Folk Music Hopscotch

You know how you go to look something up online and you wind up on Wikipedia, and by the time you have clicked links from one article to another, hours have gone by? (If not: that happens to me more often than I’d like.) Yesterday through today has been a similar kind of one-to-another hopscotch, but this time with music on youtube. I used to be pretty into folk music in my late teens/early 20s, and this was a revisit that reminded my why I enjoyed it so much.

I started with Buffy Sainte Marie, because I’m taking a class on Urban Natives and being a better ally and in some of my research I came across a great interview with her in Vanity Fair. It mentioned that her new record includes a remix of a song from her first, which made me want to hear that original version again.

“It’s My Way” came out in 1964, right around the time the Beatles landed in the U.S. She’s 74 now, and in addition to making music in a bunch of genres, she has been an amazing activist.

From there I went on to Buffy Saint Marie’s appearance on Pete Seeger’s TV show Rainbow Quest in 1965, singing “Cindy” as a duet.

This made me start thinking about Pete Seeger (look how young he was!) and his amazing career, which also blended music with social justice work. Then I started thinking about Americana, bluegrass, and country music. This is country music to me; despite taking guilty pleasure in watching Nashville, most of that music seems more like indie stuff or pop of one stripe or another.

I got a copy of Rise Up Singing back in 1988 when it came out, the first summer I worked at the ADK Loj. I was 16 and had never been to the mountains, had never been to camp, had never really been around people with liberal politics (I was a Reagan supporter like the rest of my family then), and had never, well, just about anything. The illicit Winds of the People was used at campfire singalongs after work, and when Rise Up Singing came out we all bought copies to support the cause (and to have more copies of the songbook).

The first recording I had of Pete Seeger was on a mix tape the following summer, back at ADK Loj again. A mix tape for the kitchen crew contained “Darling Corey,” sandwiched between songs by Michelle Shocked and Tracy Chapman, iirc.

Thinking of Pete Seeger, I was reminded of his death last year, about 6 months after his wife Toshi. That made me pull up and play the memorial concert that was put on after his death, outside at Lincoln Center.

If you’ve ever seen A Mighty Wind, it’s kind of like that, but real, and more diverse, and with all the musicians really committed to social justice. Some of the singers have amazing vocal talents, while others warble a bit. Many have grown old, but the younger generations are there as well, because Pete and Toshi Seeger were basically like the glue of the folk/music for social change community.

Pete Seeger wrote way more songs that you’d recognize than you would ever guess.

The final performer in the memorial concert is Holly Near, who I first listened to in 1990 (yet another summer at ADK Loj). By that point I was ordering feminist folk music and other CDs by women from a newsprint catalog called Ladyslipper. Ladyslipper is how I came across Holly Near, Mercedes Sosa, Sweet Honey in the Rock, k.d. lang, Clannad (and Enya), Alix Dobkin, Ferron, Ani DiFranco, Joan Armatrading, Buffy Sainte Marie (!), Alison Krauss, Melissa Etheridge, Lucinda Williams, Phranc, and Sarah McLachlan. Also the excellent compilation Will the Circle be Unbroken Vol. II, which in turn introduced me to even more singers that walked the line between folk and country and bluegrass.

It’s weird to think about how different music discovery was then, how getting an album from a catalog sight unseen was so normal… these days I rarely buy anything without listening to a sample or two online. It’s also weird to think that if someone linked me to the Ladyslipper site today, I would be really unlikely to buy anything because it looks kind of cheesy/not up to date and doesn’t have any descriptions. My memories of getting the new Ladyslipper catalog are so much warmer — hand-drawn illustrations and oovy-groovy woman-positive imagery graced the pages packed the CD listings (now that I think about it, just as inexpertly as on the website, just a lot cooler), and I would devote an entire afternoon to leafing through it and placing an order when it arrived.

By the time the memorial concert was over I had cried at least 4 times. That got me thinking about the power of songs and lyrics and other music that was equally powerful, and I started thinking about Crosby, Stills & Nash. Also, since Judy Collins had opened the tribute, I wanted to hear Suite Judy Blue Eyes. I wound up on a live version from 2012, 43 years after they first released it.

That led to the 1991 concert they did as a tribute to Bill Graham in San Francisco.

Their lyrics are just amazing.

Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now.

When I think about the lyrics in most of the indie pop/rock I have listened to the past 15 years or so, I have to wonder how much of it will hold up or be relevant in 40 years. Not so much, I think. I mean, I do give a fuck about an oxford comma,

but that sentiment isn’t exactly a timeless piece of universal truth, you know?

While on the amazing lyricist train, I had to play the concert in Central Park by Simon and Garfunkel from 1981.

Then I went back to the Pete Seeger memorial concert and listened to the part where  Peter Yarrow  led a singalong of Down by the Riverside and If I Had a Hammer.

Even if you never heard of Peter Yarrow, or Pete Seeger, or Kim & Reggie Harris, or Holly Near, or Judy Collins, or any of the rest of the performers, if that segment doesn’t touch you, you are made of ice. I think I’m going back to folk music.

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