In recent years an almost overwhelming number of books have appeared covering various aspects of American folk music and its history. Before 1970, most comprised collections of songs with a sprinkling of biographical information on noted performers. Over the past decade, however, scholars, journalists, and folk artists themselves have contributed biographies and autobiographies, instructional books and historical surveys, sociological studies and ethnographic analyses of this musical genre.
In 100 Books Every Folk Music Fan Should Own, performer and historian Dick Weissman offers a reliable route through the growing sea of book-length studies, establishing for future scholars a foundation for their research. Beginning with early twentieth-century collections of folk songs, the author brings readers to the present by exploring modern studies of important events, critical collections of primary sources, the most significant musical instruction guides, and in-depth portraits of traditional and contemporary American folk musicians. For each title selected, Weissman provides his own brief summary of its contents and assessment of its significance for the readerwhether fan or scholar.
Folk music fans, scholars, and students of the American folk music traditionindeed, any reader seeking guidance on the best books in the fieldwill want a copy of this vital work.
About the Author
Dick Weissman is associate professor emeritus in the music and entertainment industry program at the University of Colorado at Denver. A musician, composer, and former member of the folk revival trio The Journeymen, he has authored and edited numerous books about music and the music industry, including Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution: Music and Social Change in America (2010), Understanding the Music Business (2009), and Which Side Are You On? An Inside History of the Folk Music Revival in America (2006).
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100 Books Every Folk Music Fan Should Own
By Dick Weissman
ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELDCopyright © 2014 Dick Weissman
All rights reserved.
THE FOLK 100
I use the word "historical" in a fairly loose way. These are not standard history texts but examinations of folk music that are written to cover a time span rather than books about a current, specific subject.
1. Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music. By Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann. New York: Crown Publications, 1993
The title says it all. If you have any curiosity about the role of women in country music, this book is an essential guide.
There is hardly any aspect of the role of women in country music history omitted in this book. The authors begin with the role of women in mountain music. Throughout the book are photos and illustrations of dozens of female artists. In the margins of each page the authors have tables covering such details as repertoire, profiles of artists, and lists of various artists.
Early folk music presenters like Jean Thomas are covered as well as cowgirls and songs that discuss women. Among the latter are the notorious murdered-girl ballads that discuss tragic events that include marauding men and women as victims.
Every event in country music history is presented from the standpoint of how women were involved. Early performers on the Grand Ole Opry, mountain festival performers, songwriters, western performers like Patsy Montana, and radio artists like Lulu Belle and Lily May Ledford are all profiled in some depth.
Later in the book, such country songwriters as Cindy Walker, comedienne Minnie Pearl, and Kitty Wells and the way the Nashville establishment dealt with these artists are all part of this engrossing history. As the book progresses, we learn about artists with a foot in rock and roll like Wanda Jackson and Brenda Lee, women who wrote and performed music for children, and more modern mountain musicians, like Hedy West and Jean Ritchie.
No book about women in country music could omit Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, and Dolly Parton, and Bufwack and Oermann detail their careers. Later sections discuss women in bluegrass and pop-country artists like Barbara Mandrell and Reba McEntire. The authors are able to discuss developments like the encroachment of pop music into country in an artist like Olivia Newton-John without choosing sides.
The final section of the book includes the development of women singer-songwriters in country, the folk-influenced work of Mary Chapin Carpenter and Nanci Griffith, and country-rock artists like Lorrie Morgan and Tanya Tucker. There is an extensive bibliography keyed to each artist.
A revision of this seminal work would certainly be good news. In the meantime, it remains an essential reference.
2. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Volume V. Edited by Francis James Child. Original edition, 1898. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003
Child's collection is the holy grail of ballads from England and Scotland. It contains the basic classificatory system that has defined the English ballad. Virtually every American collection also references this book because so many of these songs have also been collected in the United States.
The collection appears in five volumes because of the massive length of the collection. Volume V alone has over eight hundred pages. Each ballad includes a discussion of the ballad before Child prints the actual lyrics. These are not brief descriptions of the songs but detailed discussions that sometimes extend to a half-dozen pages of text.
Child died before this last volume of the collection appeared. It was shepherded by Professor George Lyman Kittredge, who in turn was one of John Lomax's teachers and a major influence on his own collecting of American folk songs.
Although the book is about British and Scottish ballads, Child's all-encompassing scholarship led him to reference similar songs in Russian, Italian, Finnish, and Estonian versions. Child also had to wrestle with the work of Percy and other collectors, who made their own editorial changes to the songs.
Child's tome is an extremely scholarly work and is not recommended for the casual fan. It includes an extensive glossary, dozens of pages of additions and corrections, but less than fifty actual melodies for the ballads. There is an extensive bibliography, followed by a 1906 (!) essay on Child by Walter Morris Hart. That essay is replete with class biases and betrays the social snobbery of its author.
3. Romancing the Folk: Public Memory & American Roots Music. By Benjamin Filene. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000
Filene has undertaken a detailed history of the sources of the folk music revival. His book covers scholarly interest in the music, the whole notion of authenticity, and the work of various key folklorists, artists, and Chess Records. It concludes with a chapter on Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan.
