News & Politics

The Menace of Folk Music


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February 24, 1960, Vol. V, No. 18

The Menace of Folk Music

By Bob Reisner

The menace of folk music lies in Gresham’s Law, which states that bad money drives out good. The humble, monotonous, skimmed-milk folk song is pushing classical and jazz albums out of homes. Record-shop bins are full of these folk artists who at best are worthy of entertaining their relatives. Very few parties today are free of the taint of these dreary noise-makers. Alexander King, whose forthright opinions I respect, has to have his pretty wife sing these ethnic dreadfuls on his show. It is probably not his idea.

Folk music is the shortcut to becoming an “entertainer” these days. Express yourselves! Make girls! Get a record contract! You buy a guitar, learn three chords, and you are set. The society is the easiest in the world to make. There are no standards of wit or intelligence or financial income. All you need are some dirty clothes. To be individualistic, ware a ring in your ear or through your nose. It is also good to give yourself a nickname, something like Bowtie Benny or Conga Joe.

The folkniks preceded the beatniks. It was they who invented the uniform: jeans, black stockings, long hair, etc. If it were just limited to this directionless, lower-level society, OK. They make their noise in Washington Square on Sundays, the tourists gape until the sun goes down, and then they and the artistes go back to the Bronx. But, no, the menace has spread all over the country.

How did it start? At first the origins were legitimate, it had immediacy. It was political. It told of injustices; they were revolutionary songs. It was topical, like a newspaper. It was spontaneous, creative. I’ve heard no folk songs about the TV scandals, no songs about Little Rock except in jazz, where Charles Mingus has written a lovely, haunting, sardonic composition entitled “Fables for Faubus.” Conditions have changed in which the folk song took root, and yet it persists. There is no pressing plight of the migrant workers, unions are strong, and there are 80 million TV sets. How to keep the “tell-me-about-the-rabbits” musical mentality interested? One of the methods was to give it an intellectual imprimatur.

A few summers ago I saw a prime example of the literary con. It was a hot day of some 87 degrees, a packed audience in an outdoor theater – madness at the outset. Suddenly there emerges an elegantly dressed gentleman with a cithera or something. He introduces the first selection. I am about to play a song written in the twelfth century by the Cappodocian Monks on vellum; it was then transcribed by some passing jongleurs into old French from the Latin. Later it was translated by the English musicologist J. Cuthbert Twilly.

Then the elegantly dressed gentleman began to sing: I met a lovely young maid tra la tra la / Would you like to sit in the shade tra la tra la. . . . Tumultuous applause from the fools who were literally seduced.

Whenever I attack these nursery ditties, someone says: “Why can’t you like everything and be catholic in your tastes?” You can’t. You have only a certain amount of time to listen to music, and in that time you must choose the best or cheat yourself. If you listen to Mozart and Miles, Prokofieff and Parker, Bach and Bud Powell, and hundreds of artists of depth, how in hell are you going to find time for the plinkers, plunkers, and calypro creeps that I see on the shelves of every home I enter?

Next to the folk albums there always snuggle, on those shelves, the equally formularized vulgarities of the musical-show albums. It would demonstrate superior taste to have rock ‘n’ roll, a much more honest banality. I have no objection to folk music when it is incorporated and used as raw material in the music of Beethoven or Bartok. I enjoy folk music when it is honestly primitive, when performed by Furry Lewis, Slick-Horse Hammond, Elmo James, or Willie Nix. But when Bikel, Belafonte, and Brand replace Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, it’s a bad scene.

One evening at a party, a young woman with a beautiful guitar commenced a repertoire of “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Riddle Song,” and, for a touch of class, “Greensleeves.” Noting my pained expression, she asked me: “Don’t you like guitars?” Not wishing to offend her musical endeavors, I replied: “I don’t like any object with that kind of shape which can’t be made love to.”

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


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