Old fashions please me best; I am not so nice
To change true rules for odd inventions. - Shakespeare
Ah, the Bard! As almost always, the perfect phrase for every mood and thought. I was reminded of this line (culled from a funny scene about a music lesson, of all things, in The Taming of the Shrew) as I watched parts of last Sunday's Grammy ceremonies - and subsequently after an exchange of posts on the John Stewart message board regarding whether or not popular music has descended to a lower level today even than heretofore. For me, the main show was secondary to the internet-broadcast Special Awards ceremony at which the Kingston Trio, Julie Andrews, drummer Roy Haynes and several others were honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards. The Sunday broadcast of the 53rd awards left me with the impression that there is still a tremendous amount of genuine talent in American popular music, but that much of it is wasted in over-glitzed, over-produced, pyrotechnics-riddled refuse, vulgar at best and ridiculous at worst - or roughly the same as it has always been. Take the opening - Lady Gaga has written a genuinely fine pop-rock number in "I Was Born This Way," and she has the genuine vocal chops of a real singer. But the egg thing from which she emerged (intended to be symbolism of the kind that would be thought cool and deep by a 12-year-old) and the hyper-sexual costumes, dance, and overall visuals actually worked to obscure the quality of the number rather than clarify or enhance it.
Which is not to say that old things are always better than new, but rather as Shakespeare's Bianca notes above, the "true rules" of the better parts of the traditional are always under assault from those "odd inventions" of pop culture, which has an insatiable appetite not for the truly innovative as much as it does for the short-term novelty. Were this not so, we would have seen long before now some genuine innovation in rock music away from a pattern like the four or five instrument-based band that has been the ironclad rule since the Stones and the Who nearly fifty years ago. Instead - just more of the same, never done as well now as when it was new. Punk, hip-hop, glam - all the same - a burst of innovation followed by endless, unimaginative replication. Most years the Grammys simply add an exclamation point to that, as they did this year.
At its best, American folk music has been able to find a kind of middle ground between a slavish imitation of the old and a careless disregard for it. I fear that in last week's post I didn't clarify how much I appreciate what the so-called traditionalists of folk have done. What they have tried to preserve is worth preserving, and its near-invisibility now simply underscores the validity of their efforts. But it's too bad that the "big tent" idea of George Wein at the original Newport Folk Festival never actually took hold (even at that festival, which today tends to include nearly no traditional music at all). About all that you find on the American music scene today that resembles what used to be called folk are bluegrass bands (and that is a genre which can hardly be called traditional, dating as it does and as we've discussed here really only to the 1940s) and a large number of "Celtic" bands, many of which from Celtic Woman to Celtic Thunder to Celtic-What-Have-You are simply pop groups that affect an Irish accent and go in for the heavily-orchestrated and visually over-produced settings of their rock and "country" cousins. But folk in its original sense? It's AWOL.
Or almost. Here and there, scattered around the English-speaking world, there are bands and soloists who owe their musical aesthetic rather more to the New Lost City Ramblers than they do to Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio. And this week's song, "Old Joe Clark," gives us ample evidence of where folk music has been and the crossroads at which it finds itself. Again.
"Old Joe Clark" has been a popular number for more than 90 years, and there seems to have been a real character by that name who inspired the song. Most folklorists believe that the real Clark was born in 1839 in either eastern Kentucky (probably) or western Virginia (maybe) and was eventually murdered, date and circumstances subject to dispute. The real Clark (and the picture above is allegedly a statue of him) made moonshine, possibly under a government license. He may have been married twice, or three times. He may have been murdered by his first wife's second lover - or by his own son. What is certain is that a lot of mountaineer doughboys in WWI sang the song quite a bit, and a lot of Yankee doughboys and Rocky Mountain doughboys and Midwest farmer doughboys took a liking to it and brought it home with them after the war, which accounts for the explosion of published and later recorded versions following the initial printed versions from 1918. You can find several versions of the song's history on the excellent website of our first artists for this week, the UK's Rosinators:
Lisa Clark On Ancestor Joe
The Rosinators On Song History
The Rosinators deliver a fairly straightforward fiddle- and banjo-inflected interpretation, though I personally could do without the Seeger-Sessions-Springsteen-infected-not-inflected drums. A kindly word here - in traditional music, both the banjo and guitar ARE the rhythm setting for the song. Oh well.
Many of our contemporary recordings are derived from the one of the first waxed versions, the 1927 recording of Fiddlin' John Carson:
Carson sets as a pattern one of the more interesting aspects of the song - he opens with an instrumental, which you'll see is common to all all the versions below. An acknowledgment is due here from me to Chicago-area musician and folklorist Jeremy Raven, who knows more than I ever will about folk roots and whose writings introduced me first to Carson several years ago on the KT message board.
There were plenty of other old-timey recordings of the song, but Ol' Joe takes a major step into Big Time Show Biz when Pete Seeger in 1946 not only records a version of the song but films it as well. "OJC" is the third tune:
That opening banjo riff is amazing - and it sounds to me like Uncle Dave Macon's "Keep My Skillet Good And Greasy". Seeger and the Almanac Singers re-wrote the lyrics for "Round and Round Hitler's Grave":
The videographer made one clear mistake - Burl Ives was never in the Almanacs and was not on this recording - which should have been more controversial than it was, taking a traditional tune and appending topical lyrics to it. Tsk, tsk, Peter.
The Callahan Brothers in 1945 also played a bit fast and loose with instrumentation to create this sort of proto-country take on the tune:
And on to the crass popularizers of the 1960s - first the Kingston Trio from their 1962 album Something Special:
Traditional? Not quite, though you can hear the roots in it. Fun? I'd say so.
And speaking of fun - the great Chet Atkins:
Atkins had bona fide country/folk roots, but he is really breaking the versatility bank here - you can hear classic pop, a touch of blues, genuine rockabilly, and a bit of rock all in this one cut.
Finally to the contemporary. The Avett Brothers of North Carolina are an up-and-coming band who were featured last Sunday on the Grammy broadcast. They have been including their unique arrangement of "OJC" in their concerts for several years:
Folk-rock, I'd call this, and more legitimately so than bands like the Byrds or Mamas and Papas, who were singer/songwriter rock rather more than folk.
Yet in hidden and distant corners of our benighted land (smiley), the traditional continues, here by mountain autoharpist Kenneth Bennefield on Folkways Records in 2006:
The production and recording here were done by the late Mike Seeger of the NLCR, one of the last of his decades of contributions to American folk music.
Finally - maybe my favorite of all of these recordings, two guys at home making some good old time music and recording themselves. That's Casey Abair on fiddle and Hunter Robinson on clawhammer banjo:
George Wein had it right, I think - American folk music is a big tent, probably with room enough for all of these markedly different styles.