I have always liked American folk music. I first recall hearing a folk song in 1950, “Goodnight, Irene,” which was performed by a new group, The Weavers. This song was a big hit nationally, as was its flip side — a rare event in pop music — “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena.” The Weavers followed this double hit with “So Long (It’s Been Good to Know You”), “On Top of Old Smokey,” and others. The money rolled in.
The Weavers were leftists. They ran into booking problems two years later when the lead male singer, Pete Seeger, was accused by Harvey Matusow of being a member of the Communist Party. Liberals were outraged at the blacklisting of The Weavers. But, as it turned out, Seeger really was a Communist. In the Communist Party’s official newspaper, People’s Daily World (April 7, 1988), a fund-raising appeal included a boxed article with Seeger’s photograph, banjo on his knee, reading the Daily World. The accompanying letter from Seeger said:
It is about 35 years since, as a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, I read the Worker almost daily, in addition to reading several other magazines and newspapers every week. . . . And I urge any other citizen concerned about the future of our country and of the world to likewise look through this working-class newspaper; because if there is going to be a future for any of us, it is going to include all of us.
Old Pete in 1988 was having a little fun at the expense of the 1950’s-era conservatives, who had always used the phrase, “card-carrying Communist.” But then, a few months later, Old Mikhail had a little fun at the expense of Pete: he announced that the USSR was bankrupt, and he allowed the Berlin Wall to be pulled down the next year. The paper’s fund-raiser apparently failed. I can find no trace of it on the Web.
I got more deeply into folk music when I got a job at a local record store. (Note for young people: a “record” was a thin, circular plastic disk imprinted with grooves. This disk spun on a “turntable,” over which was suspended a “needle,” attached to a “cartridge,” at the end of a “tone arm.” From this implausible arrangement, sounds were emitted by speakers. Think of it as a CD that added authentic clicks and pops. The sound was accompanied by a shout from the other room, “Turn that thing down!” This was because commercial high fidelity stereo headphones did not arrive until late 1958. Ever since 1958, young people have been able to permanently damage their hearing without bothering anyone else — a basic libertarian principle: the right of self-inflicted stupidity.)
PINKOS AND REDS
I found out early that urban folk music composed after 1930 was heavily influenced by the trade union movement. There were exceptions, such as Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter), whose song, “Goodnight, Irene,” launched the folk movement about a year after he died. But Woody Guthrie, Seeger, Cisco Houston, and other prominent white urban folk singers in the 1930’s had been Communists or far-left Democrats.
Of all the urban folk music performers I can think of — the city-billies — only one was known to be a card-carrying conservative: John Greenway, by far the best educated of the lot. He was a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado. He described himself on the flyleaf of his study of Australian aborigines, Down Among the Wild Men, as being to the right of Attila the Hun. His National Review article, “Will the Indians Get Whitey” (March 11, 1969), I regard as by far as the only indispensable article ever published in that magazine — described as “infamous” by Journal of American Indian Education. But Greenway was not a major figure in the urban folk music scene.
Despite the blacklist, The Weavers made it to Carnegie Hall on Christmas Eve, 1955, and the concert sold out. The concert album the following year pushed Vanguard Records into solvency. (Vanguard’s back list — very different from a black list — was bought out by the Lawrence Welk music empire a few years ago, which is a classic example of the revenge of the bourgeois class.)
Then, in 1958, The Kingston Trio recorded a gigantic hit of a mediocre song, “Tom Dooley,” which turned the folk music phenomenon into a cultural force, especially among my generation, who graduated from college before the Beatles arrived. The group could sing well, but there was a canard, as each Kingston Trio hit record was released, that you could tell which page of Seeger’s How to Play the 5-String Banjo that Dave Guard had reached. For five years, they got very rich. One of the group’s last big hits was “The New Frontier” (1962), a JFK puff piece. I recall no Richard Nixon puff-piece hit records.
Throughout the period, there has been a tradition of non-political folk music. There are still a few urban performers who keep the tradition alive. Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen are among the best who are still on the road, still digging up old music (she is musicologist) and writing new music in the older styles. His most famous song is “Darcy Farrow,” a fine example of modern song writing in a traditional form. Even better is “Healing Hands,” the story of growing old productively. But their market is miniscule. His first album was released by Vanguard in 1967, two years after the pied piper had led the children out of the green valley of folk music into the bright lights of the city of folk rock.
