Column

Easy Ed's Broadside

Exploring music without a map.

Since 2009, Ed has shared his thoughts on ND about music that touches him, and rambled hither and yon about what else is on his mind.

Easy Ed's Broadside

Exploring music without a map.

Since 2009, Ed has shared his thoughts on ND about music that touches him, and rambled hither and yon about what else is on his mind.

Rethinking American Roots Music in Black and White

 

 In some circles, Grandmaster Flash is considered a roots musician. I saw him DJ a killer set at The Richmond Folk Festival this fall.

The folks who organize the Richmond festival define folk as including any artist who helped create or performs roots music.

Flash was lauded as someone who created a new form of roots music.

Among the other performers were rockabilly man Sleepy LeBeef, Deacon John's jump blues, an Ethiopian jazz band, a fantastic klezmer band from Brooklyn, The Alt, an Irish folk group, as well as Cajun, bluegrass, contra dance, gospel, and sacred steel bands.

 

You can, of course, make a case that almost all music is folk music at the core.

Yep, the Richmond Folk Festival is definitely a "big tent" folk festival, including artists from Virginia, Appalachia, and the Blue Ridge mountains, to some of the acts you mentioned from all around the globe.   It's a treat just to wander around and take in the varied, and often unexpected, sounds.  One name you didn't mention that I caught there this year was the Sun Ra Arkestra.  Still a somewhat difficult listen even today, but the links between Africa and modern big-band free jazz are right there on display.

Garry

Yes they do matter...well written Ed...Jimmie Rodges and Louis/Lillie Armstrong...indicative of how much "cross-pollination" there was...excellent videos you posted to illustrate...The Message is an example of urban folk music, just doesn't have an acoustic guitar...the tent is be wide enough for all...

Bang on, Ed! I've been looking for a good response to my friends in the bluegrass community who despise hip hop and rap music. You've given me great ammunition, with Kim's help. Thanks, and I look forward to building on it. Incidentally, Peer surely contributed to developing "race" music, as well as country and bluegrass. His later commitment to bringing Latino music into the recording and film industries suggests that he was interested primarily in making money for his company, though his childhood in St. Louis might suggest he was not un-tinged by racism himself.

 

This thought about hip hop in roots music keeps coming up as I attend concerts and festivals with a disproportionate number of white faces on both the stage and in the audience. For years I've been writing about and asking 'where are the young people' in roots music, and my sons have been telling me that their generation get their folk fix with rap. It took me time to think it through and separate the various genres within hip hop for it to make sense. As always, seems that I needed to look back to see forward. 

I think your sons are right about that...I worked for General Motors for 25 years...I'll never forget this...I worked with a brilliant college kid one summer who was a paid intern...he and I hit it off well right away, and we got to talking about music and it was obvious it was something we immediately had in common...and suddenly he just blurts out, "you look like a guy who'd be into James Taylor" with more than a little contempt in the statement...so I said, "well yeah, actually I do like James Taylor" (actually I loved James Taylor, but it seemed I would be branded a complete loser if I admitted that)...so he said he'd bring me some music he liked the next day...and he brought me NWA's "Straight Outta Compton"...at the time, I must confess I listened to it once, and was pretty much horrified, although the song that caused the most trouble for them "F the Police" didn't bother me as much as the mysogyny and violence against women on some of the other tracks...this kid who brought me this music could not have been more Caucasian, WASP, etc., and I was thinking "what did he get out of this?"  I eventually decided that was his rebellion music, his generation's rock and roll, so I was looking back to try to understand also...he was an 80's kid, Kiss was his favorite band...anyway, I paid some attention to rap and hip hop after that, and I realized it was music from the street, so if that's not the music of "folks" and "roots music" I don't know what is...one of my 2 daughters was a big fan of Eminem a few years later, and I always thought Dre's productions were pretty inventive stuff.  It doesn't speak to me like other types of music do, but that is generational...the soul singers of the 60's and 70's did a lot of wordplay in some of the great soul hits...one of your (and my) favorites, Eugene Record/the Chi-Lites, set the standard for "pillow talk" over a musical line in the classic  "Have You Seen Her?"...I love that song so much...so they've been talking over music for a long time...

