s house.
Doc and Dad and my Mum and Rosa Lee Watson became good friends over the years and later when Rosalee’s parents moved house from an old one that let snow through the roof to a rather more weatherproof building, both of my parents helped them to make that move. They were also in touch with Doc and Rosa Lee through the hardest of times when they lost Merle, their son, when he was killed accidentally. Merle and his Dad had over time become a close musical duo and the adjustment after he passed away must have been horrendous to undergo. As a Father and Son, friends and musicians together.
Women talk and hug, real Men play guitars???
I often wonder how it must have felt for our Father that both my brother and I play and are very involved with music, and have both been involved to degrees with Folk music too. I bet he was proud and happy, I would have been.
Music was a bond both my brother and I and our father shared and it’s been hard for Chris and I playing, without him around. At the same time it keeps him alive, that and the songs he played.
All country roads lead to Nashville Tennessee
At one point in his wide travels (he even stayed for a time in a beach house in Malibu) Dad was on tour with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass boys, and though only along for the ride and to take gate money he had at one point appeared on stage with them, announced by Big Bill as ‘The English Boy here to play you some 12 string guitar on a guitar he made himself’.
Indirectly his touring with the Bluegrass boys was to lead to settling in Nashville.
The way Dad told the story of ending up in Tennessee is that he left a Monroe tour to go to Nashville expecting the rest of the boys in the band to turn up shortly thereafter, but they didn’t. In fact two weeks later and out of necessity he had got a job at Malone’s Motorcycle shop in the city and had managed in the meantime to keep body and soul intertwined on $1 Krystal Hamburgers (now legendary). Somehow, even as they rapidly arrived back in town, he had found himself accommodation and was ‘settling down’. It was around this time that for a short while that he said he shared an apartment with Del McCoury, who was then playing for Monroe and who would later guest in Steve Earle’s Dukes.
Settle down son settle down…
Somehow and goodness only knows why Dad must have got bored with wandering America because he started renting a workshop.
This led to him setting up pattern making facilities with him the sole provider for foundries in Nashville. But don’t get the idea that this was some hi-tech working environment, in reality he was working out of an old Chicken house at the bottom (of a family called) the Leaper’s garden, where Peter Rowan, Monroe’s then guitarist set up short residence at one time (see picture).
Dad was introduced to Nashville society as it was then and mixed with the Vanderbilt University crowd and musicians. Eventually at a party held by Herb Peck, librarian at the University, handgun enthusiast and a good friend, he was introduced to Miss Mary Cornelia Brown, Southern Lady and employee of the Methodist Publishing House, ex Auburn University alumni, trained in the art of book illustration and ‘Belle’ of the South, who became his pillion passenger and later my Mom.
It was forever a family joke that Dad left the UK saying ‘I’ll be back in 6 months Mum’, only to return properly 13 years later with a wife and two sons his parents had never met!
Both my mother and father grew their little family on the banks of the Cumberland river in the suburbs of Nashville Tennessee; with my brother and I spending some of the long Summers in Centreville Alabama where my mother’s family and my wonderful ‘Mammaw’ lived.
Back in Nashville it was hot, the river was cool and though eventually the Grand Old Opry moved out of the city and into the bulging amusement park that was newly built all around us on Pennington Bend, for a time life was good, at least to a 9 year old’s eyes it certainly seemed to be.
The Grand Old Opry
As he laid down foundations in Nashville Tennessee Dad must have been moving in some interesting circles because another story he told me is of standing in the wings of the stage at the Grand Ole Opry watching ‘Country Star’ Porter Wagoner perform, sweat oozing from his body through the rhinestone bedecked jacket he wore; and this when the ‘Opry’ was still at its original location at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
When Porter left the stage they commenced to talking about music and country music’s lack lustre and simplistic lyrics and I will always remember what Porter said to Dad at this point as related to me by my father.
‘Well son’ – Porter said, ‘You’ve got to keep it real simple and plain for the folks, because they’re just so goddamn dumb, and I mean real dumb’.
My father was understandably floored by this candid expose of Country music’s lyrical depths and the artist’s ‘deep’ respect for his fans; no doubt leaving him reeling as he watched Minnie Pearl take to the stage.
