Jesse Jarnow

the last verse & “honey in the rock” – blind mamie forehand

“Honey in the Rock” – Blind Mamie Forehand (download) (buy)
from Goodbye Babylon (1927/2003)

(file expires May 8th)

Burkhard Bilger’s recent New Yorker piece, “The Last Verse,” is excellent — the type of typically sprawling think-piece/profile that could end up in a future Da Capo Best Music Writing edition. But it also bummed me out. “Is there still any folk music out there?” the subhead asked. It’s an endlessly fascinating question, but — if you limit “folk” to its literal definition — the answer becomes equally limited.

For his own recordings, Rosenbaum laid down only a few ground rules. The musicians could come from anywhere and play almost anything: fiddles, guitars, washboards, or spoons; harmonicas, Jew’s harps, or accordions. (In one recording, a broomstick kept time; in another, a pick-axe.) But the songs had to be traditional, the music learned from relatives or local musicians. He wanted folksingers, as he puts it, not just singers of folk songs.

And, thus, another story about dudes driving the South around looking for old performers and older records. But folk music is more alive than that, pulsing from car stereos and ringtones in the centuries-old rhythms at the core of reggaeton, or in the magpie strategies of the bootleg/mash-up world. Even if hip-hop is the very definition of mass culture — see, for example, the ridiculous Jay-Z/Soulja Boy feud being played through the NBA — it still requires an intricate constellation of references to understand it, many of which can only be passed person to person. While there’s plenty that comes through media, there’s still plenty of slang that can trace back decades, if not more.

The answer to Bilger’s question is unquestionably, “yes.” A truly oral culture is no longer possible, but we have something else — a world where text is so plentiful it becomes both meaningless and ephemeral. How does one collect it?

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