MT logo Letters - Jan 2001

Re: Deep River of Song: Virginia review

Further to Chris Smith's recent letter, can I publicly and unreservedly apologise to MT readers for the errors contained in my recent review of the Virginia and the Piedmont volume in the Deep River of Song series.  I can offer no excuses save to say that I was misinformed about the original series being issued on LP.  However, I should have checked further and take full responsibility.

Unfashionable as it may be today, I too am a fan of both Sonny and Brownie and the Golden Gate Quartet.  Back in the late 50's, S & B gave me my first introduction to country blues and I still hold them in great affection - somehow you never quite forget your first experience of anything.  I hope that my review did not imply any criticism of the artists or indeed their contribution to the CD under review.  Can I take this opportunity to make it clear that S & B's and the Gate's performances are uniformly excellent and I am grateful that they have now been made available on CD.  My intent was merely to suggest that they do not really belong in the present company.

I should also have checked the Documents Record's catalogue or website.  In case readers are not aware, they do now have a searchable database on their website at enabling search of some 17000 recordings by artist, original label and region recorded, with song title search promised for later.  They are now British owned and are at present in discussions with MCPS regarding licensing and copyright arrangements so that may ultimately resolve the ethical issues Chris raised.

I hope that my errors have in now way dissuaded readers from investigating a thoroughly worthwhile CD.

Can I finally thank Chris for pointing me in the direction of Pete Lowry's excellent article in the Christmas edition of Blues & Rhythm.  Essential reading for anyone interested in the Deep River of Song series.

Roger Johnson - 28.1.01

The Voice of the People? Not quite ...

Over the years many people, myself included, have complained about the practice of editing folksong texts for publication.

Collectors such as Sharp and Baring-Gould were often shocked at the sexual content of many of the songs that they were hearing.  Their society - i.e. 'respectable' middle-class England - was only just starting to emerge from a long period of Victorian repression and these collectors were only too aware of the standards that were then expected in their published works.  Things changed in the late '50s and early '60s and Lady Chatterly was soon rubbing shoulders (in a metaphorical sort of way) with Caedmon's Songs of Seduction.

We might now think that the editor's blue pencil has been thrown away, consigned to the rubbish bin of history.  But, we would be wrong.

Listening to volume 12 of Topic's Voice of the People recently, I realized that two verses were missing from Johnny Doughty's song Will You Marry Me?  At no time had Reg Hall mentioned to me that he wished to edit the song and, I must say, that it came as a shock to realise what he had done.  I know, or at least think I know, why he has removed the verses, but I cannot, in all truth, say that I fully agree with his decision.

The problem is that Johnny's version of the song contains the phrase 'nice buck nigger' and, of course, today the term is imbued with racist connotation.  However, I am sure that it carried no such meaning for Johnny.  I have previously said that the word nigger was used by American whites 'rightly, or wrongly, as a standard factual word, with no emotional content' (1) and I am certain that many English people of Johnny's generation used it in a similar manner.  Today, of course, we see things differently.  In 1980 Paul Brown and myself collected a fiddle tune Nigger Trader Boatman from the Virginian musician Pug Allen.  When Paul later recorded the tune himself I noted that the title had been reduced to Trader Boatman

If Reg has edited out Johnny's two verses because he feels that people today may be offended, then he is, I think, wrong on two counts.  Firstly, he is denying part of this song to future generations who may not be aware of the song's full content, and, secondly, he is not recognising that Johnny was using the phrase in a non-emotional way, which was typical of the period.

I believe that we study the past in order to better understand the present.  We cannot be selective about this process.  I am not proud that my ancestors probably condoned - perhaps even took part in - the slavetrade, for example.  But we cannot deny that such a thing ever existed.  Indeed, we acknowledge and study these things so that we may learn not to repeat our past mistakes.

Mike Yates - 13.1.01

(1) Cecil Sharp in America. Musical Traditions. 2000.

Re: The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin review: (4)

Dear Rod

As a good friend and colleague of Fred McCormick I have been observing the correspondence surrounding his review of The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin with great interest (and not a little concern).  I would like to say a word or two in defence of Fred, and in defence of academic theory.

