The Way it Was — and is! By Jerry Epstein
Peggy Seeger remains one of the most interesting and thought provoking people still active in traditional music and the revival. Her fascinating piece in Living Tradition ("Opinion", July-August, 2000) contains so much meat (or tofu for those who prefer) and touches on so many issues much larger than the immediate subject of her piece that I cannot resist attempting this contribution.
I seem to have missed the article, or letter, to which she was responding, but it seems clear that it was a criticism of Ewan MacColl directly, and by indirection the Singers’ Club and the Critics Group, as being overly stuffy or pedantic or restrictive. I have only one brief comment on the immediate subject, but more to say on the larger implications.
I sang at the Singers’ Club only once, in 1981. Regrettably, Peggy and Ewan were away, and I never had the opportunity to talk informally with Ewan in the way Peggy suggests would have been so worthwhile. My loss for certain. But I have had the chance to talk at some length with Peggy on a couple of occasions. While we probably wouldn’t agree on everything, I think it is fair to say that we share a great deal of commitment to the same things as being ultimately important about the tradition and the revival. She touches on some of these in her description of the history that led to the "rules" for singing at their club.
My evening at the Singers Club seemed to me in no way stuffy or restrictive. I happen to love "shared- performance" formats, where one can swap songs, but also background, history, style, with other good singers on the same platform. Some of my friends on your side of the pond are aware that I have a penchant to bring American traditional source singers with me on tour. I do this because of a feeling that often the best of what America has are not the ones who tour on their own, but also because I love this shared evening format, especially when I have the privilege to be with a really fine singer with the tradition in his or her bones. Maybe it helps that I have reached a point in my life where sharing an evening with someone who might well overshadow me is great fun! But I digress. . . .
Peggy does not mention this shared-platform format, but I loved it. I found an informality of exchange with people from the audience and the "stage". I remember Tom Paley was in the audience and commented on memories of Frank Warner, of whose songs I had sung a few. There was a tinker fellow — apparently a regular — who commented on my description of Richard Moss as an "itinerant singing teacher", that "he was a traveler." Good relaxed stuff all around.
But to come to a core issue, perhaps the center of Peggy’s article: It would never have crossed my mind to sing a French or Yiddish song (even though my parents spoke Yiddish, it is almost a foreign language to me), or even an English song, though I knew quite a few. I think the times were just later, and perhaps also due to important stands that the Singers Club had taken, but it was obvious to me that no one in England was about to hire me to sing English songs. England was not short of good singers! Thus the "rules" issue simply never came up. While if I were dictator of some tradition-based club, I might not make rigid rules, I would certainly strongly encourage people to sing material (and to choose a style) in which they can be convincing and not phony. I have no doubt that Peggy would agree with that. But it is hard for singers, especially if they are fairly new at it, but also sometimes for experienced ones, to know when they are sounding a bit false to their listeners. Often even the listeners are not at all aware that that "nice" song might be of much greater impact if some barriers were removed. It is a bit of a gray area, so I am uncomfortable with rigid rules, especially for informal singing gatherings. And I am confident that Peggy would agree with that too. But when someone expects me to pay money to come out for the evening, a whole different set of "rules" comes in to play, at least for me. Here I expect, not a polished, arranged, (over-)produced, professional performance, but one that says to me This is right. This is the real thing — or a damned good approximation thereof. This HAS IT (whatever IT is).
But here too, after more years than I care to admit, I find that rigid categories have to bend. Sometimes it ain’t what you expect. The classic example is the white blues singer (now I am looking for trouble). I have heard a great many white blues singers — some are pretty good, most not. I have heard a great many black blues singers — some are pretty bad, some are pretty good. I have heard some of the real greats who recorded before the war — a few I have heard live. I have heard many black blues singers who are presented by (white) club and festival operators because they are black blues singers, though they are awfully pale imitations.
It is true that it can often come down to the speech pattern. Blacks speak ‘Black’ naturally; it strikes one as real. Whites have to put it on. But then again, some Blacks, in the year 2000, have to put it on too, including some who get a lot of bookings due to things other than — shall we say — authenticity of presentation. But I can say also that, as far as I know, the very best blues singer and player working today, Andy Cohen, is white. Virtually anyone who has ever heard him agrees. And, yes, it sounds right. Boy, will I get it for that one. So what is a singer to do?
