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American Folk Music Anth-2150-902 Term Paper
Too Traditional or Not Traditional Enough: How Folk Music Was Interpreted at the Bristol Sessions and the White Top Folk Festival
Part One: The Bristol Sessions
Bill Malone, in his definitive book Country Music, USA, has referred to the Bristol sessions as one of country musics most seminal events. 1
The mountains in the mid-Appalachian range are favored in many ways. The area is considered a biodiversity hot spot featuring an unrivaled number aquatic species and one of the largest concentrations of endangered species east of the Rockies. The Blue Ridge Mountains just east and south of us features more diversity in trees than in all of Europe. 2
Contrary to widespread belief, nurtured by pernicious stereotypes found in the media for the past century or more, those same mountains are home to rich cultural diversity. Misperceptions about the American South in general and Appalachia in particular, abound. Much of this comes from the regions insularity; while it is not homogenous it is isolated. 3
The same factors that made the southern mountaineer a target of derision also made them a symbol of cultural purity to many in the early part of the 20th century, a living reminder of what the archetypal American once was. 4 It seems that almost since its inception the residents of these United States have been nostalgic for by-gone, halcyon days. 5 The early part of the 20th century was no exception; fueled by the migration of people out of rural settings into urban ones in search of work, an influx of immigrants coming to our shores for the same reason, continual western expansion and repopulation, and a burgeoning nationalism, cultural purists were growing alarmed at the prospect of losing our (as they perceived it) Anglos Saxon identity. What seemed important for the Anglo Saxon theorists was that they had found at least one bastion of racial purity in a society increasingly given over to racial and ethnic diversity, religious pluralism, and cultural amalgamation. 6
For the purists, though, it was already too late. The barbarians were at the gate and preparing to storm the citadel. Except that in place of battering rams and siege ladders, they were equipped with recording equipment and radio transmitters. The decade of the 1920s witnessed the first full-scale commercialization of rural southern folk music, made possible by the developing giants of musical distribution, phonography recordings and radio. 7 Music broadcast on the radio in the 20s was almost exclusively live, featuring local talent. This created a boon to their musical careers and brought them to the attention of a much larger audience than they could otherwise reach. In some cases radio exposure led to a recording contract, as happened with Fiddling John Carson who could be heard on WSB in Atlanta when it went on the air in 1922. He was recorded by Ralph Peer for OKeh Records in 1925 and became the first commercially successful hillbilly artist (a term that Peer applied to his growing repertoire of traditional music from the south). A number of record companies sent talent scouts into the south to record local musicians, and some studios had provisional studios in places around the South (Atlanta, for example), but Ralph Peer was the first to venture into Appalachia, when he supervised a field recording session for OKeh in Asheville, North Carolina in 1925. 8
By the time Peer supervised the historic Bristol sessions for the Victor label in August of 1927 at least thirteen acts from that area had already recorded at various studios in the South, Midwest, and New York 9, including Ernest Stoneman who had previously been recorded by OKeh and who was the best known of all the regional performers. In fact, Peer enlisted Stoneman as a talent scout to assist in lining up performers for the sessions he had planned in Bristol. Ralph Peer understood the commercial potential for the music he was recording throughout the south, even though he didnt especially care for it himself. The Fiddling John Carson, which he labeled pluperfect awful, went on to sell thousands of copies. The dialects and the tonality appealed to other southerners, but Peer was hoping to reach a wider audience. In his work as an advance scout for the sessions, Stoneman brought in string bands and musicians. This was, after all, the kind of music he played and the kind of music he thought would appeal to the projected audience for the recordings. Peer did record a large number of gospel songs, and some old-time arrangements, but of the seventy-six recordings finally made, only sevencould be really called instrumentals, and four of these were harmonica novelty items. Four other sideswere string band recordings with only incidental singingpossibly inserted at Peers insistence. 10 Clearly, Ralph Peer had not come to Bristol to collect ballads and preserve a musical tradition.
