The Complicatist : Bascom Lamar Lunsford and the mongrel nature of folk music

Or, why your taste in music totally sucks

by Gordon Campbell

More than any other art form, music tends to carry a moral and cultural payload. It is not merely that you like this stuff – it is just as crucial that you wouldn’t want to be seen dead liking that other stuff. The late Malcolm McLaren was a genius at promoting music in this way, as a badge of cultural authenticity – as if buying his product gave you access to a world that was immeasurably cooler and superior to the one inhabited by the shlubs who liked anything else.

Routinely, it has been that way. Back in the day, jazz fans mocked rock’n’roll for its simplicity while folkies hated it for its commercial crassness. Everyone beat up on disco, and on gangsta rap, until it became accepted – too late, always too late – by the white middle class. (As Stephen Colbert said of The Wire, why is that white people so enjoy watching bad things happening to black people?) Popular culture is always going to hell with the exception of one’s own taste, a lonely outpost of quality and cultural merit. Often the sentiment includes a nostalgic belief that things used to be better, before Lady Gaga or Britney or boy bands or hip hop (or the phonograph) poisoned the pond.

People are, I hope, becoming less gullible and more inclusive about the music they like. Because selective hostility to popular music not only goes back a long way, it also all too often has a political agenda. The trouble with so many people accumulating in our major cities, William Wordsworth confided with a sigh in the preface to his Lyrical Ballads in 1802, was that urban culture had a regrettable tendency to blunt the discriminating mind. People become virtually addicted to the stuff :

The uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence [ie popular newspapers] hourly gratifies. To this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions ..have conformed themselves. When I think upon this degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation, I am almost ashamed to have spoken of the feeble effort with which I have endeavoured to counteract it.

Oh dear back to nature it was then, for our William. Later in the 19th century, much thought went into the possible origins of the folk music of the sturdy British peasant who had worked the fields, and known his social place. Plainly, the critics all agreed, such simple souls could never have created much of anything by themselves. Their folk music was therefore to be regarded as a cultural survival of an even more primitive stage in human evolution – and thankfully in Britain at least, it was seen as a stage of primitivism that had been leavened by the ‘trickle down’ benefits of the art music created by their social masters.

Thus, folk music was felt to be worthy of preservation – and even to be used as a salutary teaching device to promote the pecking order of a happier, less politically threatening time. Back before the peasants came to town and joined the dark, disturbing masses in the slums and factories of Britain’s industrial towns, and surrendered to the crude stimulations of the music hall melodies of the day.

Here for instance, is the British composer Sir Hubert Parry in his speech to the British Folk Song Society in 1899. In places, he could have been talking about the more recent disdain for hip hop :

There is an enemy at the door of folk music which is driving it out, namely, the common popular songs of the day; and this enemy is one of the most repulsive and most insidious…. If one thinks of the terribly overgrown towns…where one sees all around the tawdriness of sham jewellery and shoddy clothes…[and] people who, for the most part, have the most

false ideals, or none at all …Who think that the commonest rowdyism is the highest expression of human emotion; it is for them that the modern popular music is made, and it is made with commercial intention, out of snippets of musical slang.

Let the kids hear music hall songs once, Sir Hubert warned, and you will have lost them forever. Decadent fashion will win out over simple virtue, every time.

For even in country districts where folk-songs linger, the people think themselves behindhand if they do not know the songs of the seething towns. And as soon as the little urchins of distant villages catch the sound of a music hall tune, away goes the hope of troubling their heads with the old fashioned folk-songs.”

Ridiculous enough. Yet obviously, the notion of one music being untainted and natural, while the rest is crass and commercial and corrupt has a pretty long half life. The notion of pure, primitive survivals has been echoed recently for instance, in the nostalgia way that modern critics have come to regard the so called “weird old America” that was still apparent in the 1920s – before recorded music caused the regional styles of rural American music to blur and fade, and lose their un-self-conscious strangeness.