At some point Dad was introduced to DeFord Bailey the first African-American to ever appear on the Grand Old Opry. A musician well-known for his ability to make the harmonica sing, but also the rarest of things, a Black Banjo player.
Dad helped Ralph Rinzler put DeFord on stage at Vanderbilt University and in the long quiet spell in the wilderness that had followed considerable fame if not monetary reward, this must have been a welcome respite to a natural performer like DeFord Bailey. Such is Deford Bailey’s now legendary status as an American musical icon that Peter Guralnick devotes an entire chapter to him in his now legendary book ‘Lost Highway’. This is a deftly written and definitive tome on American music, particularly that of the South and that of working black and white people and I can heartily recommend it, Guralnick is one of the best writers on music that there is.
My Mum wrote me about Deford that….
‘Ralph was still looking for performers for the college circuits, soon after we married in 1965, and brought DeFord, his lawyer and a blues performer whose name I just can’t recall, but an advocate of the festivals, to our apartment. This was to be ‘neutral’ ground for talks with DeFord about joining in this idea.to get him coverage and money. The money was good, but the lawyer was so very protective and once bitten….by the Opry experience…he wouldn’t agree to anything. This was when the broken banjo was mentioned and Ralph got it, gave it to your dad and it was repaired. Dad and I went to DeFord’s barber and shoeshine shop to return it. (as it was Christmas time, I had tied a huge red bow on the neck…he left it there and it was still showing at the Vanderbilt concert where DeFord looked down, saw your dad and gave him a personal thanks for fixing it. He played Fox Chase.) When we returned the banjo we were looked on with much suspicion. The lawyer hung out there and there were 3 or 4 young men sitting on the tall seats, their shoes at the ready to be polished. But tiny DeFord was most courteous and sweet.’
A son’s realisation.
As I grew up wonderful stories were often told, such as of his meeting Libba Cotton the authoress of ‘Freight Train’.
We had picked Libba up on the way to the Folk Life Festival from her house in Washington and she sat in the back of our Dodge van playing a White Lady Banjo of my Dad’s, with me, according to my Mum, sitting in the playpen next to her in back of the pre-seatbelt and child’s car seat era vehicle, being serenaded! Somewhere if I have the time to dig it out is a picture of Libba taken by Dad. A slightly later shot shows a then three-year old (me again) staring up at a Ray Ban’d Muddy Waters performing at one of the Smithsonian’s New York based festivals in the late 60s. ’69 I think it may have been.
On T.V and in my house at the same time??..
One day in particular springs to mind when I try to recall exactly what made me realise, even as a very young kid, that I had something interesting and out of the ordinary going on around me.
As we watched two musicians on the Television with some friends, there came a knock at the door and the two guys who were on the T.V. walked in. They were Jim Rooney, who has worked with Nancy Griffiths, John Prine, Iris Dement and Bonnie Rait in his career since as a record producer; and then following him through that front door was Bill Keith, one of the best and most influential Banjo players of the Bluegrass style, a man who though native to the East Coast had played alongside Bill Monroe as one of his Bluegrass Boys for some time. The Bela Fleck of his generation would be good way to describe his impact at the time. Somewhere according to my Mum, Dad gets a mench in Jim Rooney’s book on his days in Nashville.
I remember them both getting out their instruments and playing, a pattern that would be established forever in a household where Dad’s Banjo was hardly ever out of an arms extended reach. I can also remember engaging the play and record buttons of some early tape cassette machine to record it all, a theme that has run through my life as I continue to record anything that moves and some things that don’t!
Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard used to visit us too, according to my Mother, but I don’t recall this. They were both essential to establishing women as performers in Blue Grass music.
Peter Rowan was also a frequent visitor to the family home now that he had progressed from Workshop/Chicken Shed living and there is some old standard eight footage somewhere of me as a 4-year-old annoying the hell out of him no doubt by playing a wheezing harmonica alongside his guitar sitting in the long lush grass of our Cumberland riverside home underneath the giant Cottonwood tree there.