The fact that such veteran Appalachian musicians as Clarice Shelor and Ernest Stoneman were surprised at the kind of music Peer wanted casts some doubt on the accuracy with which Peer was judging the actual nature of the regions music. Fiddlers and string bands were certainly integral components of Appalachian music in the 20s. Yet, Peer hesitated about recording fiddles and string bands for his new series on Victor, or if he did tried to convert them into singing groups with instrumental accompaniment. One reason was that Peer sensed he was developing a new commercial art formthe genre of music eventually called country musicand that this art form was to be derived from, though not fully reflective of, traditional mountain music. 11
By its very definition, folk music is communal, belonging to the culture that was its wellspring and which has nurtured it as part of a living tradition. Profitability and commercialism are diametrically opposed to a tradition that is based on sharing. Furthermore, the very act of recording a tune is at odds with a tradition that is fluid and ongoing. To arrest a tradition in time, to say This is Sara Carter singing a song titled Wildwood Flower is true as far as it goes, but it leaves a great deal unsaid about where that song came from and how it came to be in her possession. In other words, it ignores the tradition. As it happens, Sara probably first encountered the song back in her girlhood in Rich Valley in a variant form based on a song written a half century earlier by Maud Irving and J.P. Welch, called Ill Twine the Ringlets.
It is impossible to know if anybody in Rich Valley still had the published sheet music, but the song itself had been passed around from local singer to local singer. 12
Beyond simply ignoring the tradition, the process of recording the song for commercial purposes appropriates the tradition. This is artifice, not preservation. My policy was always to try to expand [emphasis added] each artist by adding accompaniment or adding a vocalist, Peer observed in an article in Billboard about the Bristol sessions, written in 1953.
Part Two: The White Top Folk Festival
It seems that they want to make ita contest of old fashion music, folk music, I believe they call it, [John] Blakemore wrote to a correspondent. 13
Four years after the Bristol Sessions and less than thirty mile away as the crow flies, another seminal musical event took place on the summit of White Top Mountain, in Virginia. The White Top Folk Festival grew out of a suggestion made to Abingdon attorney John Blakemore that a fiddlers contest be held on White Top on the 4th of July. 14 In addition to being an attorney, Blakemore was a well-connected politician and an officer in the White Top Company which owned the mountain. The wife of Blakemores cousin John Buchanan, Annabel Morris Buchanan was a member of the Federated Womens Music Clubs of America and director of the Federations folk music section. A gifted musician in her own right, Mrs. Buchanan hosted a weekly Monday Afternoon Music Club in Marion, Virginia and in that capacity had become acquainted with John Powell, a southern classical musician of some distinction. In addition to being a composer and prominent pianist, Powell lectured, wrote articles, and sponsored associations and festivals designed to promote the preservation of the folk music of the south. 15 He was also an advocate for the belief that mountain life, and especially the ballads that musicologists like Cecil Sharp and others had discovered in Appalachia a decade earlier, represented the last bastion of Anglo-Saxon purity in a rapidly expanding, increasingly urbanized, and ethnically diverse America. Texan Annabel Morris Buchanan, Virginia composer and proponent of the Anglo-Saxon folk-song school John Powell and local entrepreneur John Blakemore: from this star-crossed trio emerged the idea for the White Top Folk Festival.
The idea of holding a folk festival was not unprecedented. By 1931 when the first White Top Folk Festival was held there were three similar festivals in existence.
The modern folk festival was born in Appalachia. Although the term folk festival had been used previously for a few cultural events, it became fully established in the national consciousness when four prominent festivals were created between 1928 and 1934. The first three, the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, the American Folk Song Festival held near Ashland, Kentucky, and the White Top Folk Festival, in southwest Virginia, all focused on Euro-American, Appalachian culture. Only the last, the National Folk Festival, was not held initially in Appalachia, and was not monocultural in content. 15
Interest in finding and preserving mountain music grew out of the mountain settlement school movement which was alive in the early part of the 20th century. The schools were meant to educate Appalachian children. [S]ome settlement workers conceived of the schools as folk schools where mountain people were encouraged to preserve their own culture and were actively encouraged to preserve their own culture in the form of traditional ballads, folk songs, and dances. 16 All too often, though, the tendency among these no doubt well-intentioned people was to focus on elements of the local folk culture that reinforced their belief that the music and dance they found were cultural artifacts which had been preserved since the days they were transported here from England and to ignore any manifestations of culture that the local population might have contributed on their own. This duality was also present in the folk festivals that flourished from the late twenties, continuing in some cases on into the present day.
What sorts of music were they [Powell and Buchanan] looking for? [T]hey wanted old-time folk music of white mountaineers, and they emphatically did not want what they called the tawdry commercial or country music that could be heard on phonograph records or the radio. To get what they wanted, they knew they would have to exercise considerable control over the musicians. Wed better designate types of songs to be sung, Mrs. Buchanan said. If we dont, they are just as likely to sing When You and I Were Young, Maggie. 17 They also tried to discourage string bands, although some were included.