Speaking of Eminem, Charles Barkley once said that he was pretty sure the apocalypse had come because the "best Golfer was black and the best Rapper was white" referring to Tiger Woods and Eminem...I always thought that was a great line...not sure it has anything to do with this thread, but I will throw it out there anyway...

I'm certain it wasn't the author's intent, but this almost makes it sound like black roots artists can be divided into 2 categories: (1) old-timey stuff; and (2) modern rap/hip-hop.  There are plenty of modern-era (say, from the 60's to the present) black artists who work the country & roots sides of music, and many more who dip their toes into it from time to time.  Whether you're talking Charley Pride, Stoney Edwards, Ray Charles' country sides, etc, from the 60's/70's; or more modern folks like Guy Davis, Keb Mo', Otis Taylor, Mary Cutrufello, the Holmes Brothers, Carolina Chocolate Drops, etc; rural rap like Arrested Development, or even NashVegas country hip-hop (Cowboy Troy anybody?!?!?), there's not just roots music, but good country-roots music, being made by black artists.  Always has been, probably (hopefully) always will be.

Garry

Having suffered through the "is it folk?" discussions for the past 60 years, and seeing it now morph into an "is it roots?" discussion, I'd like to suggest that it may be far more fruitful to look at the context music is used in rather than quibble about genre. It makes more sense to distinguish between music that is used personally (folk or roots, if you will), and music that is used for commercial purposes. The folk context is people people playing music for themselves, their families and their immediate communities. If friends gather to play string quartets in their living rooms, they are playing classical music in a folk context. If people turn "Irene Good Night" into a million selling hit, they have taken it out of the folk context and into a comercial context.

When the music of cultures that are not well known by the general public, and are often oppressed, are taken into the commercial market, it leads to better understanding of those cultures and more empathy for what the people in those cultures are dealing with. Sometimes commercialization of the music (or food) of marginalized cultures is a little heavy handed, but I think the good it does outweighs that.  Pete Seeger was a super hero in the battle against racisim and oppression. But even Pete and the Weavers felt they needed to sanitize Leadbelly's "Irene Good Night" by changing the last line of the chorus from "I'll get  you in my dreams." to "I'll see you in my dreams."

The universality of music creates enjoyment, bonding, and better understanding within families and among cultures. Cultural cross pollination is a potent force against ignorance, racism, and oppression. So I'd prefer to spend my time making music instead of discussing what properly belongs in this or that genre. As Charles Seeger said, "To make music is the essential thing to listen to it is accessory." 

@John: A well thought out response and I appreciate that you took the time to leave it. I'm unsure whether I agree with your own division of 'people music' versus commercial product, but its worth some pondering on my part. 

Thanks for stirring some needed reflection on "roots music." Reader comments also seem sympathetic to broadening our minds and ears. Now how about widening that 2015 best list and including two of the best urban folk albums of the year--Lamar Kendrick's To Pimp A Butterfly and D'Angelo And The Vanguard's Black Messiah. Both of these albums mix-up blues, jazz, r & b, and gospel with hip-hop and both give voice to the mood and harsh realities that gave birth to Black Lives Matter. 

I agree with you. Didn't have a hand in the way this website chose to handle their reader's poll but scanning the four hundred plus list it was pretty evident that it's skewed a bit toward the expected so-called Americana titles. Yes there's an argument that it's inclusive and you can request that they add in write-ins, but it in my opinion shows the lack of diversity. Thanks for leaving a note. 

Just so you know, we do have the Kendrick Lamar release in the database: http://nodepression.com/release/pimp-butterfly. I'm not seeing D'Angelo's Black Messiah but I could have sworn it was in there. I'll double check and add it now if not. I know there was a recent request. Really all you need to do is ask and we will add them. We had a very difficult time last year with so many duplicates that we needed to go to this format. We are a very small operation and and we do what we can to keep up with releases but we do rely our users (mainly artists and their promo teams) to add the releases.
Ah, now I remember now why the Black Messiah album wasn't added. It came out in December of 2014 and we draw the line at 2015 for the poll.

