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Fredonia Shakespeare Club learns about folk music between WWI and WWII

The twelfth meeting of the Fredonia Shakespeare Club was held on Jan. 24 at the Lanford House hosted by Judi Woods. 16 members were in attendance. President Joyce Haines welcomed members and thanked our hostess and presenter.

Priscilla Bernatz read the minutes from the Jan. 17 meeting. The minutes were approved as written.

The Club’s area of study this year is The World Between WWI and WWII. Barbara Albert presented her paper “Folk Music of the Time” which is summarized as follows:

Folk music, as the music of both the people and the time, is a relevant reflection of the behavior, the conditions, and the culture of a society at any given moment. When I speak of Folk Music, I mention it in several contexts. Folk songs are popularized by their ability to resonate either musically, lyrically, or both with the people of a time, an area, or a shared set of values or circumstances. The popular movie “O Brother Where Art Thou” from the year 2000 is set in the deep South of the 1930s, with a soundtrack that highlights some of the folk and bluegrass spirituals of the time that had moved from the Slave communities into the white communities, showing the importance of folk music to the culture of the time. The so-called Negro Spirituals combined European Christian beliefs with the song-crafting of African slaves, resulting in a distinct departure from the staid and disciplined hymns of Europe, and gave rise to the enthusiastic Gospel music of the south. Even the KKK, started in the 1850s, but at its height in the 1920s, embraced gospel music, including a song entitled “The Bright Fiery Cross.”

Folk songs are unrestricted in style and focus. In the United States much folk music reflects a distinct style of music-making use of acoustic instruments. Acoustic instruments are often recognized as portable and able to be used in most environs, as comfortable in a church as in Union Halls, Barn dances and political rallies. In 1964, the Newport Folk Festival was scandalized by Bob Dylan’s performance on an electric guitar.

Folk music is international. Folk music is a worldwide phenomenon that developed differently and uniquely in different cultures, much of the folk music in the USA has shared characteristics in rhythm, instrumentation and style with that of other countries.

When Europeans came to settle the United States, they brought with them the folk songs, styles, rhythms and ballads from the “old country.” This is evident in all of the cultures that populated this country. Polka music in the Polish communities, jigs and reels in the Irish communities, Klezmer bands in the Ashkenazi Jewish communities, and the list goes on. Although the introduction of these folk forms happened with the introduction of the immigrant populations in this country, the study of these forms became of great interest. The peak of that interest coincided with the time between the beginning of WWI and the beginning of WWII. Field workers called “Song catchers,” but more formally titled “ethnomusicologists,” targeted specific music forms and populations to document the music within their communities.

Olive Dame Campbell moved to Appalachia with her husband. Olive realized that the songs she heard locally were strongly reminiscent of English and Scotch-Irish folk ballads. She began recording these songs. Olive became convinced that the songs she heard in Appalachia were largely unchanged versions of songs that had evolved differently in the British Isles.

Cecil Sharp, born in England in 1859, decided to take an extended visit to the United States. He hoped to find English folk songs that had survived in the more remote areas of Southern Appalachia, brought there by settlers from the British Isles. During the years 1916-1918 he recorded many songs that shared their origins in the British ballads. One of the ballads, The Elfin Knight, evolved into the song we know as “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.” Others became popular in the Folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s. A typical ballad that crossed from the British Isles to the Appalachians is: “The Great Silkie,” a song about a mythical creature that fathered a child with a woman who lived by the sea.

Probably the most well-known Ethnomusicologist was Alan Lomax, who worked as a very young man at first with his father, who was a folklorist and musicologist, and then on his own, beginning in the early thirties, and continuing until the 1980s. Lomax took an interest in “Race Music” and sought the music of folk musicians who were isolated culturally by the dominant white society. One of his most famous discoveries was Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly. Leadbelly’s 12 string guitar style was aggressive and distinctive, and his influence was broad in the blues community, gospel, jazz and folk. “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Midnight Special,” “Goodnight Irene,” “Skip to My Lou,” “Frankie and Johnny” are all popular songs written by Leadbelly.