Unfortunately, no one can encode what characteristics of a singer will make it sound right. But I would agree with Peggy, and maybe Ewan, that someone adopting a ‘foreign’ medium has a very tough road to travel to arrive at a feeling of authenticity. I think dialect is even harder than singing in a foreign language. Thus most urban, northern, white American singers who sing in a black dialect, or Scot’s dialect, or Irish dialect, make me cringe. But then there are a few who (in my opinion) really have IT. I often advise singers who really love "foreign" material — genuinely, as did that Cockney lad singing Leadbelly — to sing it in their own English, as if it were a song from their own area. This is often a very effective thing to do, and it is clear that this happened routinely through history in the living tradition as songs traveled. So much of this is a learning process all singers go through (including people right out of the tradition who also have to contend with a bombardment of popular styles), as Peggy discusses with magnificent honesty talking about her own evolution:
"We do these things in our youth and before we have understanding (just wish I hadn’t recorded them)."
Some personal aspects: I hope I do not presume too much to assume that this is of some interest, not because I am particularly interesting but because there really are larger issues involved — issues that I think go to the heart of how tradition continues in an age of mass communication. Peggy Seeger has been prominent in folk music for something now approaching 50 years. Much of this is of course her own prodigious knowledge and skill, but also her family and her long partnership with Ewan MacColl. I found it fascinating to read her account of looking back on her own singing and recording from decades ago. It is an astonishingly open and forthright document, only possible I think for someone who really understands what is important and who is quite beyond the need for personal image.
I, of course, have never been anywhere near as well known as Peggy, and I was 50 when my first recording appeared. I would love to say that I knew "I wasn’t ready" or some such, but I don’t think I was all that wise (although I did have enough sense to know my singing was lousy). It just took me an awfully long time to learn how to sing in a way that felt right to me, to hear myself and say that that had IT. Looking back, I am very thankful that I did not record earlier.
Without a doubt, the strongest influence on my singing has been the great singer and collector Frank Warner. Part of it was a body of material, especially from the American Northeast, that I could sing and just sound like myself. But also a style of singing, especially the declamation of text, that took me a long time to understand, but which I loved and which seemed to suit me so comfortably. Later, with some trepidation I found I could sing in a more Southern style, more decorated, and it still didn’t sound "false", probably because I made no attempt to pretend I was Southern. No one would mistake me for someone from Appalachia, but that was OK. I became confident that I could deliver a song as me, and I had enough technique, knowledge, and "insideness" (won’t even try to explain that one) to produce a good song that felt right, that had IT (at least to my ears).
But I feel quite lucky that the times are so different from what they were in the 1950s. There are so many people now who really understand traditional music in the traditional style. There are so many thousands of fine singers, most of whom never get up on a stage, except perhaps for a small local fund raiser or the like. There is such an overwhelming wealth of good recordings. It is so much easier now to decide to be a "traditional singer" (there’s a loaded statement for you). And of course I never had to make a living at it. Thank heavens. I like to eat, as those who know me can testify.
I think that phrase above "decide to be a ‘traditional singer’" deserves some comment, as I hear the swords circling my head. There are several comments in Peggy’s article that relate to this, and of course it is central to the mission that the Singers’ Club and the Critics Group tried to undertake at a time when there was much less real traditional music and style around in the revival. I always put the quotation marks around "traditional singer" for reasons that will be clear.
Who or what is a "traditional singer" and does it matter? We all use this distinction between "revival singer" and "traditional singer" frequently, but I think it is an impossible distinction to codify in any meaningful way. Again I think a prime example is Frank Warner. I had a discussion once with the renowned folklorist Ken Goldstein about whether Frank was a "traditional singer". "No", says Kenny, "because he did not grow up with the songs that he sang." Well Frank in fact did learn songs from the community he grew up in (or near), but they were from Black tradition. Maybe that accounts for why Frank could sing Black material better than just about any white guy around. But the bulk of his performance repertoire was songs that he and Anne collected as adults. But I digress. . . .
"Well then," says I, "what about Jeff and Gerret Warner, who did grow up from birth with the songs that became their principal repertoires?"
"No," says Kenny (all this is rough paraphrase), "It takes two generations." So I guess that makes Gerret’s two daughters into traditional singers, even though, were they to want to sing those old songs that have now been in the family for 60 years, they would have to learn the art almost from scratch, same as any other clearly "revival" singer.
But surely all this is silly.
