Summer of '88
Against Camp: The Cosmological Argument

As Real As It Gets

The book reviews in next Sunday's New York Times (March 4) will include a review of Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor. The reviewer, Ben Yagoda, is disappointed in the book's prose — his own latest book is When You Catch An Adjective, Kill It — but he likes the book's ideas tolerably well. Certainly, the review is worth reading.

The book is about the ways American musicians have tried to convey their authenticity, often pushing back against powerful cultural currents challenging them on the point.

Especially interesting is Yagoda's discussion of the book's chapter on Mississippi John Hurt. His music was not black enough for Okeh's race records in 1928, even if his skin was too dark for their hillbilly line. Ironically, he was rediscovered in 1963 by white record collectors and introduced to contemporary audiences as a blues revivalist, although he didn't play blues. Or anyway, this is how I read Yagoda's reading of Barker and Taylor's reading of history.

As often as I wish I'd been there for that 1960's Revival of myth and legend, I'm just as often reminded that today's revivalism has great advantages over that gone paradise. I get the impression folk and blues people used to harbor fierce, malignant, withering resentments about the tuning of hammer dulcimers, whether you may use a plastic thumb pick, and whatnot.  They sometimes positively hated each other over such things. Or anyway, if so, it's pretty much a thing of the past.

A profile of Spider John Koerner makes it sound as if Koerner was hounded into giving up music and leaving the country because he wasn't deemed authentic enough (I think my reading of the article is a bit overly dramatic, actually). If this is at all close to correct, he really DID teach Bob Dylan a lot — as we all know, in July of 1965, Bob Dylan disappointed folk music purists by "going electric" at their annual gathering in ... somewhere. Can't remember.

But it seems everybody went through their own version of it — if Barker and Taylor are to be believed, even John Hurt got pushed out of, and stuffed into, various authentic closets. I know a guy who bought his first New Lost City Ramblers album in the mid-sixties, and he felt he had to hide it on the subway ride home — the Ramblers, apparently, weren't considered authentic enough in his neighborhood.

Back in 2004, between banjo seminars, I saw the subject of authenticity brought up in Mike Seeger's presence. He said various sensible things about it, including something like "You always have to wonder, an authentic WHAT? " I don't remember what he said exactly ... maybe it was "Everybody's an authentic SOMETHING."

My understanding is that the Carter Family, between around WWII and the mid 1960's, were considered by many folk music enthusiasts to be grossly inauthentic pop country recording stars — sort of the mid-century equivalent of ... well, I don't know who ... Faith Hill?

In any case, people like Ed Kahn and Mike Seeger (not to mention Harry Smith) helped articulate a "reading" of the Carters that brought them to their current reputation as more real than reality itself. Mike Seeger, and especially Ralph Rinzler, did the same thing for Bill Monroe. Of course, Maybelle Carter and Bill Monroe may have helped out a bit too.

The more I see and read, the less I worry about authenticity. There was never a time in some real down-home past when it was anything other than a pain in the ass. Elijah Wald's Escaping The Delta and and Benjamin Filene's Romancing The Folk are better educations in the matter than you'll receive here at The Celestial Monochord.

But you know ... we have it good, we who became interested in this music at the turn of this century, around the time of the complete Robert Johnson and the Harry Smith Anthology in CD box sets, of O Brother Where Art Thou, of The Old Crow Medicine Show, and so on. It literally took decades of fighting and arguing, going hungry and losing friends, writing and researching — not to mention playing and hearing and collecting a lot of great music — to bring me this long perspective I now (believe myself to) enjoy. In 1960, a lot of people would have sacrificed anything to read Wald, Filene, Cantwell, Marcus, Charters, and ... well, I don't know, maybe Barker and Taylor.

 

Editor's Note: Hey! Here I am! This is entry number 26 — count 'em, twenty six — in my 28-part mission to post something every day this month to The Celestial Monochord. And I mean, something Monochordum Mundi, not just any old thing. I mean, not my laundry list or something. Whatever a laundry list is ...

 

Comments

C. Eric Banister

Day 26!? That means there are only two more days left. You have spoiled us and now I am preparing for the withdrawel of fewer posts...

Bill Boslaugh

Kurt — you have the persistence and stamina of a mad man... and I otta know.

Re. John Hurt and authenticity — I was at a great, no, GREAT concert by Geoff Muldaur last night. A cold and rainy, Sunday, there were maybe 30 people there and it was like sitting around my living room. Muldaur told a John Hurt story from the mid-60's and seemed delighted to recall what a genuine guy Hurt was, and how much Hurt enjoyed his “rediscovery.”...

They were at Van Ronk's after a night of coffeehousing, and as the guitar got passed around, so, eventually did a couple of joints. The young folkies were surprised, then delighted when Hurt latched onto a joint like a long-lost friend. Turns out that Mississippi John and his neighbors in Avalon had all kinds of the stuff growing out in the fields and fencerows — and to him is was no big deal.

Evidently Hurt, after the second or third joint, leaned over to Muldaur, winked and said "this stuffs pretty good, but when I gets a couple of dollars ahead, I buy's myself a little bottle of gin." Sounds authentic to me.

Jerome Clark

I'm writing this so as to resist the temptation to bloviate at coma-inducing length on Spider John Koerner -- which does not mean I don't appreciate the respect and honor you've shown this extraordinary figure. I will indulge myself in this much, however:

One evening a few years ago, in the company of veteran folk-bluesman Paul Geremia, I met Koerner at Palmer's Bar on Minneapolis' West Bank and spent an interesting couple of hours discussing, among other things, Koerner's rare original composition, "Summer of '88," a piece I'd done a lot of psychic chewing over since my first hearing of it. (I'm sure you and I aren't the only ones who have performed that particular labor.) I regaled him with my own interpretation, to which he listened with (at least apparent) interest and (to all appearances genuine) befuddlement. Koerner insisted that the song was in no way mysterious, to the contrary entirely straightforward. I was left, of course, to embrace the only possible explanation: that somebody else named Spider John Koerner had written a song with the same title.

And then there was the time I encountered not Koerner but his doppelganger "Creepy John" in a small-town bar in southwestern Minnesota. Alas, the world is not yet prepared for that revelation....

But to the point:

What is your source for the contention that folkniks once spurned the Carter Family? That, I must say, seems unlikely, though I suppose not impossible. I first heard of the Carters in the liner notes to an early Joan Baez album. Later, as I learned a whole lot more about traditional music, I found out that Woody Guthrie -- who virtually founded the modern folk movement -- "borrowed" any number of Carter Family melodies (themselves, of course, already "borrowed") for his own classic songs.

A long, long time ago I would run into puerile folkniks who judged my love of Hank Williams, Bob Wills, and Merle Haggard a strain of contemptible, reactionary heresy, but I haven't run into one of those in decades. I suspect the species is extinct. But the Carter Family? Never heard that one before.

Yuval Taylor

I loved this post--you really got it right on the button. If you like Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta and Benjamin Filene's Romancing the Folk, I know you'll like our book. Also check out our MP3 blog, www.fakingit.typepad.com, for more thoughts on authenticity and plenty of concrete examples.

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