The first White Top Folk Festival took place on August 12 and 13th and drew over 3,000 people. The following year 4,000 people attended a slightly expanded festival which featured seventy-five individuals and groups. Mrs. Buchanan was ecstatic. Oh, it gets me thrilled every time I think of it, she wrote John Powell after it was all over. And I wake up in the night, happy and thrilled againat being part of this folk world. Oh, Mr. Powell, dont you feel that we are pioneers in something that may be really making American musical history? 18
The following year, Mrs. Buchanan was inspired to write a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, inviting her to attend the 1933 festival. This was by no means a long-shot. Mrs. Roosevelts father, Elliot, had spent some time in the area, living in Abingdon and working with his brother-in-law in some business ventures that included lumber interests on White Top and a coal mine in Coeburn, Virginia. Elliot Roosevelt died when Eleanor was a young girl, but she was fiercely loyal to the memory of her father and viewed Abingdon and southwest Virginia through a sentimental halo of romance. Mrs. Roosevelt accepted the invitation. 19
With the publicity surrounding Eleanor Roosevelts visit, Festival organizers anticipated large numbers of entries and attendees. According to a newspaper account from that year for the first time, a series of local elimination contests may be held in order to give time for the completion of the program in the two days on which it is scheduled.20 John Blakemore, a prominent local Democrat in addition to being part owner of The White Top Company which controlled the mountain, arranged to have the road to White Top improved. He also had a pavilion constructed using native chestnut wood with a massive stone fireplace.
Part Three: The Legacy of Traditional Music
It is not mountain music or hillbilly music. It is something that belongs to all the people which we and our ancestors of other generations have loved. And I dont think it is dying out. If you could see the young peopleas well as the older peoplewho are participating in this music up here, you would lose a great deal of your fear that this tradition is being weakened or lost to us. [Remarks made by John Powell from a WRV radio broadcast recorded at White Top Folk Festival in 1938. Transcribed by David Winship]
Lovers of old-time sentimental songs had no need to despair about their disappearance, for they could hear such numbers or similar ones on hillbilly records. 20
By just about any measure the 1933 festival could be considered a success. Accounts vary but anywhere from 10-20,000 people attended the two day festival. John Powell waxed ecstatic when he gave the following assessment:
For two days music and dancing take possession of the great mountain. Every visitor becomes instantly a part of all that goes on, and his own traditional heritage pours into the general stream. There is a sense that we are a folk and that in that fact lies some of the secret of the Golden Age. 21
Annabelle Buchanan, whose had conceived the idea in the first place, was starting to have her doubts about the direction the festival was taking. Even before the 3rd festival opened she expressed her misgivings. For two cents Id throw up the whole thing, she wrote to Powell. I believe we are doing more harm than good. 22 Mrs. Buchanan finally did throw the whole thing up in 1937. By then, the White Top Folk Festival had become a cultural festival more akin to the Highlands Festival which is currently underway in Abingdon, than a folk music festival. It did include music, but also handicrafts, stories, and dances. 23 John Powell continued to shape the musical portion of the program to suit his vision of the importance of Appalachian folk music as a last bastion of Americas cultural antecedents. With the success of the 1933 John Blakemore saw the commercial potential of the festival and sought to exploit that potential in any way possible. Newcomer Richard Chase was responsible for adding Jack Tales, Morris dancing, and puppet shows and other fanciful flourishes to the venue. 24 In spite of John Powells confident assertion in 1938 that the tradition would live on, the last festival was held the following year. So ardent were the White Top Folk Festival organizers (excluding Annabelle Buchanan) to preserve the tradition that they manipulated the tradition to suit their own ends. In rejecting certain types of music, the White Top Festival people were also rejecting major historical developments in the lives of the plain people of the South. 25 Like Ralph Peer in Bristol four years earlier, Buchanan and Powell were manipulating and exploiting a musical tradition to further their own ends. This was not preservation, it was contrivance. It was also exploitation.
[John Powell coaches C.B. Wohlford, veteran mountain banjo player at White Top]
Just as Clarice Shelor had to learn words to accompany traditional ballads that she had played her entire life, at White Top contestants figure out that instead of playing the tunes they knew and liked bestmusicians who wished to have a shot at the five and ten dollar prizes were learningfrom books, records, other musicians, or wherever they couldthe tunes they knew the White Top organizers preferred. 26
There is another interesting connection between Eleanor Roosevelt and the White Top Folk Festival that needs to be explored in order to fully understand this paradox. Classical composer Charles Seeger, father of folk giants Pete, Mike, and Peggy Seeger, took an interest in folk music when he heard Aunt Molly Jackson sing at the New York Workers Collective in the 30s. In FDRs Administration Seeger worked with Eleanor Roosevelt setting up Resettlement Communities for displaced farmers and other displaced rural populations. A lot of the people he worked with were artists and one of the projects they worked on was collecting folk music. This had a tremendous influence on him both personally and professionally. A distinguished composer, scholar and teacher, his long career transformed our understanding of how folk and classical music interact and define American culture. 27 Seeger was an avid musicologist, going to such lengths to capture the folk idiom that he traveled in 1921 through the mountains of western North Carolina with his family in a make-shift camper visiting local families and trading music with them.