No doubt, records did play a major role in both disseminating and obliterating regional styles. Yet the musical scene that the phonograph transformed was no Eden of cultural innocence, either. The repertoires of musicians like the Memphis blues singer Frank Stokes or his equally brilliant New Orleans equivalent Richard Rabbit Brown were a grab bag of old folk songs, topical songs about the sinking of the Titanic, music hall numbers, gospel tunes and sentimental pop hits of the day – and they were not performed by rustic innocents. Some of the best “folk” musicians of the 1920s – like Uncle Dave Macon and the country lawyer Bascom Lamar Lunsford were gifted showmen and entrepreneurs, the Malcolm McLarens of their day.

Lunsford in particular, was a walking contradiction, and a good rejoinder to the purists. In him, all of the streams ran together at once. Born in 1882 in North Carolina, he was already 17 year old when Sir Hubert Parry was lecturing the Folk Song Society. He became a hugely significant singer, banjo player and folklorist. Two of his songs, “Dry Bones” and “I Wish I Was A Mole in the Ground” ended up on the famous Harry Smith anthology that shaped the folk music revival of the 1960s. “Mole” for instance, contains the line about “ railroad men…[who] drink up your blood like wine” that Bob Dylan lifted and recycled on “Memphis Blues Again.”

More than anything else, Lunsford became an immensely important folk music collector – in him as well, the folk songs, music hall favourites and topical pop tunes ran together, along with a good deal of Appalachian fiddling techniques, banjo picking styles and clog dancing. Lunsford truly loved and respected Appalachian culture – not as a cultural survival or a mark of rustic purity, but as the proud expression of his own poor and socially marginalized community. The topical pop songs could come from anywhere, Natural disasters, political scandals or amusing tabloid events. His 1929 song “Long John Dean” for instance, had been inspired by the prison authorities trying to test the smelling power of their bloodhounds, by letting loose a convict for them to chase. The convict won though, and got clean away. Great song as well. Here’s a reasonably good modern version of it from Austin, Texas by Frank Fairfield, Lunsford still has more recordings in the Smithsonian than any other artist. That’s because unlike other great folk collectors like John and Alan Lomax ( who used tape recorders) Lunsford’s method of collecting and preserving the ballads and traditions was to memorise them and pass them on orally to later generations of performers. It was an oral tradition, so he used the same mode of transmission, and it eventually made him a walking encyclopedia of his culture. Lunsford’s influence can still be heard today across an entire swathe of alt country music, which would be unrecognisable without him.

This wonderful video of Lunsford performing was made in 1964, when he was already 82 years old. It shows him dancing, and then visiting a neighbour for a further round of music and dancing. The footage is taken from a longer movie made that year by New York film-maker David Hoffman. Hoffman’s priceless footage also includes an excerpt available here which is listed (accurately) on Youtube as the Best Bluegrass Clog Dancing Video Ever Made. It is quite a complicated piece of film, given our own distance from 1964, and the added distance between those kids and the old tradition they were re-inhabiting that day, 46 years ago.

My own favourite Lunsford song is “Drinkin’ of the Wine” but I’ll close with two versions of the same classic tune. ” Goodbye Old Stepstone” was a pop song of the early 20th century that Lunsford has made part of the folk tradition. Some songs are like that ; they’re born sounding as if they came up whole, out of the well of tradition. “Long Black Veil” for instance (written by Cindy Walker in 1958) is now generally regarded as a folk song and when Johnny Cash sings it, he makes it sound hundreds of years old. Even though in reality the song is more recent than “ I Walk the Line.”

The first version of “Stepstone” that I’ve chosen is by Will Oldham, and is a beautifully controlled piece of singing Compare it with this version by the current Pitchfork indie favourite The Tallest Man On Earth, better known to his mother in Sweden as Kristian Matssos. Eighteen months ago, Matssos recorded this version of “Stepstone” while walking around The Rocks, in Sydney. Talk about the weird new Americana. How can anyone hope to trace this level of ricocheting influences, to and fro from Appalachia to Lunsford to Bob Dylan to a Swedish rock musician – and then onwards to all of us who are out here, roaming this wide world alone.

FOOTNOTE: For the first part of this column, Gordon Campbell is indebted to John Storey and his book “Inventing Popular Culture : FromFolklore to Globalisation.”