However, nearly every publication I can think of has Black Messiah listed on Best Lists for 2015. Seems like No Depression should include it too. It came out, I think, in late December of 2014, far too late to be heard by a wide audience during the last few days of the year.

@Sandy: I absolutely agree with you. A more realistic cutoff would be mid-late November in my opinion. Most titles, except maybe Adele, take some time to reach the public these days. 

This is something to consider for another year. But my understanding is that the strict year cut off has been in place as long as ND has been doing this poll.

As long as you are talking about this, Over the Rhines' "Barn Raising concerts" live record just came out...I pre-ordered, not sure when it goes up for public sale...it's great, but in the last 2 weeks of the year, has no chance to be included in any realistic vote for "best of".  I don't care where you draw the line really...you have to put is somewhere...but if you are going to discuss it, might as well throw that one out ther for inclusion next year if you consider moving the line...I haven't listened to it enough to be sure it is one of the 10 best this year...but it would definitely have been under consideration.

Y'all might want to know that a future Broadside column will be titled How Annual Reader Polls Changed The Calendar To Account For Only 300 Days or Why You Should Never Release An Album After Halloween. 

Correct me if I'm wrong, but this timeframe is not new. Are you guys suggesting that we CHANGE something from the way it has always been on ND?

Hahaha....touche Shelly!  Well played...even us geezers change it up once in a while...just to keep you guessing.  It is maddening, isn't it...?

Looking forward to that one Ed!

@Shelley: Yep....suggesting a c h a n g e. It's called a leveling of the playing field. 

I think this is a totally fair change and it's duly noted in my editor brain. For next year. We're halfway through polling this year and a couple hundred ballots have been cast. It would be rude to change the rules in the middle of the event. But, I think it's totally logical, when we open polling for 2016, for us to blur the lines of what we mean by "2016," if possible.

I wasn't thinking about a change in the rules for this year, but maybe going forward. My little brain seems to recall that this came up more than once back in the thrilling days of yesteryear, and I had thought there was some sort of wiggle room already created. In some cases it had to do with what was really considered a release date...in the US, perhaps it was different in the UK or somewhere else, musicians that sell at the merch tables while awaiting a distribution deal, etc. But with all joking aside, if I was a musician today I'd never, ever release anything past late September. When we used to have record stores, the idea was to get it out in time for the holiday sales bump in traffic. Today with streaming and social networking drivin' much of the 'listens', if you want to be considered in a reader's or critic's poll, you better be out front of the poll planning. If we all stand back for a second and think about what the polls really hope to accomplish...diversity, exposure and inclusiveness...bending rules makes perfect sense for all. 

And if you go back far enough in "yesteryear" (Ed's moniker for it here, and although my recall is somewhat impaired by the passage of time, my memory is that those were indeed "thrilling days"), we were all about bending the rules...the late 60's we were advocating bending all of them...so it does make perfect sense for all...glad it is under consideration for next year, Kim.

 

 

 

 

IBMA's award year begins April 30 and runs through the last day of March. I've long thought it rewards winter releases, and that anything released in the summer and fall is easily forgotten, unless it has achieved high rankings in the charts and maintained them. There isn't really a logical calendar that would make all releases over a year's period equally remembered and treasured, or rejected. For next year, whatever the year is, my (soon to be neglected) plan will be to make a note of albums I like and re-listen to them when it comes time to vote. Memory's not all that great anyway.....

I seem to think that the best solution is to have a Monthly Reader and Critic's poll, but then we'd have to figure out if a month is the first to the last, or if there was some leeway to be had. I'll get back to you.

wow...once a month...if that generates the angst that once a year does I don't know if I could handle that...

Touché Jim... We've actually tossed this idea around but coming up with a format that would be worth the effort is very complicated.

Once a month!  And then artists could see what month Isbell is releasing his disc and adjust their release date accordingly.

No one puts a record out that "Isbell" month...I can see that...might happen whenever Sturgill gets around to doing a new one too...

