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 ...