Arts Desk

Goodbye, Avalon

In this week's New Yorker, staff writer Burkhard Bilger has a good article about American folk music. It’s not online, but it’s worth seeking out.

Not only does he interview Frederick, MD’s Joe Bussard, a 78 collector who has been the subject of several Washington City Paper features (Eddie Dean’s and Andrew Beaujon’s), but he also makes some worthwhile points about American folk music and its pursuit (whether by collectors or those making field recordings).

Most interesting to me—especially having grown up around adults who, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, were still in the thrall of the fifties folk revival—is how many of those musicians, such as Robert Johnson, who—especially since the ‘60s—has been written about in mythical, almost god-like terms, owe their legend to serendipity.

Bilger writes:

“Fame in folk music can be less a matter of talent than of opportunity, [down-to-Earth folk revivalist Art Rosenbaum] said. People talk about the Delta blues because Charley Patton and Robert Johnson were from Mississippi. But if H.C. Speir hadn’t opened his music store in Jackson we might talk about Georgia Blues instead.”

And then there’s the whole issue of authenticity—finding artists untouched by the modern world. This is like manna for folk-hunters. (When Leadbelly came to New York, Bilger writes, noted folklorist John Lomax “told him to put on prison stripes.”) But Bilger notes that even some of ye olde biggies might not stand up to present-day standards:

“When John Lomax first recorded the blues, the genre was newer than hip-hop is today, and both Leadbelly and Robert Johnson learned songs from records.”

None of this invalidates a good song (and Johnson, especially, wrote quite a few), but it would seem to invalidate the collecting and compiling concept that anything that’s old and, um, folky is worth transferring and cleaning up. Some recordings you’ve never heard of because they just weren’t very good.

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  • Sock Puppet

    Thank you for your opinion, asdf, if in fact that really is your name.

  • Steve Kiviat

    Elijah Wild's book on Robert Johnson (that covers much more) points out how many artists popular with African_American audiences at that time got ignored by the folk/blues hunters.

  • Harris

    If not a link, let's not forget there also was a full-page CP article written by former Arts Editor Glenn Dixon called The Old Revolution (Wash City Paper, Sept 5-11, 2003). It reviewed the Old Hat Records' release Down In The Basement: Joe Bussard's Treasure Trove Of Vintage 78s 1926-1937, and began...

    The life of the obsessive collector of old 78s isn't exactly like that of a seeker for the Holy Grail. There is no one cup that will quench such a person - there are thousands, and he thirsts for them all. There's no point in setting his heart on finding every one of them. Too many discs exist as single known copies, and too often, that copy belongs to somebody who won't part with it. Of course, anyone who strives to convince the world that music went to hell sometime between the Depression and World War II has a taste for the quixotic, so he won't easily be dissuaded.

  • Harris