"This thought about hip hop in roots music keeps coming up as I attend concerts and festivals with a disproportionate number of white faces on both the stage and in the audience." Ed, you need to come visit our Bluesfest. This year's lineup includes ND/NPR favorites like Jason Isbell, The Tedeschi-Trucks Band, The Decemberists, and The National. Brian Wilson is playing Pet Sounds. Graham Nash is playing a career-spanning set, from The Hollies on through. African-American acts include Rhiannon Giddens, The Blind Boys of Alabama,  bluesmen Taj Mahal and Lucky Peterson and ... Kendrick Lamar, D'Angelo and Kamasi Washington. I'm not sure where Lamar falls on John Ullman's folk/commercial axis, but I'm just stoked about the diversity/quality of the lineup. 

Great diversity. But since it's coming up so quickly I don't think I can get my passport renewed in time. Will stay home, watch Straight Outta Compton again and eat Dutch waffles with fried clams. 

you'll never leave the house again...

Regarding my folk/commercial axis, Lamar, or any other people, don't fall on it. Genres, instrumentation, ethnicity, don't fall on it. That is because I suggest, based on it's original usage, "folk" is best used as a context. It is about how music, or any other arts, are used, rather than any of these other parameters. The 100% folk end of the axis might be contexts like sitting in one's living room playing music for one's grandchildren, jamming with friends, or singing a child to sleep. Moving towarde commercial end might be going to one's neighborhood tavern and playing for tips. A little farther along would be playing local gigs for relatively small fees and self publishing CD's. Moving past the midpoint of the axis would be playing music, song writing, teaching music for a living. At the 100% commercial end would be filling a 50,000 seat stadium and grossing more money than most people do in a lifetime.

At the folk end of the axis, the purpose of making music is personal satisfaction and, perhaps more importantly, interpersonal interaction, communicating culture, strengthening bonds among family members and friends. The folk context is all about everyone in the community participating in some way - dancing, singing, etc. At the commercial end, it is about making money. The audience members are spectators, not participants. Artists who draw large crowds are not neccessarily "bad" people, but how "good" they are depends on the messages they put out and what they do with their money in terms of philanthropy, etc. By the same token, people who are at the folk end of the spectrum can put out bad or good messages as well.

Hi John, it was a flip reference to your post,  which I thought was well thought out and well put, although I personally find it impossible to corral "folk", "roots" or "Americana" in any meaningful way.  

If by "corral" you mean understand these terms, Americana, roots, etc, as part of an orderly taxonomy of music genres, as we classify living things in biology, then I don't think they work all that well. It's the same problem as trying to understand folk as a genre instead of a context. If you understand these terms as an attempt at branding, then they make sense. In the case of Bluegrass, the branding of one person's innovations has become a vital genre. In the case of American Primitive Guitar, or Dawg Music (much as I admire David Grisman), the attempt at moving a brand into a genre hasn't been nearly as successful. The quote below from The Stranger is a candid explanation of an attempt to coin a new term, indie roots, to brand a group of musicians who interest the festival promoter, but otherwise don't much sense as a genre.

 

After seeing so many of his favorite bands fall into the cracks between traditional genres, Zale Schoenborn, organizer of the Pickathon music festival in northern Oregon, felt the need to coin a new term.

"'Indie roots' is what we came up with to brand this world of musicians with punk-rock sensibilities who are influenced by all kinds of music," Schoenborn says. "They're not neat and clean, so they don't fit into any other category." Pickathon, he says, is in its ninth year as the standard- bearer for the sound.

It seems that a genre that includes bluegrass, rock, zydeco, jazz, and country bands loses its meaning as it expands, which is perhaps why Schoenborn admits the characteristics of indie roots are subjective. "Indie roots describes bands like the Avett Brothers and the Handsome Family who are throwing all these influences at you at once," he says. There are common elements: willingness to experiment, sincerity instead of polish, openness to influence, and a healthy disregard for boundaries. In addition, most of these bands evince affection for Appalachia, the open road, acoustic instruments, vintage cowboy shirts, and liquor.