The pied piper was Bob Dylan, whose 1962 album had featured his unaccompanied acoustic guitar. It was not political. He also began writing songs recorded by other performers, some folk (“Walkin’ Down the Line”), some political (“Blowin’ in the Wind”). In 1965, he went electric with the mega-hit, “Like a Rolling Stone,” and then, a week after it was released, he brought his electrified band onto the stage of the Newport Folk Festival. It was at that event that Seeger actually wanted to cut the amplifier cable with an axe — which speaks well of Seeger, artistically. (I recently saw a PBS documentary where Seeger talked about his reaction.) But Seeger’s artistic instincts were way off-base ideologically. Over the next five years Dylan and his amplified peers marched the popular music world sharply to the left. Seeger, like Mr. Jones, didn’t understand what was happening in 1965.
I suppose the best artistic treatment of Dylan is Paul Simon’s parody, “A Simple Desultory Philippic.” It is a lot funnier than “Sounds of Silence.”
Throughout history, folk music has been a major form of cultural transmission and preservation. The music focuses on the major issues of life: love (mainly unrequited or regretted), death, heartbreak, wars, and poverty. “Happy Days Are Here Again” is not a folk song. Folk music is also the music of lost causes. This leads me to North’s Law of Folk Music: “The winners write the history textbooks, and the losers write the folk songs.”
The songs often maintain an aura of hopefulness, despite the lostness of the cause. One of my favorite old ballads, “Copper Kettle,” is a song about illegal whiskey production. It has this stirring line: “We ain’t paid no whiskey tax since seventeen-ninety-two.” Hope springs eternal. No cause is completely lost that offers an enduring ballad about a political principle worth pursuing and also a tax-free retailing network.
For four decades, I have been a fan of Celtic folk music. I was introduced to the tradition by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Seeger was one of their early promoters when they were all with Columbia Records. My middle name is Scottish, perhaps the most Scottish of all Scots names, the very essence of the Scottish tradition: Kilgore. That was what the Scots did for two thousand years. The Emperor Hadrian had a wall built across northern England to keep out the Scots. That wall marked the far northern edge of the Roman Empire. Beyond that wall, the costs were just not worth the benefits . . . and there were nasty spillover effects, too.
So, Scottish music is often about wars, usually lost wars. The best-known musical instrument of the Scots is the bagpipe, which technically is the Great Highland War Pipe (capitalized, please). Its wailing sound announced that the crazies were coming to kill you, unless you could buy them off (which was not too hard). There are bag pipe jokes, just as there are lawyer jokes. “How is an onion different from a bag pipe?” “Because nobody cries when you peel a bagpipe.” Yet it is respected as the instrument, more than any other, that is associated with the funerals of men who died on active duty.
The music is divided religiously. Irish music is Catholic, and it features lost Catholic causes that turned out to be nation-building in retrospect after 1922. Scottish music is divided: some Catholic (highlands, Bonnie Prince Charlie, etc.) and some Protestant (Scotch Irish or Northern Ireland, Western Carolinas).
There is a Celtic music circuit. The performers, like American folk musicians, are divided into two main artistic camps, with some crossovers: the music of common people in life’s struggles that are common to all people, written mainly by commoners and poets, and the music of workers in their struggles against capitalist bosses, written by mainly left-wing, middle-class intellectuals. To name representative performers of these rival artistic positions: Alex Beaton vs. Brian McNeill.
If you want the truth, the big crowds at the Celtic music festivals attend the Celtic rock bands, like Brother or Seven Nations, which are mainly loud — amplified bagpipes can be quite loud — and stomping, but with more melody than Anglo rock bands. But I digress.
The fiddle is a featured instrument. (“A violin is a fiddle that went to college.” — Roy Clark.) The tradition of Celtic dancing runs deep, and fiddles are fairly loud instruments, suitable for dances. The guitar is popular, another dance instrument. There are other less known instruments, such as the Bouzouki, a kind of 12-string guitar/mandolin device.
Because of the dancing connection, Celtic music is not big with Baptists. (“Why don’t Baptists have sex standing up?” “If they were caught, word might get out that they had been dancing.”) Mountain music is acceptable in the rural South, and these days bluegrass is big, both of which are descendants of Celtic music, but the real stuff is suspect. So, attendees at Celtic festivals are mainly successful Scots in business and the professions, who come to hear songs about lower-class losers and their lost causes, and middle-class Irish, who come to hear songs about how tough things were before the Brits were booted out. They celebrate, side by side, by drinking a lot of Guinness (British).
Brian McNeill plays the fiddle spectacularly, the guitar well, and the bouzouki, the mandolin, the concertina, something called the cittern, and the hurdy-gurdy (but not often). He is a poet. He writes musically compelling songs. And he is to Celtic music what Peter Seeger is to American folk music. He was born in 1950, so he grew up long after the lower classes got out of poverty. He grew up when their children got into drugs. He is a man of the 1970’s whose stage persona is that of a man in the 1930’s. As far as I can tell, he really believes it.
