Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Folk Process And "Buddy Won't You Roll Down The Line"

A little over two years ago, I posted here some thoughts on The First Grammy For Folk And Why It Matters Today, which though mostly a discussion of the Kingston Trio's second studio album At Large enabled me to ruminate on a now long-forgotten controversy about what constituted authenticity in folk and roots music and how our sense of that has changed over the decades since 1959. Half of the population of the U.S. today was born after 1970, and for them, music like that which is purveyed by, say, the Avett Brothers or Mumford and Sons (worthy and talented musicians all) or on the soundtrack of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? surely does sound "authentic," what with the banjos and Appalachian accents and all. Yet had the recordings of that soundtrack or those artists, any of them, appeared in 1955 or 1960, I guarantee that they would have been as excoriated with the same vehemence as "commercial" and "tawdry" and "tinselly" as were the similarly polished and professional recordings of the pop folk artists of the great revival era, spearheaded in terms of sales by but in no way limited to the LPs of the Kingston Trio. Just a few years ago, major urban traditionalist and banjo master extraordinaire Billy Faier revisited what he thought might have been a youthful prejudice against the KT and similar groups when he reviewed a Trio compilation disc. Faier's review was thoughtful and considered, but even 45 years after the heyday of pop folk music, Faier found little to like in what he heard. He sensed "very little respect for the folk genre here" and came to the overall conclusion that the KT's output (and by extension that of many other pop folk groups) consisted of "a mishmash of twisted arrangements that not only obscure the true beauty of the folk songs from which they derive, but give them a meaning they never had."

Faier was one of the most dedicated of the participants in the early 1950s spontaneous folk gatherings in Washington Square in New York City, and he has spent a lifetime performing and teaching traditional music and instrumental skills. Agree with it or not, his opinion matters; it carries with it the weight of an expertise in the folk field that very few others in the 20th century could match - the Lomaxes and Pete Seeger, Cecil Sharp, Jean Ritchie, Izzy Young, a few others perhaps. And it is not that his critique is without foundation - there are plenty of songs on the CD he was reviewing that demonstrate exactly what he says they do: a transformation, in some cases even a vulgarization, of tunes that began their existences somewhere in the hazy past of tradition and seemed to have been preserved intact through decades or even centuries of oral transmission.

What troubles me about the review, however, is not that Faier dislikes music that I like, but rather that anyone with as encyclopedic knowledge of traditional songs as he possesses must surely know that his phrasing  - again "that not only obscure the true beauty of the folk songs from which they derive, but give them a meaning they never had" - is a nearly perfect description of what has come to be known as the folk process, the way in which a single melody over time becomes adapted to a wide variety of uses, many of which bear no resemblance to the previous incarnation of the song whatsoever but somehow manage still to be regarded as authentic folk songs. These CompVid101 posts are full of examples of exactly that, even when there is no KT or other pop-folk version in the article. Take, for example, last year's musings on one of my favorite old songs, "Over The Hills And Far Away", which began as a Scots lullaby or children's song rather more than three hundred years ago, was turned into a musical comedy love song by one of England's great dramatists in the early 1700s, was purloined from thence to become a military recruiting song for more than a century, and today remains as a regimental march for several units in the UK's armed forces. Quite a journey for a single song, I would say, though I have yet to see a folk song scholar criticize any of the vastly different uses to which a simple ditty for children has been put.

Another example comes from the Roots Music and Beyond radio program that I co-host with the redoubtable Art Podell. For our St. Patrick's Day show a few weeks back, I paralleled songs from Ireland that had been transformed into quite different tunes when they reached our own sunny shores. A number of our listeners remarked that they had never noted that "The Old Orange Flute" from Ulster appears in the American west as "Sweet Betsy From Pike." Here is Tommy Makem with "Flute":

...and Roy Rogers and The Sons of the Pioneers with "Betsy":

The "Flute" song predates "Betsy" by a number of decades, and about the only point in common between the lyrics of the two is a certain mordant humor. Yet no one suggests that "Betsy" perverts "Flute" by giving it a "meaning it never had," nor would anyone seriously deny that both tunes are authentic folk songs. Thus with dozens of other tunes profiled on this blog over the last five years. Those very permutations and adaptations are, in fact,  why this blog exists and all - and what give folk music its unique character and enduring interest.

All of which takes us to Uncle Dave Macon's "Buddy Won't You Roll Down The Line." Macon's original (and he may well be the sole composer of the piece) is an entertaining but odd combination of a labor protest tune that brackets a more conventional prisoner's lament - as if "The Midnight Special" met "We Shall Overcome." The song grew out of the Coal Creek War in Tennessee in the early 1890s, when Macon was yet a young man.  The point of dispute was that two large coal companies, the Knoxville Iron Company and the Cumberland Coal Company, had decided to reduce their labor costs by contracting with the state of Tennessee to use convicts who had been sentenced to hard labor in the companies' mines, thus disemploying thousands and thousands of miners who had been working at near-starvation wages anyway. The miners organized and resisted, destroying company facilities and blocking convicts from entering mines; the companies retaliated by burning miners' homes and villages and organizing mass arrests and trials. There were a number of armed confrontations as well between the miners and company goons and later the state militia - in both cases, men were killed and wounded.

