To be perfectly honest, I’ve never been much of a Roger McGuinn fan. I don’t even find much pleasure in Sweetheart of the Rodeo, even after years of trying (on the theory that so many people with good taste seemed to like it so much). Nevertheless, McGuinn does have a version of “St. James Infirmary” that’s worth a mention here. His take is part of “The Folk Den Project,” which he began in 1995, and which entailed him recording and posting for free download a series of more than 100 folk songs over a period of 10 years. Recently he put a bunch of these recordings together in a four-CD box set. Here is his “St. James Infirmary.”
There’s definitely something to be said about the parallels between Internet culture and folk culture, but I haven’t quite worked it out yet. Folk expression (and of course I think “St. James Infirmary” is a good example) tends to have a kind of collective authorship. There’s an awful lot of rhetoric about the Internet and other technologies enabling something similar — “open source” projects (from Linux to Wikipedia) that not only allow, but encourage, even depend on, the collaboration of and contributions of many people. People talk about this like it’s something without precedent, but to me, “St. James Infirmary” has a very open source kind of history to it; it has, in my view, no single author. And as discussed in prior entries on Dr. John and Josh White, long after its evolution from “Unfortunate Rake” and “Gambler’s Blues,” the song remains a source of raw material for new creations. Anyway, the Internet has definitely added something new to the long-standing tension between group authorship and individual authorship, but (as admitted above) I haven’t totally worked it out. (McGuinn shared his thoughts about that tension in this April 2004 interview with the Creative Commons folks; click through and scroll down.)
Anyway, The Wall Street Journal ran a short piece about McGuinn’s box set the other day, and in the interview McGuinn explained that the project came about because:
“I thought, ‘This is a great opportunity to get some of these songs up there to share with people around the world. It’s a grass roots thing, and I love the Internet for that, and also more one-on-one. Sitting in front of a computer, it’s more like the oral tradition, with somebody singing the song to you, than it is if you’re being broadcast at by TV.”
Interesting. I’m not sure how I feel about the notion of sitting in front of a computer as being a more authentic listening experience than sitting in front of a television set. But by and large I like the ideology of McGuinn’s project. It’s great to use new tools to make new things.
On the other hand, sometimes the obsession with novelty comes at a cost of overlooking the past. I think it’s cool to use new tools to explore and rediscover old things. But you probably guessed that.