I should inform you that, as a popular music historian, I have only a limited knowledge of Irish folk song.  Nevertheless I have made myself aware of the contents of the book and know and admire Fred's expertise in this field (one of a number of areas, I might add).  Additionally, I also feel some responsibility for the current hornet's nest, for it was I who persuaded Fred to re-enter the academic world to teach Irish music to Continuing Education students at the Institute of Popular Music.

I can reliably inform you that, throughout his teaching for the IPM, Fred has complained vociferously about the lack of quality written material on Irish music; about the poor standards of most of what has been published; about a singular lack of original thought and ideas; about a refusal to borrow or learn from other disciplines, and about a refusal to at least question conventional wisdom and accepted modes of thought.  There are doubtless honourable exceptions - and Fred mentions several - however the state of published material on Irish ('traditional' or otherwise) music and song looks decidedly bleak.

Where a vacuum such as this exists, dubious pieces of authorship are accepted as authoritative purely by default.  This occurs because there are no comparable texts, no argumentative practices, no theory ('academic' or otherwise: Nick Cohn's Awopbopaloobopawopbamboom - a popular music text - springs to mind).  If such a piece of dubious authorship happens to come dressed in scholarly clothing, and bearing the monicker of an academic publisher, the unchallenged stamp of authority is resolute (Niall Mackinnon's The British Folk Scene, for example).  Whether Dáibhí Ó Cróinín's book actually fits this picture is irrelevant for the moment.  I would simply state that the reaction which has been engendered by Fred's review underlines (at least to me) his fundamental argument: that received wisdom and lack of theory concerning (Irish) music has effectively 'produced' a hidebound, shallow discipline in which only the predispositions and avers of the inquirers are satiated.

According to Fred, the Beth Cronin book is methodologically unsound, badly transcribed, littered with mistakes and possesses impoverished and (occasionally) naive scholarship.  Having read the book from cover to cover, I would suggest that it also suffers from bad editing and woeful proof reading.  Fred obviously thinks that it is an awful piece of work and was not prepared to mince his words in saying so.  Why on earth should he?  Where would the justice or honesty lie in saying otherwise?  Why should the editor or the publisher (or anyone else, for that matter) expect people to fork out good money for a text without close scrutiny?  This does not happen in other genres of music (take a look at book reviews in Record Collector, Mojo - even, with apologies to Dave Harker, the Folk Music Journal!) and yet, somehow, Irish music is regarded as sacrosanct.

So, Fred's review has produced a fair measure of adverse reaction and the detractors are by no means confined to the letters page of Musical Traditions.  "Good!" one might exclaim "Yee hah, a debate!", even.  But, sadly, the vibes indicate an Irish music establishment merely contented with the publication of such a book, rather than concerning itself with the shortcomings.  In fact, it seems to be the case that any old rubbish is better than no rubbish at all.  This is simply not good enough!  A book as heavily flawed as Fred claims this one to be would be torn to shreds in any other 'academic' discipline (including Early Irish history).  This is because, in the academic world, progress is made via argument and debate; theoretical development is made via the rejection of the substandard.  It is certainly not made through the closing of ranks.  And I'm not so sure that Fred is the lone voice crying in the wilderness, in any case.  If one reads John Moulden's letter (ignoring the somewhat hostile tone) it is quite clear that he also finds certain aspects of the book unsatisfactory.

I am not qualified enough to delve too deeply into specifics, but a few broad comments are in order, I think.  First of all, those transcriptions.  We have read Dáibhí Ó Cróinín' s explanation of why the texts in the book differ from those on the CDs; or, rather, how the laws of libel prevent him from 'spilling the beans'.  But, surely, laws of libel are not the issue, here.  The question should be, how did a leading academic practitioner allow himself to get so out of touch with his publisher as to allow a 'cock up' of this magnitude?  Fred has offered to publish the indexes of the recordings used for the CDs in Musical Traditions.  This would certainly go some way to de-confuse a very disconcerting issue (I was lost, to be honest!).  But Dáibhí Ó Cróinín cannot lay his hands on his own research material(?)  Is anything good enough for folk music research?

But this strange admission also smokescreens the other problems raised by Fred.  For instance, his review considers the very real possibility that Mrs Cronin might have varied her texts from performance to performance.  I don't know whether Fred has some inside knowledge - maybe a crystal ball - or whether he just guessed lucky.  But the fact that he was right is displayed in the differences between the book and the CDs, isn't it?  Given what we now know, would it not have been sensible practice to transcribe and print every single text noted down from her, instead of comparing her versions of texts with examples obtained from other singers?  From a popular music perspective, a comparison of Beth Cronin's personal variations might have informed us about Mrs Cronin as a creative performance artist (or should we not use words like 'creative' and 'performance' together?).

