For you LA residents out there, here’s something to get excited about for the next couple Thursday nights that doesn’t involve self-destruction in any form. Crazy, right? The Silent Movie Theatre, now Cinefamily, is presenting a Thursday night series of folk-related films that even includes the Los Angeles “redwood carpet” (I’ve been dying to write that for weeks) premiere of FolkYEAH’s Festival in the Forest Documentary! Other gems include Sing-Sing Thanksgiving, Hootenanny Hoot, Heartworn Highways, Vashti Bunyan: From Here to Before, Earl Scruggs: His Family and Friends, and the amazing Celebration in Big Sur. And definitely don’t miss “Folk Shredders Night,” an evening of rarely screened clips of Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell, Jan Akkerman and Stefan Grossman hanging out and riffing hard together. Then, on that same night, enjoy the documentary Sandy Bull: No Deposit No Return Blues, made with loving care by his daughter KC Bull. End the night with a performance from Guy Blakeslee of The Entrance Band, and frolic beneath the moon.
Last night, I moseyed over to the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax here in the fair(ly atrocious) city of Los Angeles to catch a documentary on Harry Smith, the renowned and reclusive Renaissance Man who not only assembled the definitive Anthology of American Folk Music, but was also a writer, experimental filmmaker, and philosopher. The man was a genius – but I’ll save him for another post.
What really got me thinking last night was about the origins of recorded “folk” music and “country” music, and where, how, and maybe why the two styles forked and grew apart from one another. You look at artists like Woody Guthrie, Dock Boggs, Roscoe Holcomb, or the Carter Family and you wonder: they are most certainly the “origins” of critically acknowledged 20th century folk, but they are also the origins of critically acknowledged 20th century country. Is our modern definition of American “folk” simply based on how white bourgeois culture of the 60′s (Dylan, Baez, et al) interpreted the music of artists on the Anthology, and our modern definition of “country” based on how lower income rural white culture interpreted the same ouevre?
You may remember a few weeks ago I posted on Minneapolis singer/songwriter Meg Ashling, whose dusty and road-weary folk/country songs drew influences from all the aforementioned artists. Meg recently said:
“when i think of country, i think of hank williams, sr. and ernest tubb, i don’t think of toby keith and carrie underwood. sure i’m an independent artist, but i wouldn’t necessarily put myself into the “indie” genre. country has always seemed much more fitting to me, but i find that some people are afraid of labeling my music as “country” because people associate the term with all of the overproduced pop crossover garbage and all of the songs about pickup trucks and drinking beer and honkytonk badonkadonks.
i know i’m probably living in a dream world, but i’d really like to bring back the real meaning behind country and honkytonk music and make it relevant to our generation… i want people to know what an important part roots music has played in our history so we can preserve it for the next generations to enjoy. i wouldn’t even be playing music today if i hadn’t grown up listening to my dad and my grandpa playing all those old country songs. the state of music today is very sad and we need to encourage people to stop relying on technology and marketing strategists to write songs and instead write something from the heart!”
“Things weren’t that organized in those days, everything was very spontaneous. When it came time to record this stuff, we went in the studio, relatively sober (at least Pete was), sang the songs, and then hit the road for California.” – Millard Lampell
Forget Dylan’s postmodern Woodie Guthrie charlatanism. The Almanacs were the real thing. In 1940, the folk revival began with the plunk of a banjo and a soaring three-part harmony. Pete Seeger, Millard Lampell, and Lee Hays were close friends who shared leftist political views and had a bone to pick with the American government whose corporate leanings were shortchanging the working man (some things never change). They played at rallies, union halls, streetcorners, and anywhere where folks would stop and listen to three young songsters. Despite their urbane upbringing, the trio instantly struck a chord with contemporary rural audiences of the day. Seeger’s poignantly topical lyrics, grafted onto traditional folk melodies, validated the earth shaking potential of folk music and introduced the form to an entire generation of new listeners. The role of folk music in society would never be the same.
It wasn’t until 1941 that the great hobo troubadour Woody Guthrie rolled into New York city with a beat six-string on his shoulder, a knapsack on his back, and a wealth of music in his heart. Guthrie immediately recognized both the musical prowess of the Almanacs as well as their politics. If anything, Guthrie was more leftist than even Seeger. Over the course of the next few years the Almanacs lived fast, played countless shows, and just as quickly disbanded – but not before the likes of Leadbelly and Burl Ives joined their ranks for impromptu Greenwich Village hootenannies.
Their output was certainly limited, but their impact is impossible to ignore. They ignited the fuse…folk would never be the same.