Filene begins with the British folklorists, explaining how Thomas Percy admitted making additions and corrections to traditional songs. He then moves on to English folk music in the United States and the role of the settlement schools in preserving the music and in offering a base for British musicologist Cecil Sharp to collect music in the southern mountains. He sees Sharp as someone who retained a sort of upper-class snobbishness but at the same time sincerely wanted to revive the songs that he collected, not simply archive them. He also points out that Sharp had no interest in collecting songs by African Americans.
John Lomax, southern redneck warts and all, whatever his plantation-era shortcomings, understood that African American music was "the most distinctive—the most interesting, the most appealing, and the greatest in quantity." This statement, made in 1934, in Lomax's American Ballads and Folksongs, is astounding, considering that at that time there were still many folklorists whose primary collecting interest was in finding American survivals of British traditional ballads.
The chapter on Leadbelly and the Lomaxes shows how Leadbelly was presented as a sort of exotic animal, fascinating to observe but not entirely to be trusted. Both John and Alan Lomax were concerned the northern audiences would not be able to understand Leadbelly's dialect, and they "may" have encouraged him to insert extended spoken dialogues in his songs. Since this became a key part of Leadbelly's performances, the question of whether it was the Lomaxes who suggested this is an important and unresolved one.
By 1941 the work of the Lomaxes, with Alan taking a more active role in their "partnership," treated the music more as a living thing than an antique museum piece. This also was influenced by the work of Charles Seeger and the amount of folk song collecting that was part of various federal programs in the 1930s.
The material on Chess Records and Muddy Waters is acceptable but is covered in more detail and with more insight in the several books that discuss Waters, Willie Dixon, and Chess Records.
Arguments about authenticity became significant in the study of folklore, where Richard Dorson, who established the folklore program at the University of Indiana, created the word "fakelore" to describe what he considered to be bowdlerization of pure folk songs. He did not regard published folk songs as a primary source of research, and he despised political protest songs as a distortion of the folk song tradition.
Filene concludes with a chapter that compares the work of Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. In the author's eyes, Seeger's life has been "a work of performance art that fused his personal and professional identities into a role that he performed day and night for his entire life." Filene cuts Dylan considerably more slack, seeing his later work as an extension of the folk tradition. His final statement on Dylan is that "even in a postindustrial, pop rock culture, a folk stylist could create relevant, contemporary songs rooted in tradition."
Filene's book is important because it leads us to investigate folk music in terms of its role as a living art versus the attempt to create a sort of alternate universe by people longing for some nonmodern, utopian world. Sometimes Filene overreaches; for example, Dylan's persona is easily as artificially constructed (or more so) as that of Pete Seeger. And Seeger himself has written an interesting body of instrumental music and some major songs, which, like Dylan's, continue to have a life of their own far beyond his own performances. Referring to Samuel Charters as a major blues collector for two decades is a bit misleading. Charters did not collect a body of songs and did not, like Harry Oster, Alan Lomax, Ed Denson, and various other people discover or rediscover Skip James, John Hurt, Son House, and Mance Lipscomb. What he did do was to record or to reissue important blues recordings and to write in an accessible, somewhat romanticized style that brought many fans and musicians into the blues revival.
4. Country Music USA. By Bill C. Malone. Revised edition. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997
Beginning with the folk roots of country music, this book offers a thorough and well-balanced history of country music.
Malone offers extensive coverage of virtually every conceivable idiom of country music. Most readers will find the coverage quite complete, at least up until the date of its publication. For those who wish to go even deeper, the author provides an unusual "bibliographical essay," ninety pages of suggested readings of books and periodicals about all of the specific styles represented in the book.
The role of western music is well documented, from the radio cowboys of the 1930s, through the development of Texas swing, to the more modern cowboy revivalist bands like Riders in the Sky. Since this area of the country music story is often minimized or neglected, this coverage is welcome. Other sections of the book document early "hillbilly music," various incarnations of pop-country music, Elvis and rock and roll's relationship to country music, bluegrass, and the outlaws' rebellion against the Nashville establishment.
There is very little missing in this comprehensive portrait of the history and development of country music. Possibly Malone might have offered more coverage of the Nashville studios and the musicians who are largely responsible for the development of the Nashville sound. Many of the changes in that sound came from the replacement of the first generation of Nashville studio players by a more rebellious and musically diverse set of musicians. It was largely the presence of such musicians as Kenny Buttrey, Norbert Putnam, and Charlie McCoy that brought many of the folk and rock musicians to Music City to record. The resulting recordings in turn influenced more traditional country music to expand its horizons.
This is a small flaw in an excellently researched and well-documented book. This is the sort of work that will infiltrate your consciousness, lead you to read other books about specific country music styles, and induce you to listen to much music that you have not heard before.
5. Bluegrass: A History. By Neil V. Rosenberg. Twentieth anniversary edition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005
Rosenberg is a bluegrass musician, folklorist, and college professor. This book is a comprehensive history of bluegrass music through 1974, with a short chapter through the mid-1980s and a brief preface covering the music through the early 2000s.
