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.
“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.