The New Folklorist

songs and singers

BY C. MICHAEL CURTIS

The serious development of the folklorist art coincided with the perfection of the tape recorder and the consequent ability of nit-pickers to prove that old Tennessee mountaineers hadn’t the faintest idea what they were singing about. The traditional folklorist was an apolitical wanderer, with a cast-iron stomach, an affection for Southern prisons, and a car with very strong axle joints.

With the development of the new folk singer, however, came a change in folklorist techniques. The traditional folk singer was a large Negro ex-convict, unjustly imprisoned after having killed three railroad workers in a bar-room brawl, tubercular, good-natured, broke, and inordinately fond of wood alcohol. His companion type, almost as familiar, was a Harvard-educated pacifist radical who played seventeen musical instruments, sang songs in twenty-seven languages, and had devoted his life to commiseration with the economically downtrodden. Both types sang what were once understood to be folk songs, songs which had evolved out of pioneer weddings, barn dances, and other primitive catastrophes. The essential quality of these songs was that they had never been written down in their original form, and had been repeated by several generations of illiterates to the point of losing all internal logic, or had been revised, with each repetition, to meet the thrust of contemporary concerns.

The new folk singer is often a graduate of a large Eastern university who learned to play the guitar while attending Ethical Culture High School in his teens, and has now discovered there is a good deal more money to be made singing in college-town basements (and civic auditoriums) than there is in attending graduate school. His songs are written for him by his girlfriend (or boyfriend), or have been stolen from old Methodist hymnals. They are sung in impeccable harmony and may be accompanied by any object that produces a variety of sounds roughly compatible with a musical scale.

All these developments have complicated the chores of the new folklorist, who, like his predecessors, is chiefly concerned that history should accurately record the genesis of American cultural patterns. It is seldom necessary for the new folklorist to put on his wool shirt and haunt the front porches of Kentucky mountaineers. He need no longer sit patiently while toothless grannies struggle to recall the original discordances which whiled them to sleep as infants. He may now conduct his research in the metropolises of the world, taxiing from one bohemian quarter to the next, and to the plush quarters of recording magnates where squads of teen-agers are drained of their every adolescent lament.

To pick but one example, the song “East Orange, New Jersey Blues,” sung in falsetto by one of the best known of today’s feminist guitar strummers. A new folklorist of our acquaintance devoted an entire summer to tracking down this haunting lyric, and his findings are worth recording here. The “East Orange, New Jersey Blues” is formally attributed to a metallurgical-engineering student who submitted the song, in its presumably original form, to a poetry seminar at Rutgers University. The “poem” was roundly denounced when it appeared in an undergraduate magazine at a neighboring Catholic college; its suggestive lyrics were a revised form of the song his fraternity brothers sing while watching obscene movies in their lodge on Friday nights. Like everything else about fraternity ritual, the source of this song has never been recorded, and no one in the fraternity has ever shown an inclination to pursue the matter further.

Another example of new-folklorist tenacity is the tracking down of a recent folk smasheroo called “On Top of Old Whispy.” The song, as far as can be established, was first sung in a San Francisco coffeehouse by a down-and-out tool designer, depressed by his recent involvement in a series of demonstrations sponsored by the Fair Play for Taiwan Committee. “On Fop of Old Whispy,” several critics have pointed out, is virtually identical to the familiar favorite “On Top of Old Smoky,” a similarity the tool designer and his friends attribute to a remarkable coincidence of creative imaginations.

One of the chief problems faced by the new folklorist is the affection new folk singers have for what they call “traditional music” — that is, melodies written by somebody else. The vast majority of new folk songs are essentially old tunes with new refrains. Hence, “Song of the Volga Boatman,” one new folklorist laments, turns up at one rally or another as a protest against celibacy, passport restrictions, the United Fruit Company, aid to Moise Tshombe, ROTC, little boxes, and the unpredictability of womankind.

Another thing new folklorists complain about is the new folk singer’s irresistible fascination for clarity. Deserting the sturdy American tradition of unintelligible grunts, sung to the rhythm of a descending hammer and the shuffle of aching feet, the new folk singer has brought to folk music a style of simple rhymed sentences, generally expressing a deeply personal regard for, alternately. the children of the world, the grown-ups of the world, or the CORE chapter at the Berkeley campus of the University of California.

This trend has assured for the new folk singer his reliable commercial success, but it has devastated the folklorist’s dependency upon a musical literature so incomprehensible that only years of painful self-sacrifice could unearth its precious secrets.

The new folklorists have joined to meet this challenge with characteristic ingenuity. They have risen above mere intuition to probe the truths underlying surface phenomena. The modern folk singer, they arc inclined to point out, does not protest the bombing of churches in Birmingham simply because he disapproves of bombing churches. The source of his protest lies deeply buried in subadolescent experience, and it may be years before we fully understand the true meaning of his lyrical lamentations.

The new folk singer, in the meantime, is free to entertain, or simply agitate us, and if his arrangements smack of unusual familiarity, it is probably because we have heard them before, perhaps as “Old Black Joe" or “Smoke Gets in Your Cellar.”