There are surprisingly few histories of bluegrass music available, given the presence of numerous summer and winter festivals, recordings, and the emergence of Alison Krauss and the movie soundtracks that have featured the music. Rosenberg is, for the most part, a reliable and fair-minded guide.
The book begins with the musical history of Bill Monroe. The author is careful to avoid some of the controversies that have emerged with the music. Monroe is generally regarded as the father and possibly the single most important originator of the music. However, his own music crystallized when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs joined the band in 1945. Scruggs's banjo style was certainly very influential in the development of bluegrass, but in 1948 Flatt and Scruggs left Monroe and formed their own band, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys.
Louise Scruggs, Earl's wife, handled the business of the new group, and she was able to secure endorsement deals with Martha White Flour. The author details Scruggs's successful recordings, including "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," used in the movie Bonnie and Clyde, and "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," which was the theme from the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies. Meanwhile, various musicians passed through Monroe's band, which other than some brief guidance from Ralph Rinzler lacked any sort of managerial expertise.
The author also details the emergence of "newgrass" music, using a more jazz-oriented and technical musical approach. He also shows how some of the new-grass musicians irritated traditionalists by growing "hippie" hairstyles and being involved in the 1960s drug scene. Eventually the level of musicianship of some of the newgrass players, like Bela Fleck and Sam Bush, gained the grudging respect of traditionalists, if not their allegiance.
We also learn how Monroe himself, though always in the traditionalist camp, began to hire musicians from the North and other parts of the country to join his band. Bill ("Brad") Keith from Boston caused quite a stir with his melodic banjo playing, Richard Greene brought his fiddle playing from northern California, and other musicians were welcomed, even from the dreaded Yankee enclave of New York City. Rosenberg fully appreciates the irony of Monroe bringing these non-Appalachian musicians into the fold while at the same time maintaining his role as the father of traditional bluegrass music.
In addition to discussing the music itself, the author covers the business of bluegrass, the emergence of the various specialty record companies that marketed the music, and the organizations, festivals, and periodicals that contributed to the music. This has turned bluegrass into a definite niche in the world of country and folk music.
If you are seeking a reliable guide to the history of the music, this book should meet your needs.
The omission of Bobby Thompson, the banjoist who developed melodic banjo techniques at about the same time as Bill Keith did and who was a staff musician on the Hee Haw show and played on dozens of country and bluegrass recordings, is a bit puzzling. The skimpy introductory chapter does not really bring the reader up to date, and the book is really in need of revision to cover bluegrass music today. The extensive discography unfortunately will prove worthless to most readers because it ends with the LP era, and it doesn't include any CDs.
6. The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience. By Stephen Wade. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012
Wade is a musician and recording artist who has written and performed several shows based on American roots music. In this book, Wade profiles a dozen performers who recorded for the Library of Congress between 1934 and 1942. In putting together the stories of each performer, he researched them, their families, and their peers as best he could, and he re-created the ambiance of the actual performances as accurately as possible. An accompanying CD includes tracks from each of the artists.
None of these artists became nationally known celebrities, but Vera Hall, Pete Steele, and Texas Gladden are well known to folklorists and serious fans of traditional music. With the exception of Pete Steele, who recorded in Hamilton, Ohio, the artists were recorded in various southern states.
One of the joys that comes with reading this book is an understanding of how a song that we are used to hearing in a specific way has a rich history of its own. For example, on the CD is a song called "The Rock Island Line," sung by Kelly Pace and a group of prisoners in Arkansas.
Many of our readers will be familiar with Leadbelly's version of this song, which was also a hit record for English skiffle artist Lonnie Donnegan. The recorded version is similar to the one that Leadbelly popularized. The book prints what was the original version of the song, which was composed by singer and engine wiper Clarence Wilson. That version of the song includes a chorus similar to the more celebrated version, but the verses mention specific people, like the engineer, who did not survive in Leadbelly's rendition or in the one recorded here. Wade then goes on to discuss the railroad itself and the Biddle Shops Colored Quartet, which the company sponsored.
There are far too many such nuggets in the book to be reproduced here. We read about John Work III recording the Nashville Washboard Band as his son John Work IV recalls the event. "These people," he recalls, "were their music." The group played on the streets of Nashville, performing on guitar, washboard, banjo-mandolin, and bass. Two of the men were blind, and three of them were day laborers.
Excerpted from 100 Books Every Folk Music Fan Should Own by Dick Weissman. Copyright © 2014 Dick Weissman. Excerpted by permission of ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD.
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Table of Contents
The 100 Books (and Then Some)
Biographies and Autobiographies
Songbooks and Folksong Collections
Spanish Language Music in America
Black And White
Politics, Protest and Workers’ Songs, and The Folk Song Revival
Miscellaneous: A Little Bit of This and a Little Bit of That
Folk Rock and Freak Folk
The Business of Folk
Folk Instruments and Instructional Materials
Fiddle and Mandolin
Appendix: A Baker’s Dozen of the next to the Best
About the Author