This man of the people — by way of the electric guitar at age 18 — is the head of Scottish music at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, which pays him quite well to travel the English-speaking world, sing songs about joining the union, and sell his CD’s to his devoted upper-middle-class fans.
As I understand his arrangement with the Royal Scottish Academy, it works like this. The government taxes people, including working men, and part of the money is turned over to the Royal Scottish Academy, which then pays Mr. McNeill to do what he was doing anyway — sing at Celtic festivals — and to keep any money earned. He maintains his emotional connection to the working men who pay his salary by insisting that his middle-class fans join in a chorus of “join the union” several times. Somehow, I don’t think this is what Karl Marx and Kier Hardie had in mind as the evidence of loyalty to the working class.
A few years ago, he told his audience, “Do you know what musicians talk about after the show? Money!” This, I believe.
His love of Scottish music is matched only by his hatred of Margaret Thatcher. He and other members of the political troubadours never tire of lambasting Mrs. Thatcher. They never say why. Most Americans would not remember, but I do. It was because she stood up to Arthur Scargill and his National Union of Mineworkers in 1984 when the union’s leaders tried, one last time, to blackmail the British with the threat of getting through winter with no coal. She would not back down. She did the unforgivable thing. She supported the miners, 73% of whom had voted to end the strike. The miners went back to work. There has not been a major strike in Great Britain since then. She definitively broke the power of compulsory unionism in Great Britain.
In 1996, Scargill quit the Labour Party because Tony Blair’s government had become far closer to Mrs. Thatcher’s views of the free market than Scargill thought proper. He now heads the insignificant Socialist Labour Party, which he founded in 1996. He has been consigned by Tony Blair to the dustbin of history. Mrs. Thatcher dumped him there first, in full public view. Mr. Blair simply screwed down the lid, good and tight. Scargill laments:
New Labour has refused to repeal the Tories’ web of anti-union laws which helped destroy thousands upon thousands of jobs and devastate communities, spreading long-term unemployment with tragic social consequences — including increased racism and drug abuse — throughout entire regions of Britain.
Firmly committed to the ‘free market’ of global capitalism, New Labour in government is incapable of creating the conditions necessary for a stable and prosperous Britain. New Labour’s “job creation” ploys such as the New Deal cannot address this crisis, but the government refuses to help regenerate those industries — ship-building, textiles, engineering, steel, coal — whose demise has turned Britain from a producing society to one dependent on imports.
New Labour refuses to bring back into public ownership our railway network which, controlled by a host of different companies, is now falling apart — with terrible consequences for passengers and workers alike.
Mrs. Thatcher proved that trade union blackmail could be successfully resisted. She publicly broke the back of the socialists who ran the far-left trade unions, but who no longer represented the opinions of the members. Her re-election proved that the political power of compulsory trade unionism was over. Tony Blair fully understands this, just as Bill Clinton understood that Reagan’s breaking of the striking PATCO workers (the air traffic controllers’ union) in 1981 had accomplished the same feat in the United States.
Brian McNeill cannot forgive her for this. So, he takes every opportunity to sneer at her, to American audiences who voted to elect Reagan, and then voted for Clinton, whose rhetoric Blair has imitated. He sings the old songs, like “Sell Your Labor, Not Your Soul,” with the chorus, “join the union, join the union.” He sings it in Texas, the premier “right to work” state, where hardly anyone has joined a union, other than the National Education Association, in four decades. He lives in a fantasy world. But his listeners sing along, because after they are forced to sing five choruses of “join the union,” they know he will play his fiddle again. They come to hear him play the fiddle. Like the evening preacher at a skid row rescue mission, he makes them listen to his sermon before they get their meal.
My wife turned to me in the middle of one of his sermons and said, “I’m tired of this.” My answer: “We’ve won.” When a movement relies on state-funded urban folk singers to carry its message to the masses, and when the masses are upper-middle-class people at a music concert, that movement has moved into the dustbin of history. It’s right down there with Bonnie Prince Charlie’s revolt against King George II. McNeill knows that the Bonnie Prince’s rebellion was a lost cause for losers, but he hasn’t figured out that Arthur Scargill’s cause is just as lost.
So, let Pete Seeger sing the old songs (vintage 1934), just so long as he plays his 12-string guitar. Let Brian McNeill sing them, too, preferably with his bouzouki. Every chorus reminds me, “We’ve won that battle.”
Meanwhile, Guinness is doing quite well. “Another round!”
July 27, 2002