Peter’s music has been of particular interest to me over the years as in the late 60s he, along with Dave Grisman formed Earth Opera an excellent ‘Head’ band signed to Elektra where they joined label-mates The Doors. Earth Opera never had the same level of success, though in my opinion they were a fabulous band and had much to offer.
Peter has over the years been quite flippant or even embarrassed about his time in Earth Opera when I’ve wanted to chat to him about the band, but I’ve always really rated them. Death By Fire is the most incredible Gothic hymn and the Red Sox Are Winning is a great ode to the American way of life.. There’s a light, flippant erudition and minstrel like edge to what they did that, though in the present sounds innocent and unaware, is nonetheless real and heart-felt.
The launch party for Earth Opera’s first Lp was on the 18 June 1967, the day of my own birth. My parents didn’t attend for obvious reasons, but hidden inside our copy of the Lp is the launch party invite. It makes for interesting reading, a perfect example of the heady and innocent era of Flower Power. I’ll probably sell it one day on eBay and buy some rare Reggae (as is my way).
Later Peter would play alongside Grisman and Jerry Garcia in the band ‘Old and In the Way’. A band which showcased it’s members love of Old Timey and Bluegrass music. This was for a time an Lp often played in the Murphy household. Peter has rubbed shoulders with some of the best of the best of players, Tony Rice, Mark O’Connor, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck is playing Banjo in the movie clip above and he’s written for Ricky Skaggs and even played with one of my heroes, Chinna, legendary trend setting Jamaican guitarist from the golden era of 70s Roots Reggae. Peter told me a great story of how he went to a Grounation run by Count Ossie’s son sometime shortly after Ossie passed away and picked up someone who sounds remarkably like it may have been John ‘Dizzy’ Moore on the way there! Typically Peter wasn’t quite sure who it was, and I was dying to know.
Blues ’76 and homesick
In 1975 Dad took us to England for a touring holiday and my brother and I met my English Grandmother for the first time. I can remember the cold and bleak countryside to this day and it remains the only time I’ve been to Hadrian’s Wall, though I’ve now lived in the UK for about 37 years.
In late ’75 having grown disgruntled with the changing face of the USA, as a less innocent era marched in on the old, homesickness for the cold winters and the miserable rain of England beckoned; and so Dad left his family to look for work and a place for us all to live in the UK.
He settled in Sussex and we joined him about 10 months later in May of 1976. The year of England’s last major heat wave, we just thought it was a normal Summer and felt right at home in the sweltering heat of our new ‘Deep South’.
At first he worked for Adlam and Burnett, responsible for building and restoring some of the world’s best and most interesting keyboard instruments. Then he worked for himself, restoring antiques for a local dealer and establishing himself as a respected furniture maker.
His sons went to English schools, had the shit beat out of them for a while, and quickly learnt to sound English. His wife, my mother took 6-7 years to settle, suffering a homesickness all of her own, but gradually the family established itself and prospered.
Collecting and playing
All through his travels, family life and meeting and mixing with musicians and artists my father collected songs, wrote them down, learnt them and placed many of them in a now dog-eared and almost ‘holy’ tunes book. He continued to do this now that he was working hard for his family, but much more sporadically, virtually stopping his playing as other interests like restoring his house took precedence. As he stopped playing, his sons started. They both learned piano and Chris continued on with keyboard instruments while I, Michael, saved up for a second hand electric guitar and then played it for over a year before being able to pay for the amplifier.
Both sons played together and then formed their first gigging band in the late 80s. All through this era American traditional music sat easily in the background and continued to be their musical and cultural grounding. A grounding no doubt that the whole family held onto as they worked out how to become English, a task I will admit to not having completed though I’m 37 years into my adoptive tenancy agreement.
Excitement for his sons, his influence.
Sometime in the mid 80s my brother and I would go for a short three date tour at the invitation of Peter Rowan, when he was playing with Flaco Jiminéz in the Free American Airforce days. I got an enormous kick out of being backstage with the band and particularly in sitting with and chewing the fat with Luz Garza, Flaco’s Bajo Sexta player. It was great kipping of the sofa of some bright dyed red-haired sexy older woman’s estuary side house in Leigh-On-Sea where Waterfront Records the label behind the tour was based. I felt a bit ‘Rock N’ Roll’ for the first time in my life I guess.