When clearly traditional singers, Almeda Riddle and Ron Spicer for example, learn and record old songs from recordings of clearly revival singers, when singers clearly right out of the living tradition opt for a presentation that is entirely heavily arranged bluegrass or Country & Western, it becomes pretty hard to make a hard and fast distinction. Certainly not based on how they grew up. It becomes a question of who has IT, and there is no one who can set up rules to define it in advance. It reminds me of the US Supreme Court Justice who said about pornography: "I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it." Well I can’t define it but I know it when I hear it. Peggy says:
"There is no set discipline for folksinging — it’s an ‘anything goes’ area, even though real dyed-in-the-wool field singers are very specific about how they sing and what they sing."
Well, yes and no. Jane Turuffe sings Jimmy Rogers right along with ancient ballads. It is actually quite common for source singers to sing a rather wild mixture of popular, sentimental, and really traditional things. It is only a recent consciousness in folklore that you collect the singer and all of the material, not just the songs you think are interesting. I don’t find you can make any firm distinctions there. It is only a matter of choices. Maybe rural source singers are more likely to make the choices that purists (I plead guilty) want them to make. But obviously not always. And why is it that I like Jane Turuffe singing Jimmy Rogers so much more than the typical revival singer singing a jazzed up version of Lord Bateman? Rings more true for some reason. . . .
But I accept without question that:
". . .The Critics Group was to make it possible for the singers . . . to sing the songs in a way that would not abrogate the original intention of the makers. It was an attempt to keep the folksongs folksongs . . . so that we could tackle different kinds of songs . . . and still keep the songs true to themselves." (Considerable ellipses here, but I don’t think I have violated Peggy’s intentions.)
Further down she writes:
"What he (Ewan) was trying to do . . . was encourage understanding of where these songs came from and how easy it is to ruin them."
Yes, it is amazingly easy to ruin a good song. People do it all the time with the best of intentions (and, yes, sometimes with less noble intentions, as Peggy says). But the old songs, and the old ways of singing them, are amazingly resilient. I know not all agree with me, but I am more convinced all the time that the tradition has never been stronger than it is now. I have said this before in this journal with regard to the American tradition. I believe it is probably true in Britain also. Never have there been so many people singing and playing traditional songs and tunes, in traditional style, and for traditional reasons (as opposed to getting bookings or recording a CD — not that these are sinful at all). It is simply breathtaking to me the difference I have seen in the some 40 years since I became involved with this stuff. So take heart. As much as we discuss and argue passionately about these topics, the tradition is a living thing. We can state, and stand for, and make whatever rules or guidelines we wish about what should be sung and how it should be sung. People will still sing and play what they wish in the way they wish, changing things incessantly, and the tradition will keep what has the most meaning to people and discard the rest.
Finally Peggy says:
"I’ve done my share of changing the folksongs. Had to. I wasn’t brought up on the front porch of a cabin in Appalachia, and I don’t pretend that I was."
To which I say to Peggy: "So what? Why does that make you any less a representative of the tradition? You have all the knowledge, all the skills, all the background. It is only a matter of choices." At a recent Pinewoods Folk Club weekend near New York, Peggy sang a traditional ballad (from Texas Gladden I think) that left me in awe. Why is this any the less valid because of being born middle class? To my ear, it was right. It had IT. Surely it is a matter of skill, knowledge, and commitment, not where you were born.
"I had a middle-class, classical musical training, and that’s hard to shake. But I don’t pretend to be a folksinger. . . ."
"You are a folksinger, willing or not. You are a propagator of tradition to far more people than you can know. Musical training is a blockage for many, but for you only if you get stuck in it. There is no doubt that you can go beyond it when you want to. It is only a matter of choices."
I have been reading recently a book titled All That is Native and Fine, about the people and ethic that produced the White Top festivals in North Carolina in the 1930s. It is amazing that the educated promoters of those gatherings were quite certain that, unless they presented and recorded the older source singers of that period, and got younger people excited about it, they would all die off and we would be stuck with these pale imitation revival singers who just didn’t have it. The tradition would be dead. In the 1930s for Goodness’ sake!! This phenomenon repeats itself every few years with a new generation of "the last source singers". And the older generation of source singers is rapidly becoming — us! So let’s take that responsibility seriously. But I have no doubt that the tradition is doing very well, thank you very much, and it will do so pretty much no matter what the outcome of all this discussion is. So here’s a health to the older generation of source singers of the year 3000!!
Jackson Heights, NY