The New Lost City Ramblers: Tracy Schwarz, Mike Seeger, John Cohen
The most electrifying book I've read about folk music is certainly "When We Were Good: The Folk Revival." Sadly, I can't bring myself to shove the book into the hands of anyone I know. It's dense enough academic criticism that I don't know who'd find it a "good read" without having studied the humanities recently. But I also don't personally know any academics who like folk music enough to care. So, I have to enjoy it privately, like some kind of dirty book.
But it was Cantwell's book that first made me think very seriously about Orphan Songs. So, I'll try to gently summarize one short passage from the book, hoping to convey a little of why that might be ...
Who are these "Folk" who make all this music, anyway? Louis Armstrong said, "All music is folk music — I ain't never heard no horse sing a song."
Well, you have to consider the idea of "The Folk." It derives and survives from feudalism, and so from before what we know as trade, the town, science, money, mechanization, and mass production. The idea of the folk can't make sense without that other feudal principle, Nobility. The two ideas are inseparable, since the folk is what humanity looks like viewed from above — from the position of nobility gazing down upon its dependents.
This may sound disparaging, as if folk music is just an illusion in the minds of bigots. But remember that when feudalism gave way to more modern economic and cultural institutions, its principle of nobility was adopted with great romance by the new mercantile middle class — that is, by MY class — as an ideal to be aspired to. Ever since, the nobility ethic has shown itself in middle-class culture, philosophy, politics, spirituality, in our sense of Self.
What does this have to do with Orphan Songs? As long as there are folk to compare ourselves to, our nobility must be seen as an accident of birth. The things nobility implies — independence, gentility, fairness, being worthy of the folk's dependence and so also of your obligations — none can be claimed or understood without knowing, experiencing, confronting, or perhaps even becoming the folk. (This chapter in Cantwell's book is called "We Are The Folk.")
Here, astonishingly, Cantwell considers the career and, I have to say, identity of folk revivalist Mike Seeger. Seeger is a complex character with a career running now more than 50 years. I can't do Seeger justice here, so I'll only say that Cantwell's description is vividly, stunningly recognizable to me. He presents Seeger as a kind of self-orphaned nobleman whose nobility runs in the blood so that, as a foundling among the folk, he must discover his nobility.
I'll end with excerpts directly from Cantwell:
Seeger is, through that music, in lifelong revolt against his class — and hence permanently exiled to that strange zone where the very phenomenon of social differentiation seems to have exhausted itself.
Like the returned Ulysses or the exiled Edgar in Lear, like the blackface minstrel, Mike Seeger can come most fully into possession of himself only in disguise. This is the classic Byronic gesture, that of the nobleman recovering through a reckless and brilliant condescension, choosing virtue over power, the essence of his nobility. To have it and to repudiate it, and thus to have it back again in its authentic form: of all the tales that nobles tell about themselves, this essentially allegorical and religious story has been, from Luke and John to the Wife of Bath, John Milton, C. S. Lewis, and Hermann Hesse, the one most loved by the people of the town.
This kind of analysis in "When We Were Good: The Folk Revival" has pretty fully reworked how I think about not only the Folk Revival, but most musicians I love (see the anecdote about Dylan at the end of Part 3), plus the Beats and the so-called 60's counterculture, among other post-World War II cultural movements. Looking for Orphan Songs? You won't have to look far.
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8
See also The New Lost Times