Meeting up with the band in the first place, at the Albany Empire in Deptford South London was an adventure I’ll always recall too. As those of you who know Deptford well can probably attest. Years later we discovered that Dad’s new Double Bass player in his string band, Rosie, had been in the support group for that night and she gave my Mom that date’s poster to copy. Again little connections and strange coincidences litter our lives. Connections that would never had have been made were it not for one man’s love for music and his pursuit of it.
I will be forever grateful that my father put me in touch with music making in such a direct and accessible way. No doubt it’s why I fronted a band, why I write and record, play guitar and enjoy putting out an online Radio show featuring Jamaican music. And no doubt it’s part of why my brother played internationally, toured the States, lived in L.A., recorded, played at Glastonbury, sat next to Paul McCartney jamming tunes on the keyboard, and why now years after the higher-life, he plays Cajun Melodian fantastically and with some other wonderful musicians. People like Dan Stewart, Ben Paley and Tab Hunter, with whom it’s been my joy to meet up with recently as we jammed at Dad’s Wake. (See download at the bottom of this article).
Over the following years…
As I already mentioned, the family settled into an English way of life, some distance from the American culture we had all shared and Dad concentrated on restoring our house, creating an amazing garden and helping to bring up his family.
Then later, around the time his two sons left home he began to play again and attend more folk clubs and festivals. With his interest re-kindled he visited the USA on many occasions to go to festivals to play, swap stories and tunes and to see some of the up-coming musicians of that time. It was during this period that he met Jack Elliot again after 40 or so years.
Dad and Mum talked only half jokingly about moving back to the States, buying a Mobile Home and touring the country non stop, on the road. But then out of nowhere on the way home from leaving a car for servicing and while walking he had some sort of seizure. After tests he was ‘repaired’ and carried on much as before; but because of the horrendous health insurance cost implications for any move to and then life in the States the plans to one day just possibly move back to America, were now forever gone and of necessity, forgotten.
Back to the Music
Over the following years he toned down his work as a furniture maker and designer and began to build more musical instruments again, he started to teach students Banjo and effect repairs on theirs and others’ Banjos.
He was in his element, finding time to indulge his passions once again, spreading his knowledge and joy in North American roots culture and music. A whole new generation of people interested in that culture were amazed to find a direct link with some of their now long gone heroes. All the time he was playing more and becoming part of a mainly Southern English scene of American String Band music in the UK.
The Rufus Crisp Experience
During this period of ‘adjustment’ he started to play music with Dave Arthur and they recorded an album together for Fellside records, ‘The Chickens Are A Crowing’ by the Rufus Crisp Experience as they called themselves in a polite nod to Rufus – a long time pickin’ hero.
Dave and Dad had hooked up at some folk club or other and became firm friends, Dad introducing Dave to people like Doc Watson on American trips and Dave introducing Dad to the outskirts of a professional musical life. Dave to this day continues to play and tell stories professionally.
Notably the cover was painted by collector and artist Art Rosenbaum, someone my Dad had met up with on his U.S. travels in later years. Art produced the ‘Art of field recording vols 1&2’ and is known for his work preserving the songs of the state of Georgia in the U.S.A.
Around this time Dad gathered some other musicians about him and also around his wife’s tea and cake introducing both personnel and refreshments to the little studio room in his garden where they could all sip Whiskey, eat home-baked goodies, drink tea and learn and play tunes. With the occasional gig giving them all something to work towards.
Comprising of Dad on Banjo with Tony Wetjen on guitar and John O’Connell on fiddle and mandolin they called themselves Faded Glory. The name was an homage to the Southern States of America and a wry poke at themselves, all of whom might be judged to be, shall we say in the kindest of ways, in the Autumns of their respective years.
The band, particularly with the introduction of his wife Mary (Mum) started to sound pretty damn good and now kept a stricter tempo with the addition of her Banjo Uke playing. After all, in general this was dance music that they were playing and it needed a strong and consistent beat.