Macon opens his song with a summary of the situation:

Way back yonder in Tennessee, they leased the convicts out.
They worked 'em in the coal mines against free labor stout;
Free labor rebelled against it. To win it took some time.
But while the lease was in effect, they made 'em rise and shine

...but then shifts to the prisoners lament:

The beans they are half done, the bread is not so well.
The meat it is as burnt up and the coffee's black as heck.
But when you get your task done, you'll gladly come to call.
Anything you'd get to eat it taste good, done or raw.

...with the humorous avoidance of singing "hell," before returning to a political comment (and another slickly humorous avoidance of the same word):

The bank boss is a hard man, a man you all know well.
And if you don't get your task done, he's gonna give you hallelujah!
Carry you to the stockade, and it's on the floor you'll fall.
Very next time they call on you, you bet you'll have your coal.

The "Buddy won't you roll down the line" chorus seems to be akin to the "let the Midnight Special/Shine its ever-loving light on me" articulated hope for eventual freedom, the "line" being the tracks that will lead the singer away from captivity and into the arms of "my darlin," much as the singer in "Midnight Special" looks forward to the embrace of "Miss Rosie." Here is Macon on 5 string banjo, with Sam McGee backing him on something called a 6-string guitar/banjo as well as harmony on the chorus:

Here with a perfect replication of the instrumentation on Macon's recording, the very much lamented Mike Seeger taking Macon's part with Bruce Molsky doing McGee's accompaniment - on a 6-string guitar/banjo:

The video is from The Old Time Banjo Festival 2009 at The Birchmere in Virginia, a matter of weeks before Seeger's death from cancer at age 76. Like Billy Faier, Mike Seeger spent a productive life nurturing, performing, and teaching the trad music that he loved.

Around 1960, however, Texas songwriter Jane Bowers collaborated with Kingston Trio founder/arranger Dave Guard to create a very different song, one that changes the labor/prison tune into an apolitical wanderer/hobo/traveling number. In the past, I would have just created a simple video of the KT version, posted it to YouTube, and used it here - but of late, the good folks at Capitol/EMI have been looking askance at my efforts in that regard and blocking many of my videos from playing, so my days of creating such videos for this blog are at an end. You can, however, for a mere 89 cents purchase a copy of that track from Amazon here, and it would be well worth the pennies to do so, as it is one of the original Trio's best arrangements.

Update, June 2013: The change in Capitol's policy regarding the Kingston Trio videos, discussed in the margin note on the left, now allows me to post the original KT arrangement here:

We also have a creditable version of the KT arrangement to offer.

A new posting of the tune (as of summer 2014) comes from a KT tribute band called In-Folk-Us, doing a fine job with the harmonies and adding both a train whistle and Nick-Reynolds-style conga part not found on the Kingston recording:

Another recent upload comes from Gigatimes - a unique and completely successful brief re-thinking of the tiune as a jazz number, with John Renz on baritone sax and brother Ed on drums:

In the 1980s, singer-songwriter John Stewart, formerly Guard's replacement in the Kingston Trio, re-wrote "Buddy" yet again, this time as a kind of "life on the edge" number:

This is from Stewart's EP Revenge of the Budgie, the Budgie being Stewart's former Triomate Nick Reynolds, heard here on high harmony and on the second verse. Reynolds had sung on the Kingston Trio's original track (Stewart was not in the group at that time), and he tips his musical cap at the end of his verse with the "get on down the line" substitution. This is just a bit of folk-rockish tuneful fun. I recall a reviewer at the time making a point along that line, remarking that "Buddy" was the only song with KT roots that the two chose to do on that EP - which the reviewer also noted was reminiscent of the band A Flock of Seagulls but more melodic and interesting. Note, though, that in a kind of "full-circle" moment Stewart returns to Macon's original chorus.

As I noted in the first Grammy for folk piece, the whole controversy over what music and artists have a rightful claim to be termed "authentic" or "folk" has largely disappeared, except perhaps in a dwindling number of academic circles. I have worked quite a bit on a fair number of Wikipedia articles on folk music and folk artists and folk revivals and more, and the understanding of what the term means to the aforementioned half of the country that was not yet born when the disputes were raging (and which forms the bulk of Wikipedia editors) is very different from that of the urban traditionalists and commercial folksters who are now fading away and passing on. On the whole, that is probably a positive development, since pigeonholes are for, well, pigeons, and good music is always just that, whatever its source. I may myself mourn the passing of a certain respect for and understanding of tradition, though I would never have gone as far as Billy Faier did above. I suppose I can get used to Bruce Springsteen morphing into a "roots" performer and all the Celtic What-Have-Yous becoming the current face of Irish music, even as the mention of The New Lost City Ramblers or the Clancy Brothers will elicit nothing but a blank and uncomprehending stare from the younger generation. That's the way the world wags on. Folk process, you know.