Sunday, January 6, 2013

Just Plain People: Folk Music, in Fiction and Fact

Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger perform at the Woody Guthrie Tribute Concert in 1996 (Photo: Neal Preston)

What is folk music? You might well ask. Louis Armstrong is quoted as saying “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.” Of course, even this well known quote has attribution questions. I’ve heard it attributed to Woody Guthrie, and a recent post on the web-site of The Fretboard Journal presents evidence that maybe it was Big Bill Broonzy who said it first.

Over the Christmas break I read a few books which asked the same question, and, not surprisingly, came up with similar answers. fRoots magazine, which proclaims itself “the essential folk, roots and world music guide” states in its reviewing policy that folk music “is music which has some roots in a tradition.” Tradition plays a large role in these books and the way tradition is dealt with by their protagonists is informative.

For over 20 years, Scott Alarik wrote about folk music in the Boston Globe, but he's also a singer-songwriter most notably seen on A Prairie Home Companion, as well as a familiar player on the national folk circuit. So he has first hand experience on both sides of the question. Revival is Alarik’s first novel, and it is a book deeply entrenched in tradition and community.

The story is a classic, a spin on A Star Is Born. The prĂ©cis on the back cover explains it, “talented, charismatic songwriter Nathan Warren lost his chance at stardom years ago, and now sees his life as waste and ruin. Kit Palmer is young, beautiful, and explosively gifted, but her dreams are also doomed unless she can keep from falling apart on stage. They travel the Boston folk scene as lovers and artists, through basement clubs and funky jam sessions, rowdy open mikes and sprawling festivals, seeking stardom for one and redemption for the other.” And that just about tells it like it is. It’s a simple story, of love and redemption, success and failure, dreams, fantasies and realities.

Nathan Warren released an independent album which caught the ears of a major label. They signed him and recorded a major debut, but label politics saw the album shelved. Warren retreated to Boston where he runs an open mike for newcomers one night a week, and a jam session another night. It’s at the open mike where he meets Kit, and proceeds to mentor her to success locally and potentially nationally. Scott Alarik has released several albums of folk music on independent labels, and is an accomplished guitarist. The second aspect of Alarik’s personality shows up as a veteran journalist named Ferguson who resides in the background to offer encouragement and advice, both in person and in print.

What separates Revival from other similar tales is the depth of knowledge Alarik brings to the realities of the folk music world. He describes the setup of the small stage in the bar where the open mike takes place, the inner workings of the record industry, the production of Kit Palmer’s first album, all with the sharpness of an insider. You can smell the beer, feel the guitar strings, almost hear the music. That’s why so many folk musicians rave about the book on the back cover. People from Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, Catie Curtis, and Mary Gautier lend their voices in support of Alarik’s fiction. So there must be truth here.

The truth is found in a recent autobiography from Judy Collins, and a new biography of Arlo Guthrie. The story continues. Sweet Judy Blue Eyes tells the tale of Collins’ long career in the folk world. From the title one is alerted that there will be plenty of Stephen Stills within. The relationship between Stills and Collins led to his greatest composition “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” arguably the pinnacle of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s recording career. But there’s more to Judy Collins' offstage life than an affair with Stills – there were plenty of other affairs too, and a dramatic addiction to alcohol which took its toll on her life. There are echoes of Collins in a character from Revival. Nathan Warren’s ex-wife Joyce Warren moved on from her marriage to success as a singer. She started her own label Choyce Records, and now seeks to lend support to new artists. Judy Collins’ label is called Wildflower. She continues to tour, I saw her in November and, while her voice is no longer crystalline in the higher registers, she still put on a good show. It’s the folk process.

The folk process, or the way folk material is transformed and re-adapted from person to person, generation to generation, is something Arlo Guthrie has had to think about his whole life. His career as a ‘folk singer’ depended heavily on his long-form rap with a singable chorus, “Alice’s Restaurant.” From our perspective in 2013 (having spent much of the last year celebrating his father Woody’s centennial) one might think that name familiarity had a lot to do with his initial success, but Woody Guthrie wasn’t as generally well known in 1967 as he is today. In fact, in 1967, the elder Guthrie passed away, only 55 years of age, after spending much of the previous decade in hospitals. He became more widely known through the efforts of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger who sang his praises and his songs. Arlo did not want to simply be a channel for his father’s songs, he had his own thoughts and opinions, and his own way of stating them. Hank Reineke’s Arlo Guthrie: the Warner Reprise Years outlines his struggles to move beyond being “Woody’s son” to becoming his own man.

“Alice’s Restaurant” is an 18-minute epic tale of hippies throwing garbage down a hill one Thanksgiving in Massachusetts. Before Arlo had a record contract a live rendition of the ‘song’ began to be played on radio. It became a listener’s favourite, attracting attention and more fans. Guthrie signed with Warner Brothers, one of the biggest, most successful labels in the world. Reineke details the recording and release of the thirteen albums Guthrie made for Warners over a fifteen year period before his contract was terminated and he began releasing his albums on his own label. Arlo never had his album shelved like Nathan Warren, but he experienced many ups and downs getting the company to release the albums he presented them.

Reineke’s previous book (2010’s Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: the Never-Ending Highway) was a readable and detailed account of the life of Arlo’s mentor Ramblin’ Jack. Elliott was friends with Woody, and became friends with Arlo too. Reineke was able to speak with Elliott in researching his biography which lent an authenticity and directness to that volume which is missing in Arlo Guthrie. Arlo offered no assistance, so any quotes come from previously published interviews and articles which are meticulously documented in footnotes accompanying each chapter. It’s unfortunate since Guthrie is such a creative storyteller, one is never sure whether he was putting the interviewers on, or rambling for fun, or just happily under the influence of some herb or other. Nonetheless Reineke fills the book with details about songwriting and recording and folk music in general.

For a time “folk music” seemed to be defined, at least by American record companies, as ‘anybody with an acoustic guitar.’ Previous to the crop of singer/songwriters who arrived in the post-Dylan era, folk music was practised by bearded men wearing Aran sweaters, or long-haired nymphs in peasant skirts. They didn’t write their own songs but depended on the historic songbooks. Tunes like “Polly Von,” “Stewball,” and “Lord Randall” were gradually replaced by “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Sweet Baby James” and “Alice’s Restaurant.” The folk process continues. Now the music is called roots, or Americana (why not Canadiana one wonders?). The songs have moved on through the music of all those would-be Dylans to include a new generation of ‘folkies’ like Devandra Banhart, Jim James, Iron & Wine and all the others who practised their art in the same cellars and coffeehouses as Arlo, Judy and their fictional compatriots Nathan and Kit.

Maybe we should give the last word to someone who should know…an expert. What is folk music? Brownie McGhee said, “Logically, when you talkin' about folk music and blues, you find out it's music of just plain people.” And about tradition? Martin Carthy said, “I’m not interested in heritage—this stuff is alive.” Certainly, that’s the common denominator throughout all the folksingers we’ve mentioned. They’re just plain people playing stuff that’s alive, and sharing that life with the rest of us.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

1 comment:

  1. Nice songs and great music, I heard many times and it always gives me great feeling.