Mum continues to enhance the Cajun tunes that her son Chris now skillfully plays with some mean and strict tempo Triangle playing too. You can’t over-estimate the importance of a good Triangle player, unless of course you’ve never heard a bad one.
The band recorded a number of collections of songs, played many gigs and entertained many people.
Though the dates were staggered and nothing is ever clear-cut (and I’ve forgotten), basically the band morphed into a new concern when John O’ Connell and Tony Wetjen left, Rosie Davis joined playing Double Bass and a one time student Dan Stewart now played guitar, sometimes a Banjo too. (As I write he’s teaching himself fiddle)
The Circle Broken?
A final note.
This band was still meeting and playing, gigging and rehearsing, when Dad quietly and effortlessly passed away from heart failure on the night of the 15th of August 2011. He had been planning to attend the Gainsborough Old Time Music Festival in Lincolnshire and no doubt had questions to ask and tales to recount there.
Dad’s life outlined several musical movements, it traced musical cultures and rubbed shoulders with some of the ‘names’ involved in the creation and recording of that music. To have appeared on the same stage with someone who literally invented a musical genre, that of Bluegrass would be enough to write home about, but what my father did was to study, create, collect, nurture and share music and American culture.
It is to him and people like him that music is entrusted. It was his energy and it is the energies of people like him that truly keeps music alive. And by alive I mean heard, and by heard I mean shared, played, and not just recorded and listened to, but partaken in.
His music was music not kept in stasis, not frozen for the future in some dusty groove but music that came alive every time that a Banjo or Guitar got played, or a song was sung. I believe that until the next time someone sings ‘Cripple Creek’ it’s gone forever and all the history and emotion it can summate dispels. Yet somehow all that fathomless depth of ‘past’ re-gathers in mere moments when the first chord is struck and that ‘traditional’ tune is heard again. This is LIVE music.
Writing about or studying a musical culture in my opinion really doesn’t nurture it, it only records it and unlike a physical object in a museum that could be studied at leisure, musicology does not preserve a musical culture or sound in the same way that a temperature controlled specimen case might. Keeping traditional music in the cage of a book or academic study is akin to keeping animals in Zoos, and taking away their voices. There is nothing left alive of music to view or study in a book, or a musicologist, critic or historian’s notes. If music in the sense that it is folk music (music of and by the people) has to be anything, then it has to be alive to qualify.
I feel that traditional music is only kept as a thing of any note by the active creation and re-creation of it on a regular basis and the sharing of that creation. Music is social and in providing a place where people could share that music my father was a curator of American Traditional Music. So many days, so many hours, such a life was all about supporting this music.
His interest was very likely quite selfish, purely about his love for it; but in that self-indulgence he became a repository for the music of America and now he’s gone hopefully some of his knowledge has been passed on.
His teaching I see as a high point in this personal history of a musical curatorship, his passing on of some knowledge and of the baton of knowledge to a new generation. That’s why on the day of his funeral his coffin entered the local parish Church to a tune he recorded with Dan Stewart his then student and a much younger man. It made such complete sense, it truly was in the words of the title of his article for The Old Time Herald Magazine, music going ‘Full Circle’.
Nevertheless to his son, me, slightly lost without him in the world, it feels such a great pity that so much knowledge and understanding may have drifted away and perhaps won’t now be passed on.
Epilogue – The Funeral, and the Wake.
Music was a big part of celebrating Dad’s life both at the Funeral service and at the gathering at my parents home afterwards. Included here is music played by friends and family at the Wake. Please see the links below for downloads and details.
Above is just a little taster to whet appetites perhaps. See below for a much longer collection of tunes. this though is a nice danceable tune recorded during my Dad’s wake last September (2011) Features Chris Murphy, Mike Murphy, Ben Paley, Tab Hunter, John O’Connel, Andy Landgridge, Rosie Davis and many others.
Barry Murphy’s Wake – The Music. < Click this link to download the entire edited music. This music was played by Dad’s friends and family on September 2nd 2011, the day of his funeral at Wartling Parish Church East Sussex.