It is a common belief that folk songs are so deeply embedded in the communities of their origin that there is no author. With time the record of who authored a song can become lost. The statement that Folk music doesn’t have known authors does not always reflect the truth: it’s short-sighted. All songs are examples of human invention, and folk songs, like all other music, are the product of human innovation, and are often attributable to a single songwriter. It is more the universal appeal of the song that makes it a folk song, whether the author is known or not. The social relevance, the appeal of the story the song tells, or the usefulness of the song to a cause or situation can all be the marks that make a song a folk song. Leadbelly became a folk music institution, and many of his songs are assumed to be of unknown origin by those who have heard them so often in a folk music context. How surprising to realize that Leadbelly wrote the song “Goodnight Irene,” a song so embedded in our culture that it seems at once both older and more universal than to have a known author. Leadbelly recorded with Woody Guthrie in 1940 and was ultimately honored by many organizations for his many contributions to American music. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, clearly demonstrating that his music crosses many genres, while staying deeply rooted in the folk context of the Southern Black music mined in the twenties and thirties.

Another family of great folk relevance, spanning the time between the world wars, was the Seeger family. They contributed to nearly a century of importance and relevance in the genre of Folk Music. Descended of immigrants on the Mayflower, Charles Seeger’s contributions to the body of Folk Music are of great importance, both because of his own vocation, and the vocations of his wife and children. Charles was another pioneer in ethnomusicology, and his work in the application and the theory behind cataloging and categorizing helped in establishing the parameters of the research as an academic field of study in Music, and as a discipline. He taught at both Berkeley and Juilliard, as well as other universities and conservatories. His second wife, Ruth Crawford Seeger is considered by some to be the most significant American female composer of the twentieth century. She composed modernist works through the twenties and thirties, but was also involved in Folk research, transcribing and arranging folksongs, and ultimately publishing an anthology of Children’s Folk Songs that has been considered a valuable teaching tool. I’m sure that any of the Seegers would be quick to point out that rope-skipping songs and hand-jive songs are all embedded in folk music, and that many of them were found by song catchers in both Appalachia and the Southern Black communities, with the diverse histories of African origins, or coming from the British Isles.

More famous than either of his parents was Pete Seeger, who was a child of his father’s first marriage, but raised by Ruth. He was one of the two most important folk singers of the twentieth century, born in 1919, and coming of age in the culture of the “song-catchers.” Pete Seeger met Woody Guthrie in 1940, traveling the country by rail with him. Seeger formed a folk quartet, The Almanac Singers, who continued to perform during WWII while Pete enlisted to serve. Pete later gathered friends to form the folk group “The Weavers” who, as folk performers pioneered the folk revival of the forties and fifties.

Woody Guthrie is widely considered the father of American folk music, setting standards for twentieth century folk balladeers for more than a generation. Because Woody Guthrie died in 1967 it’s easy to think of him as a contemporary folk singer, and certainly his popularity in the 1940’s and 1950’s reinforce that view. But in truth, Woody Guthrie was born in 1912, and was already singing as a troubadour at the time of the Dust Bowl. Woody Guthrie’s music put the hard times of the 1930s into musical perspective.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, called Woody, was raised in Okfuskee, Oklahoma. Woody dropped out of high school in his senior year, already a capable musician. Woody worked odd jobs, and in his spare time learned the ballads and songs from the British Isles. During the Dust Bowl period Woody joined the thousands of Okies and others who migrated to California to look for work. He wrote many songs during that time about the Dust Bowl, about being a rambler, homeless and downtrodden. His songs were often concerned with the harsh conditions faced by working-class people of the time.

Toward the end of the thirties Guthrie achieved fame with a radio partner, Maxine “lefty lou” Crissman as a radio performer of commercial hillbilly music and folk music. Woody became a political activist, finding Socialism and Communism to hold values that he shared, while he never joined either the Communist or Socialist Party, he did perform at a number of benefits for those causes, and in 1940 authored his most famous song, “This Land is Your Land,” a song that shows his love for his country, and for the Socialist values that declared that the land belonged to all. He released an album, Dust Bowl Ballads that same year.

Folk songs clearly defined a philosophical way to musically deal with the hard times, and the way of life at the time.

Dr. Lisa Mertz assisted at the tea table.

The next meeting of the Club will be held at the Edward Waterhouse Inn hosted by Mary Jane Walker. Florence McClelland will present her paper “Franklin and Eleanor.”

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