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Balladeers and Minstrels


Anyone who dawdles too long in a low-ceilinged night-club is likely to run into a folk-singer. The thick atmosphere seems to be a good place for growing folk-singers, and their number increases every year. To be a night-club folk-singer, you need only a guitar (preferably battered), some dust on your shoes, a loud wool shirt, and a neo-Ozark accent ("Well sir, reckon I'll) sing a little ditty I picked up on the way to . . ."). This equipment is essential because folk-singers are supposed to be sprung from the earth.

When Richard Dyer-Bennet sang at Cabot Hall last week, he wore a tuxedo. He had no raucous accent, no sack of coonskin tales, and his shoes and his guitar were clean. While Dyer-Bennet was less colorful than the night-club hand, he was more effective because he was a musician with folk-song only as part of his repertoire.

Very evident was his great respect for the word, the actual lyric. He had excellent diction, and used none of the familiar winks, grimaces, and gestures. Depending solely on the songs for effect throughout the performances. He translated as many of the foreign songs as he could, because, as he explained, "original lyric is rot"--the song is ineffective unless the audience understands it. This disregard for accent extended to his singing Negro songs "straight."

Dyer-Bennett sang some traditional ballads, "Green sleeves," "Barbara Allen" and "Blow the Candles Out." The last had a tinge of bawdiness since it was written before "the moral gloom of our own period," when a little spice was taken for granted. Although he hinted that a little spice never hurts, Dyer-Bennett declined to sing anything bawdier.

Narrative ballads were only a small part of his program; he thinks the tradition of the ballad singer is a declining one, "like privies and plumbing, interesting sociologically, but no way of life."

The rest of the pieces were relatively unfamiliar: minnesong, Shubert songs, and works for the guitar. In explaining his program Dyer-Bennett defined himself as "not a balladeer but a minstrel: a musical entertainer who sings the accompaniment of a stringed instrument." One standard of a ministrel's success is whether he leaves his audience wanting one more song; that is what Dyer-Bennett did.

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