People spend a lot of breath telling other people (if the subject comes up) that there is a boom in folk music. This is correct, one needs only to see the happy faces of coffee- house owners, guitar-and-banjo-makers, professional folksingers to verify the fact. Some people, including myself, will tell you folk music suffers from renaissance--the trios and quartets (which shall be nameless) begin turning out corrupt, oompah versions of perfectly good folk songs; no lover of folk musics enjoys hearing the lush, superfatted, slick results. The task of separating what we like from the phony folk music becomes more difficult all the time, anyway. Here, then, is a one- sided incredibly opinionated, narrow- minded demi-survey of some current folk music records--for no-one is happier about the boom than the record companies, which have conspired to inundate us with all manner of folk music.
Very few of the many records of folk music in foreign languages can be appreciated by the monolingual. MONITOR releases a great many recordings from the Slavic nations, most of which sound like the State Radio Orchestra and Chorus of Byelorussia backed up by the entire population of Byelorussia. The songs are uniformly translated to fit into the following matrix: "My love is in the tavern drinking (national beverage)/The flocks are on the hillside eating (national fodder)/Come away with me, my love for your eyes are like (national cliche)/Come and we will (international cliche)."
The exception to this gross generalization is Israeli folk music. Searching for live folk music in Israel is difficult. As one Israeli explained to me, "All the good singers go to America to make records and money." Folk music is the national idiom; we are fortunate in being the beneficiaries of the high quality of the export product. Hillel and Aviva play the drum and flute (recorder) in a concert on Elektra records which is a very fine introduction to the genre of composed folk songs. (The Dudaim (whose name comes from doo- dah which is added a Hebrew suffix indicating more-than-one) are a duo, and they sing of Israel" on a Columbia recording. There are a great many other recordings of Israeli folk music; I mention two which do not include songs well-known to certain of us (such as "Hava Negila," which is now making a hit as a rock 'n' roll tune under another title.)]
A folksong sung in English, however, has always this advantage: the story may be understood. Folksongs are, by and large, short stories- however incomplete or pointless, mundane or supernatural, plaintive or snarling are best savored in the native tongue.
Two of the new singers worth investigating are Karen James and Jack Elliott. Karen James hails from Canada, and is recorded on Folkways. The title of the album is "Karen James" (oddly enough). Her voice has many of the piercing tonal qualities of Peggy Seeger and Jean Ritchie, and she sings some very fine versions of Old English (Child) ballads, together with some fair-to-middling satirical songs. Jack Elliott sings the songs of Woody Guthrie on a Prestige International release, of which the finest is "Pretty Boy Floyd." Unlike many singers of "songs of protest," Mr. Elliott can play the guitar, too.
THE blues is a collective noun. All explanations of blues seem to begin "The blues is...." Perhaps it should be left at that. Verve has seen fit to release the last recording sessions of Big Bill Broonzy on three single albums. A big voice, a big guitar, and a big rhythm often serve to hide a lack of feeling in a blues singer, but here they serve only to enhance an already powerful emotive force. The Reverend Gary Davis, blind "street singer," has a new release on the Prestige Bluesville label, which is a total gas because the man plays guitar like nobody's business. Folks-Lyric, has released a series of discs made by blues singers at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. (The Penitentiary has since released some of the singers.) The best of these is titled "Angola Prisoners' Blues," and features Robert Pete Williams, Hogman Maxey, and Guitar Welch.
Ireland, said Sheridan, is the land of happy wars and sad love songs. So we are informed, at any rate, by one of the singers on a Columbia album called "A SPONTANEOUS RECORDING!" The spontaneous performance is given by the Clancy Brothers (Tom, Pat, and Liam), Tommy Makem, Pete Seeger (on banjo), Bruce Langhorne (on guitar), and what is described as "a 200-voice singing audience." The audience is not omnipresent, and all of the songs (like all Irish songs, I'm convinced) have the gift o' th' gab. The performers, too, are ebullient, effervescent, and effusive, a welcome change from the generally sullen mien of the folksinger. Songs include the famous "Tim Finnegan's Wake" ("a song of death...a song of resurrection"), "Brennan On the Moor," and (Orangemen take note) "The Old Orange Flute." I cannot recommend it too highly. (This means I own a copy.) The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem have several other releases, on Tradition and Riverside, which are not too hard to come by, although deleted from the catalogues. Folk-Lyric records Dominic Behan, the younger brother of the playwright-autobiographer, in a splattering of Irish songs ranging from high-toned love ballads to songs-to-incite-a-pub-brawl-by. If you have the Gaelic, Folkways records "Songs of Aran"--but beware; these are field recordings. Field recording involves finding the oldest citizen of the remotest place, assuring oneself that he remembers only one or two verses, and then recording him in a high wind. The flavor is most authentic.
Ewan MacColl is the best folksinger. This opinion is supported by both of my friends. With Peggy Seeger he has recorded a great number of albums for Folkways: "Border Ballads"--songs of the Scottish wars; "Bothy Ballads of Scotland"--a collection of songs found in bothies, which are the lodging-houses of ploughmen on great estates; and (this time on Tradition) "Classic Scots Ballads"--a collection of just that. Another Scottish folksinger is Jeannie Robertson, who is what they call "an auld dear," and who is billed as "The Greatest Scottish Folksinger" on a Prestige International recording. The accent makes the recording listenable--I know of no better way to polish up one's glottal stops.
PERHAPS your taste runs to the American Heritage. For the pigeonholing mind there are a great many subtle and not-so-subtle distinctions to be made between hillbilly, bluegrass, old-timey, country, mountain, and western folk music. The only way of lumping them together is to point out that all are found in the South. The record-company people disguise themselves cleverly in straw, string-ties, and farmer's boots, and record them indiscriminately.
More in the bluegrass-old-timey-country line are John Duffey, Charley Waller, and The Country Gentlemen, who appear on two Folkways albums. Recommended is the one which contains "Drifting Too Far From the Shore." If you don't change your sinful ways after hearing it, you can console yourself with a perusal of the Folkways liner notes. These are, as always, an education in themselves, if slightly ludicrous. Jean Ritchie sings traditional Child Ballads as they are found, only somewhat changed, in Kentucky, once again on Folkways. If you've thought of the dulcimer as a limited instrument (or if you haven't thought of it at all), you should give these a listen.
Finally, I will mention a few albums by local folksingers. Joan Baez has been well-promoted in Cambridge. She has, in addition to her first release on the Veritas label, two records on Vanguard. Baez has a staggeringly beautiful voice. Her rendition of "Old Blue" on her latest Vanguard release is also excellent for checking up on the distortion of your phono-cartridge. Theodore Alevizos, a former WHRB Balladeer, has a wonderful recording of Greek folksongs on Prestige International, whereon he is accompanied by Rolf Cahn and Susan Alevizos. Rolf Cahn and Eric Von Schmidt have an album on Folkways; those who have seen their live performances will be tempted to say the recording suffers from sobriety of one sort or another, but on the whole it is a fine recording. Ignore the captious linear notes by Cahn.
MERRY MAISEL '62 is the Folk Music Director of WHRB, and may be heard on the "Folkways" program from 3-4 PM each Sunday. She does not play the guitar.