Jean Shepherd Says, Dig the Folk!


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June 11, 1958, Vol. III, No. 33

Dig the Folk

By Jean Shepherd

Some night when the espresso tastes flat and you tire of hearing third-rate poets shout above fourth-rate jazz groups and you happen to be near a radio, I would suggest you dig a few sounds that are truly closer to the pulse beat of America than anything around today.

Most of the stuff that passes for Americana is as contrived and phony as a class-B English-movie version of Chicago mobsters. It has a dated self-consciousness that would be amusing if it weren’t so embarrassing. The average urban “folk”-singer, for example, would be totally unintelligible to a genuine hill-country audience of today. The folksiness they sell to hip-type, guitar-playing, subway-riding, undergrad neo-folk has all the authenticity of an Amsterdam street band playing New Orleans jazz.

It is pretty hard being a genuine nineteenth-century folk midway through the twentieth century, especially if you live on MacDougal Street and majored in business law at Syracuse U. So what can you dig, man, if you want to really get at the roots of now and fell the way it is? The way it really is…It’s tough being beat when you can only wail after office hours and on the two-week vacation. Like it doesn’t make it. Ya’ dig? Excuse the use of the vernacular; sometimes one gets swept away by the sheer emotion of the now and the loveliness of it all.

Getting back to the radio, you’ll find some strange and exotic stuff away down at the far end of the dial. Move the pointer away from NYC and QXR some night late and start fishing around between the loud local stations at the high-frequency end of the band. Where the static level is high and the living is not easy. You’ll hear more of what America really sounds like today than anything I know. Stuff will come in from tank towns in Tennessee, the Carolinas, Michigan, and Minnesota. Everywhere. I’m not referring to music particularly, but to the whole beat and sound of each station as it jabbers away to the local rednecks. I listened for three hours one night to a station in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and after a while I had the feeling that I was truly eavesdropping on something I shouldn’t have heard.

TV will never have this flavor, since even local stations all over the country rely on net-produced shows and films with only an occasional local newscast, but radio is today more and more the voice of individuals in specific places as network radio dies and the locals come into their own. The old rules of formality have been knocked down and the 250-watters are getting less inhibited by the day. One night I monitored a guy doing a play-by-play broadcast of a softball game somewhere in West Virginia, in W. Va. Patois, sponsored by a furniture dealer who did his own spots and whose daughter played first base for the strong local nine. Only in America.

It is really a gasser to hear what a local news commentator on a Texas station has to say about the Supreme Court and desegregation. He drawls on and on and sounds exactly like twentieth century Texas. He is followed by two guys who play records of people called the Delmore Twins and Granpa Copas. Between discs they hawk plastic Christ statues that glow in the dark in “real-life” color, a pocket Bible with a metal cover guaranteed to protect the heart from bullet wounds and stabbings, a quilt-making kit, plastic ukuleles with instructions “that can be understood even by those who can’t read,” wallets autographed by Elton Britt, and books for “serious” students of sexology (must be over 21, we trust you). They go on all night in two languages and 150 percent modulation.

Man, dig the folk. They have many sounds and different beats and it isn’t hard to pick up on some of this Vox Humana. The one thing it is, if nothing else, is authentic. Most local stations work on such narrow budget margins that they can’t risk getting out of touch with the listeners. They rarely rely on jazzy (and largely phoney) polls to find out what is being dug by the citizenry; hence what they dish out is pretty close to the main stream. It is all pretty hairy stuff, rich and ripe, but as American as the “folk” can ever get.

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