In 1936 Seeger traveled to North Carolina with his son Pete to Bascom Lamar Lunsfords Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. That same year Seeger visited the White Top Folk Festival. The difference in his reactions to these two festivals is instructive. In preparing to attend the Asheville festival he told Pete (who he had just introduced to the five string banjo) If you want to hear how this is played come with me tomorrow. Im going to hear a fiddle contest in Asheville, North Carolina, and youll hear some of the best banjo players in the country. 28 His visit to White Top left him thoroughly disillusioned, abjuring those well-meaning, self-advertising city cultivators of the folk who were running thefestival. 29
It has not been my intention to chronicle the history of folk festivals of the 30s or to perform a post-mortem on the White Top Folk Festival in this paper. A glance at the long list of notes which follows shows that these areas have been well-chronicled already. My interest here is in the attitudes and perceptions that greeted southern folk music as it emerged into the national awareness in the 20s and 30s in such settings as folk festivals or through recordings and how these in turn shaped the music. In Part One we saw how Ralph Peer shaped the music for commercial ends. In many cases the musicians themselves were complicit in this arrangement. Katie Doman writes that A.P. Carter had to persuade Sara and his very pregnant sister-in-law to make the trip to Bristol, telling them that they could make fifty dollars for each side they recorded. 30 In Part Two, it was folk impresarios attempted to co-opt the tradition to fit their own agendas. Always in the middle were the folk, who were playing the music they grew up with, the music they loved, the way they always had. Ironically, many musicians who had been recording for years appeared at the White Top Folk Festival. Henry Whitter who had recorded for OKeh and Gennett, and was featured as a harmonica player and guitarist at the Bristol Sessions in 1927; Jack Reedy, who recorded for Brunswick in early 1928 and again for Victor Company in Bristol in the fall of 28; and Frank and Edd Blevins, who recorded for Columbia in Atlanta in 1927. 31 When Frank and Edd Blevins moved to Marion in 1929, they hooked up with Jack Reedy. There are no recordings by the Reedy-Blevins band, but they won top honors at the White Top Folk Festival in 1933, performing a special program for the First Lady performing Johnsons Old Gray Mule and Chucks Old Hen. Most of these musicians favored old-time mountain music, but they were string bands and both Blevins and Reedy were considered innovators on their respective instruments (fiddle and banjo). They werent worried about labels or legacy; to them, it was music pure and simple. It is instructive in this context to look once again at the difference between the strict constitutionalist interpretation of folk music advocated by John Powell, and to a lesser extent Annabel Buchanan, and the interpretation that Charles Seeger developed over the decades. In the interview he [Seeger]recalls how gradually over the course of the 30s and 40s and 50s and 60s and 70s, I knit together folk music, popular musicand even what we call primitive musicin with my composed music, and to me its one whole community process that you cant separate.
Popular music merged or got interconnected both with the inheritors of the ballad and hymn tradition on the one hand, and with the symphonic tradition on the other. Popular music just broadened itself by interpenetrating it [sic] with these other items, mostly through the commercial disk and the radio and, of course, TV. 32
After describing attempts at defining folk music as vexing and imprecise, Grove Music Online goes on to devote several thousand words to that end. Usually the soul of brevity, Wikipedias Folk music article is at least that long. Under the heading Traditional folk music the following points stand out:
For [Percy] Scholes, as well as for Cecil Sharp and Bla Bartok there was a sense of the music of the country as distinct from that of the town. Folk music was already seen as the authentic expression of a way of life now past or about to disappear (or in some cases, to be preserved or somehow revived, particularly in a community uninfluenced by art music and by commercial and printed song. 33
On reflection, I think I prefer Dave Van Ronks definition: In the 1950s, as for the previous two hundred years, we used the word folk to describe a process rather than a style. Van Ronk also hit the nail squarely on the head when he said The thing about these [folk] revivals is that the folk have very little to do with them. 34
What is traditional folk music? Who gets to decide? Is it academics and elitists like John Powell or the Groves Encyclopedia of Music? Or is it the people, who are responsible for the music in the first place? I say let the people decide.