I would also suggest that comparing her own varied texts with other equally varied texts is not a satisfactory academic exercise without giving consideration to the creative possibilities of variation in performance (text and context, so to speak); this would be appropriate in both Mrs Cronin's performances and those of others.  Under these circumstances terms such as 'same' and 'different' take on new meanings, leading to some interesting semiotic conclusions (some of which may disavow the rather binary concept of trying to fill gaps in her repertoire by including songs collected from other sources).

John Moulden's letter claims that this book assembles Mrs Cronin's entire known repertory, thereby affording a unique, unimpeachable and empirical paradigm of the Irish singing tradition.  What??!!  Certainly, an empirical approach would be a welcome change to the romanticism which continues to characterise folk music writing.  However, a paradigm, fabricated around the repertoire of one singer, out of badly edited, unreliable raw material sounds like a construction bound to fail.  As a point of interest, we don't (and will never) have her entire known repertory.  Much of it cannot be reconstructed - and that is precisely the complaint raised by Fred.

There is also the question of poor editing.  Referring once again to the John Moulden letter, he takes Fred to task over a piece of actuality on one of the discs.  Fred does indeed appear to have missed the reference (which is buried away in the list of index numbers).  However, it's not surprising that he did, for it certainly took some finding.  Neither the critic nor the reader should have to delve for information in this way.  Any decent ethnographer will transcribe the actuality and list it in the book along with the song and text; actually, its existence should have been identified in the CD track listings...take a look at any original soundtrack in Virgin and/or HMV!

On the question of scholarship, I am clearly at a disadvantage.  However, several of Ó Cróinín's remarks struck me as somewhat naive.  His rather snide comments about Cecil Sharp, for instance, are totally out of context; there is also the silly observation that not every song appealed to Mrs Cronin.  How does that make her any different to any other singer (or, indeed, any other member of the human race)?  Of considerably more importance is the almost total lack of any social or historical background to Mrs Cronin's singing persona.  Surely a Professor of Early Irish History is capable of giving us an historical ethnology of his 'own' community?

Finally, there is the matter of proof reading.  I don't know whether the publishers hired a proof reader, but that isn't really the point.  Surely the buck stops with the editor to eliminate errors.  Even I spotted two different dates for the founding of the Gaelic League (on two succesive pagesl) and, although John Moulden found several mistakes in Fred's review, he, in turn, seems to mould these points to suit his own argument...rather tawdry, don't you think?  (he'll be taking his ball home, next).  The point remains that Fred would not have taken so much time on the review had not the book been so heavily flawed.

So, Fred stands accused of excessive criticism of unimportant points of detail.  However, given the book's (apparent) status and importance, an exhaustive check was undoubtedly called-for.  I wonder, however, whether his nit-picking is actually very revealing.  For instance, he takes the editor to task for getting confused over the year in which Topic brought out the Folk Songs of England.  That sounds a little trivial (nonetheless important to us Topic fans!) until one realises that the editor quotes the year of copyright (which appears on the back of the LP covers) - not the year of issue (which appears on the LP labels).  As an archivist, this implies to me that the editor may not have even extracted the LPs from their respective sleeves.  Could this further suggest that he may not have even checked on the recordings (or am I getting paranoid, here?).  Both Fred and John Moulden suggest that this book will be read well outside of the immediate community that produced it.  I agree, but, as such, it should be able to stand up not only to historical, but also historiographical investigation (the 'nit-picking', as it were).  Like much of the literature surrounding Irish music, it doesn't.

To conclude, Fred's essay underlines the point I began with.  By review standards it's something of an 'epic'.  I printed it off the internet and it ran to thirty eight pages!  It displays a wide and detailed knowledge of its subject.  It embodies a great deal of background detail and includes several interesting hypotheses.  I cannot check the latter's feasibility, and his work includes at least one contention that I take serious issue with.  It is the question of emotional content.  Here, and in one or two other places, Fred lapses into the sort of sentimental rhetoric which is all-too-common among folkies.  One can appreciate his admiration of good singing, and one can understand his being moved by it.  Nevertheless, emotion in song performance is such a subjective matter that I would have avoided commenting on it.  Emotional display is mediated by the performer's social culture and by what the listener hears (or in this case, wants to hear).  In short, we have no way of comparing Mrs Cronin's expressions of feelings with those of any other performer, inside the pop world or outside.

