Letter from an Old Folkie

 

This is an album of heritage folk music. The roots of these songs are, with one or two exceptions, a century deep. And all but “Go Way from my Window” and “The Frozen Logger” are the work of those two masters, Trad and Anon. A good definition of a heritage folk song might be that it is the work of a forgotten songster and it is a piece on which nobody is collecting royalties.

No one can say when the Folk Music Revival began and when it ended.  In the 1850’s, Francis James Child put together three hundred or so English and Scottish Popular Ballads, the definitive work on the subject.   If a number wasn’t a “Child Ballad”, it wasn’t worth discussing.

Like many of his predecessors in the business of collecting ballads, the pieces were seen as folk poetry.  There was never any accompanying musical score.

After Edison’s invention of recording, musicologists began to find that many of Child’s ballads had made there way into Appalachia by way of English and Scottish settlers.  The songs were still alive, though many of the lyrics had been translated into an American vernacular. Cecil Sharpe published many of them in 1917.  Still, without music.

It was Carl Sandburg’s genius to publish in 1927 hundreds of American songs, with music accompanying every song.  It became the inspiration for generations of singers.

 

 

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The first three figures to gain national attention in this realm were Pete Seeger, Lead Belly and Burl Ives.  Pete came out of the progressive labor movement, Lead Belly was the discovery of John Lomax, and Ives was the figurative step-child of Carl Sandburg:  Ives’ first 78 album called “Wayfaring Stranger” was greeted by Sandburg as ‘the authentic voice of America’.

None of them sold a lot of records.

Commercial recognition of the potential of folk music can be dated to 1950 when the Weavers’ recording of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” went to the top of the charts (actually it was the A side, “Tzena, Tzena”, that hit the charts) and sold 500,000 copies – an enormous number.

 (If you stretched the definition of folk music to be “music sung by someone who calls himself a folk singer”, then the first winner of the charts race was Josh White whose “One Meat Ball” sold a million copies in 1944).

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This is an album focused on the tunes, the marvelous tunes honed, refined and presented by a generation of recorded singers.  To be honest, they were not genuine “folk”.  They sang in cities, they made their living in cities and their audiences were city people and college students.

From the day I got my first guitar in 1952 until the eventual demise of the ‘Folk Music Revival’ at the hands of new singer-songwriters, I was privileged to know and swap songs with most of the most important figures of that period: Burl Ives, Josh White, Pete Seeger and his sister Peggy, Tom and Paddy Clancy, Bob Gibson, Ed McCurdy, Theo Bikel, Paul Clayton, Odetta (whom I discovered and briefly managed), Ewan MacColl and A.L.Lloyd, Sandy Paton, Frank Hamilton, Glenn Yarbrough, Ray Boguslav, Logan English, Paul Clayton, Richard Dyer Bennett and John Jacob Niles.

 

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Until the Kingston Trio came along, these wonderful singers and musicians found it very hard to make a living.  There were only a handful of popular nightclubs that would book a folksinger: George Wein’s Storyville in Boston, Max Gordon’s Village Vanguard in New York, Albert Grossman’s Gate of Horn in Chicago, Enrico Banducci’sHungry i in San Francisco, prominent among them.  College auditoriums and  coffee-shops were the only other face-to-face outlets.

But vinyl LP’s proliferated.  Moe Asch had been issuing hundreds of titles from the 1930’s on, most of them attuned to the labor movement. Then came Jac Holzman who founded Elektra Records.  Before he hit the big time with The Doors, I would visit Jac at his tiny Bleeker street shop, often to watch him pack a dozen LP’s into a corrugated box for shipment to one of the few record stores that would carry folk music.  Though his catalogue grew wonderfully every year, sales were slow until Jim Morrison came along.

The most prolific producer of folk music records was Kenny Goldstein,a self-taught musicologist who put out almost a hundred folk records on the Riverside label, including the monumental Child English and Scottish Ballads, all 305 of them, sung (and many times with tunes composed) by Ewan MacColl. A big-seller of these Riverside efforts might be in the low thousands.

Billy Grauer and Orrin Keepnews, who ran Riverside, showed enormous patience in allowing this flowering of recorded folk music to continue on their label - which was otherwise supported by the likes of Thelonius Monk.

Tom and Paddy Clancy (nightly roisterers at the White Horse Tavern for a long time before they melded themselves, with their brother Liam, into the wonderfully successful “Clancy Brothers”), started Tradition Records and issued my production of Odetta’s first album, “Ballads and Blues”.

Tom Wilson’s Transition Records issued songs by Josh White’s basso-profundo sidekick Sam Gary. Tom went on to put out the first albums of Simon and Garfunkel and nursed the first commercially successful Bob Dylan tracks.

With the founding of the Newport Folk Festival by George Wein and Albert Grossman, the ascendancy of the Kingston Trio, and the gorgeous voice of Joan Baez, folk music at last began to attract a large audience.

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I was living in Cambridge in 1961, just across the street from the original Club47. It had been years since I played George Wein’s Storyville niteclub and had long ceased playing in public. One Saturday morning, I got a frantic call from George’s‘Number One’, Charlie Bourgeois.

“How fast can you get to Cape Cod”, he asked.

“I don’t know, maybe three or four hours or so. Why?”

“Because we’ve got the Music Festival tent sold out for the Kingston Trio tonight and they just broke up this morning”.

By the time I took the stage, word had gotten out; and instead of thousands in the audience there were a few hundred.  By my third number I had pretty much emptied the hall.

I didn’t sing in public for another 50 years.

 

 

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In 2012, I attended the hundredth anniversary celebration of Woody Guthrie’s birth at the Lincoln Center. It was a great evening and thoroughly enjoyed by an audience largely made up of septuagenarian lefties. The last fellow on the bill was Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. He sang strongly and well.  Now, I knew for a fact that Ramblin’ Jack was at least five years older than me.  If he could still find an audience, why couldn’t I?

With the help of Erik Buddenhagen, a friend who kept telling me my 1956 LP Ghost Ballads still had a following on YouTube, I laid down my first CD, “Old Folkies Never Die”. Largely completed in single takes at a Woodstock studio, its nineteen songs were recorded in just about two hours of studio time.

It did not go viral.

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A few years later, I moved to New Mexico, just north of Taos, and found that within a mile or so of my house I had guys who could play up a storm on guitar, banjo, mandolin, keyboard, saxophone, oboe, cello, fiddle, flute, harmonica and drums .

I owe a special debt to Jonathan Hutchison, a brilliant musician with an incredible ear, who took many hundreds of hours away from his own playing and singing – some of them as keyboard artist with the group he’d been playing with for decades – the El Rito Rhythm Kings. He and Tim Long shepherded this idea into reality. 

As El Rito’s drummer, Tim Long, happened to have a studio in the casita of the group’s bassist, Charles Dillon, and Tim’s genius at the computer has rescued this CD from the potential clutches of chaos.

We all live in the unincorporated hamlet of “El Rito”, a small enclave of eastern immigrants, nestled below the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east and almost in the shadow of an extinct volcano, Ute Mountain, which rises dramatically from the San Luis desert to our west.

Hence the name for this new collective:  The Ute Mountain Gang!

These guys have pushed me to a different approach to songs I’ve been singing all my life.

We call it Renegade Folk.

 

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