More of our ongoing Q&A series with Robert W. Harwood soon, but meanwhile, it so happens that Mr. Harwood sent along a link of interest.
It’s a YouTube video that’s below, but before I get to it, a little context on why I found it particularly intriguing. Way back in April, The New Yorker published an article titled “The Last Verse: Is there any folk music still out there?” It was mostly about two song collectors who have been working together, but are somewhat different. (The article, so far as I can tell, is not on the New Yorker’s site.)
One is Art Rosenbaum, a University of Georgia folklorist who has been making field recordings of folk music since he was about 19 or 20. The is Lance Ledbetter, in his mid 30s, who has a record label in Atlanta called Dust-to-Digital. Together the pair collaborated on a four-disc retrospective of folk material Rosenbaum had recorded over the years, often in people’s homes. (I later bought this; it’s good.)
To a large extent the article is about the question of what, exactly, folk music is. Writer Burkhard Bilger paraphrases Rosenbaum’s criteria. For one thing, “the songs had to be traditional, the music learned from relatives or local musicians.” On the question of the folk performer, Bilger notes that Rosenbaum never recorded the major figures of the folk revival that was going on even as he began his field-recording career: “Folk music, to him, was the art of the anonymous.”
Elsewhere in the article, John Lomax is quoted saying, in 1937, that the sort of field recording he did (along with his son Alan) would soon be rendered either impossible or pointless by the march of progress: “The influence of good roads and the radio combined will soon put an end to both the creation and to the artless singing of American folk songs.”
So. There is obviously a lot to argue about in many of the words here — what “traditional” means, why it is (or isn’t) important that a song be learned from a local musician as opposed to one heard via electronic media, how to define “artless” and why that should matter, and whether a performer needs to be or stay “anonymous” to count as folk.
With those questions hovering in the background, then, let me get back to what Mr. Harwood sent: It seems that a friend’s teenage son, who plays guitar and harmonica, has discovered and been impressed by another harmonica player. The latter lives in France, and reaches whatever audience she has by way of YouTube. In general, she performs by turning on a webcam, putting on a recording by a well-known artist, and playing along, adding her harmonica part to an existing song. Her name is Christelle Berthon, and her YouTube channel has (as I type this) 1,336 subscribers.
But the video below is a bit of a departure from the scenario just described: It’s a duet between Berthon and Vamos Babe, another YouTubing musician, a guitar player whose YouTube channel has (at the moment) 943 subscribers — and a section called “YT Collabs.” These are her YouTube collaborations with other musicians. In the explanation for this video, uploaded this past May, she wrote: “I discovered Christelle two days ago and was amazed by her talent... We spontaneously decided we would try a collab on the last song I covered and here’s the result.”
I gather Vamos Babe is also in France, but I assume she and Berthon have never met in person. That is, this duet appears to have happened strictly by way of contemporary technology.
Now … where does that put this performance, on the continuum of folk and not-folk?
While “SJI” is a traditional number (and technology aside, it’s being played here on basically traditional instruments — not a Wii device of some kind, or whatever), this would fail the “folk” test on many levels, as set out by the criteria above. I doubt either of these women learned the song from someone “local;” clearly both performers are not anonymous (indeed they have fans who I assume are far-flung). I’m not sure what Lomax meant by “artless,” but my guess is that while these aren’t professional musicians in a recording studio, this would not qualify.
On the other hand, there’s still something pretty folk-ish about it to me. Each performer seems to be in a rather home-ish setting — just a home-ish setting that happens to include an Internet connection and some audio/video equipment that’s not exactly rare these days. And there’s a kind of informal jam-session quality to the collaboration; I don’t mean that to suggest poor musicianship — they sound pretty good to me. I just mean it’s happening absent the trappings of what we think of as a commercial recording. Much about this scenario suggests both musicians are actively seeking a wider audience, possibly by way of commercial recordings. But for the moment they’re operating far outside the context of “the music business” as we (still, for now) know it.
And this matters, I think, because so much of what’s implied in the Lomax/Rosenbaum comments is basically: Various commercial structures are obliterating a more informal “folk” culture (which they were strikving to preserve). Certainly this collaboration is not a product of such structures. In fact it’s comeing from a place that’s almost the opposite of those structures. Maybe that place is a new version of “folk”?
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