I think the response to Fred's review has been, sadly, rather discouraging.  There has been fury at his exposing a work of dubious scholarship.  There has been silence at his own attempts at critical scholarship.  Fred claims that the role of a reviewer is to 'offer informed opinion to a paying public'.  Granted, but with something like this I would have stated that it is also to correct and criticise the author's contentions and to offer alternative modes of thought.  I think that Fred has done this; something John Moulden's reworking of Cecil Sharp's Guild Socialist reworking of Darwin's theory of natural selection will never be able to do.

The bottom line is that the book will stack up along with all the other books on Irish music which mislead and misinform.  As long as we carry on down this road, as long as nobody is willing to discuss and debate what Irish music actually is, the subject will remain something of a joke.  I eagerly await The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin in my local remainders bookshop.

Dr Mike Brocken - 10.1.01
University of Liverpool, Institute of Popular Music

(P.S.  Sorry about having to omit the fadas - could you add them for me?)

Re: Deep River of Song: Virginia review

I'm sorry to have to start 2001 with my pedant's hat on, but a couple of assertions in Roger Johnson's review of Deep River of Song Virginia and the Piedmont: Minstrelsy, Work Songs and Blues (Rounder 1827) need correcting.  Roger writes that
This is the seventh volume in the seminal series of field recordings of Afro American music made for the Library of Congress, mainly by John and Alan Lomax, between 1933 and 1946.  The original vinyl release ran to 12 volumes but others were planned and I believe that with this CD reissue as part of the Alan Lomax Collection, we can expect 2 or 3 more.  The transfer to CD also allows extra space and many of these recordings are seeing a commercial release for the first time.
The Deep River of Song series, planned and compiled by Alan Lomax and Peter B Lowry in 1978/9, was indeed intended to include a dozen or so LPs, but they were never released, so the series actually ran to zero volumes.  However, the CDs that are now appearing are indeed expanded versions of the projected albums.  (Coincidentally, Lowry writes about the project in Blues & Rhythm 155, the Christmas 2000 issue.)

Roger also says that:

The only exceptions are recordings of the Golden Gate Quartet, accompanied by Josh White on guitar and of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.  These were made during concerts at the Library of Congress in 1940 and 1942 and, notwithstanding their obvious quality, especially in Sonny and Brownie's blistering version of John Henry, are strangely out of place, in tone if not in content, in this company.  The cynic in me wonders if these have been included to attract would be buyers with a familiar name.  The field recordings have an immediacy and intensity that is quite lacking in those cosy recordings made in front of an invited audience in Washington.
The only concert recordings on the CD are those by the Gates and Josh.  Sonny and Brownie were certainly in Washington to appear at this concert, but their recordings weren't made in concert.  I can say this with certainty, having listened to the Library's safety tape of the original recordings, which consist of Alan Lomax interviewing them and eliciting songs.  While these are not field recordings, any cosiness that may be perceptible (and I don't find any) is down to the artists being comfortable with Lomax, rather than the presence of an audience.  Since S&B weren't Virginians, I'm bound to agree with the cynic in Roger about the possible reasons for their inclusion, but as their discographer and fan, I can hardly complain!

Finally, Roger remarks that:

The real find though is Jimmy Strothers, a blind convict who contributes six songs to his own banjo accompaniment ...  I can only hope that the four remaining recordings he made turn up later in the series.
I would add that, for those who can't wait, 18 of the 19 recordings made by Jimmie Strothers and his associate Joe Lee are on Document DOCD-5575, Field Recordings Vol 1 Virginia (1936-1941).  The exception is Going to Richmond, but that's on the Rounder CD under discussion.  The Document release is not made by agreement with the Library of Congress, so purchasers will need to decide for themselves about the ethical issues involved.

Chris Smith - 6.1.01


Rod Stradling - e-mail:  Tel: 01453 759475
snail-mail: 1 Castle Street, Stroud, Glos  GL5 2HP, UK

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