All rights reserved on publishing to the above article by Mike Murphy 2012 (please ask for permission before copying or reproducing)
Folkways Records: Moses Asch and Tony Olmsted’s yawningly un-brilliant book
It’s hard being honest, risky, troubling and you can’t help but be disappointed with yourself for being such a negative old bitch, but there you have it, there’s nothing quite like the ‘truth’ subjective though it will I hope be.
If you are interested in Folk music, then Folkways records is a name you will know and be interested to know more of. With its distinctive unforgiving Lps, bound beautifully, with odd yet engaging cover art, illustrating the musical brilliance of everything and everyone from Native American Indians to New York Jews and Woody Guthrie to Bahamian Gospel groups. All the brainchild of Moses Asch; a name as much part of the American Folk revival as Lomax or Dylan.
It follows that if you are interested in Folkways then you will be interested in an account of the man who created the label and the label itself. It follows that you might buy this book in that case. Unfortunately it doesn’t follow that you will get enjoyment, knowledge, or anything remotely at all worthwhile from this missed opportunity of a book.
Frankly it reads like a poorly proof read thesis by a second-rate musicology student.
Tony Olmsted with access to the Smithsonian’s archive on Asch has done little more than present the end of year accounts of Folkways, there are few stories to enjoy, little of interest to anyone but a bank manager. Someone wishing to go back in time having learnt from Asch’s business mistakes might use the information contained to start a Folk label in 40s and 50s New York; but seriously this book would be of more use to an accountant than someone interested in music.
Olmsted hasn’t got a clue how to write, how to engage or how to tell a story. I expect that 10 or so years after writing this book he’s changed professions and is now a health and safety officer with ‘special understanding of the risk of paper cuts in the workplace’ and has published an in-depth study of this risk and it’s ‘relationship to the stationary cupboard of mid-west America’.
There are 8 typographical errors before the 40th page, and that will no doubt be as many as I find in this book, because it’s going to be where I stop reading it.
Anyone interested in the history of American music should probably read this book.
Alan Lomax if you don’t know anything of him, was a music collector an ethnomusicologist and a lover of ‘Folk and Folksong’. His influence on American popular culture through his collecting of the ‘people’s’ music is unfathomable.
He virtually discovered Huddie Ledbetter, ‘Leadbelly’, in a Texas State Prison, he was key in the career and life of Woody Guthrie, and in so much as that is the case, Bob Dylan’s career too.
He recorded, archived, wrote about, translated, studied, transposed, annotated and spent his life creating a repository of knowledge about Folk Culture, mainly through that culture’s production of a musical history and heritage. Hence he was to be seen in the early days dragging heavy batteries and early recording equipment through the Appalachians, the Kentucky mining districts and the streets of New Orleans.
The book reveals his life’s history, through letters and first person accounts. The author John Szwed counted Alan Lomax as his friend and so we are treated to a knowing study of Lomax, not written in the first person, but edited so.
I learnt a great deal I didn’t know about the man, such as his difficult relationship with his father, the quality and depth of his education, the incredible level of collecting he did for the Library of Congress and the politically difficult negotiations and posturing required to be successful in a government department and to be able to continue the obsessive work of your life. I learnt of his doubts and worries, his whining and whingeing, his poor health and the singularity both of his character and of his purpose.
I learnt how involved he was with the early development of Radio as a creative and artistic genre in the 30s and 40s of pre, present and post war America, of his staunch defence of ‘the negro’ and of his political leanings and investigation by the USA’s federal forces. This included one scary moment when he is being frisked unknowingly by both the US and UK special forces at a concert he performed at for the English monarch!
The book can be somewhat dry at times and perhaps a little plodding, but given a basic knowledge of American Folk history you will find almost every step in the book exciting enough and certainly page turning.
His key involvement in the ‘movement’ towards an appreciation of America’s working people and their Folk music as Art of highest order makes this essential reading, and though you will wince at the innocence of early folk music posturing and middle class patronization of the working classes in America, you can forgive all that, because Alan Lomax virtually invented the terms we have now come to accept, albeit with some trepidation and turning of the collective stomach. He had to define styles, to grapple with the very nomenclature that we all require to describe something in order to begin to codify his subject of research and we therefore owe him a debt, if only for drawing the starting line in the sand, and once playing in a band with Jackson Pollock.