May-June 2008

A Treasury of American Fauxlk Songs

By Ross Altman

Outwitted

He drew a circle that shut me out

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout

But love and I had the wit to win

We drew a circle that took him in.

--Edwin Markham

Michael Cooney said it first and said it best, "If you know who wrote it, it's not a folk song." But he goes on to say that just because you don't know who wrote it doesn't mean it's a folk song-you may not have done enough research. Recent commentators in the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club newsletter-The Cat and Banjo- have made a number of invidious comparisons between real folk songs, i.e. traditional songs the author of whom is anonymous, and modern "singer-songwriter songs" that are mistakenly referred to as "modern folk songs."

But sometimes the differences are not quite so clear. Take for example, that great old Erie Canal folk song, sung as such at a recent Folk Club meeting, Low Bridge, Everybody Down! Was it in fact made up by some anonymous teamster, slowing hauling his way up the Erie Canal, standing precariously on a barge pulled by a mule team on the adjoining tow path, approaching a low-hanging bridge, and suddenly inspired with the chant of warning to make up a song about his lead mule, who just happens to be named "Sal," which fortunately rhymes with "canal"?

Alas, no. In fact it was made up not on the Erie Canal, but on Tin Pan Alley, by professional songwriter Thomas S. Allen in 1905, more than half a century after the freight moving function of the Erie Canal had been supplanted by the railroad. It was a celebration of times gone by, written as if it was right in the middle of their heyday. Source? No less than John A. and Alan Lomax's 1934 classic American Ballads and Folk Songs.

Or take that classic folk song from the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 Copper Kettle, which tells the story of a dedicated moon-shiner who proudly lets us know that he ain't paid no whiskey tax since 1792. He also provides some useful advice for prospective moon-shiners to avoid discovery: Build your fire of hickory, hickory, ash and oak/ Don't use no green or rotten wood,/ They'll get you by the smoke.

Written by some talented but anonymous Western Pennsylvania bard to let his proud descendants know how Pap made a living? Alas, no; written by professional tunesmith Alfred Frank Beddoe in 1953 as a part of a folk opera Go Lightly, Stranger, more than a century and a half after the famed tax resistance to the new federal authority became the first noteworthy post-revolutionary rebellion. Then, a quick nine years later and Joan Baez made it sound like an old American folk song. Not to be outdone, Bob Dylan then put it on Self-Portrait, in a performance that many claim was the shimmering highlight of an otherwise much-maligned album of cover songs.

Well, at least we still have old faithful songs like the favorite Gold Rush Ballad of all time, Clementine. Or do we?

According to Pete Seeger, in his book American Favorite Ballads, Tunes and Songs, it was "A popular song of the California Gold Rush of 1849. The tune is probably much older. Sounds German to me, but I've been told it was Mexican, early 19th Century."

Was it made up-"written" would be too deliberate a word for romanticizers of American balladry and folk song traditionalists-by some overlander on his way out to the California gold fields in 1849 or 50? Was it an inspired accident in the otherwise money-grubbing life of a crusty old prospector, his water-stained hat barely concealing his unkempt beard with his hands too occupied with a battered tin pan to hold a pencil and a piece of paper?

Alas, my hearties, again one has to say, "no." And, sorry to say, Pete is wrong on all counts. In fact, Clementine was written by professional songwriter Percy Montrose, not for his fellow prospectors, but for his fellow collegians in 1887, when it was published in a book of college songs, not in California, but in New York.

Does that make them any the less folk songs, now that you know they are really fauxlk songs? Well, that depends on your point of view. To non-songwriters it seems to matter a great deal whether a song has a known composer behind it-they revel in the thought that "Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan, and Tom Paxton couldn't write a folk song."

Well, I'm not so sure. I happen to know for a fact that Tom Paxton's song Rambling Boy, was sung at a folk music concert in Ireland by a traditional Irish performer who introduced it by saying, "Here is an old American folk song." Trouble was, Tom Paxton's daughter happened to be in the audience at the time, and afterward went up to the performer to let him know in no uncertain terms that her father had written Rambling Boy. The performer was quite sure, and let her know in equally certain terms that Rambling Boy was a true folk song-or he wouldn't have sung it! Paxton's daughter Katy again told the performer that her father really had written the song, and it was not a folk song. Then the performer politely asked her, "Who did you say your father was?" Whereat Katy told him her father was Tom Paxton. To which the performer looked very thoughtful and replied, "Well, he might have written it."

After that delightful anecdote, Tom Paxton went on to say, "Here is another song I might have written," and performed I Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound.

My point is that-to that Irish folk singer-Rambling Boy was a folk song; did it stop being a "folk song" after Katy Paxton corrected him as to its true authorship? Isn't it possible that they were both ½ right-Tom Paxton wrote it, and it's a folk song?

The academic in me reels at this possibility, since I am, by training, sympathetic to the view that real folk songs are traditional, which means that we don't know who wrote them, that they have endured and been passed on in oral tradition-otherwise known as "the folk process"-through several generations, and that they have also acquired what folklorists call "variants," which may mean different local settings, different names, even different tunes, etc. In that sense, there is an unbridgeable divide between folk songs and popular songs as well as all other types of songs that may have a folk flavor, but are not the real thing.

Easy for Michael Cooney to say, and those in his camp, such as my former folklore professor at UCLA, D.K. Wilgus. They are not songwriters, and don't have a dog in this hunt.

But I am, and I do have a dog in this hunt. Every time I write a song I am aiming to make it good enough that at some unspecified future date it might enter the folk tradition. If I weren't, I would quit, for as John Keats so memorably said, it is better to fail than not to try to be amongst the truly great. And at the same time I am also hoping that at some unspecified future date some obstinate folksinger and songwriter like me, who is also a trained scholar, would do just a bit of research and discover that the song in fact has a known author, and reattach my name to, say, Dance the Moon, or Papa Had to Start All Over. Do I contradict myself? "Very well, I contradict myself-I am large-I contain multitudes," said Whitman. And Emerson added, "Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

I thus stand before you in my customary split personality: On the one hand, I know that Rambling Boy, is not a folk song, and on the other hand, if it isn't then neither is Low Bridge, Everybody Down, Copper Kettle, or Clementine.

And neither is Home on the Range.

The words to the most famous American folk song of all were not written by a cowboy but by a saddle tramp physician, Dr. Brewster Higley. A professional musician friend of his, Daniel Kelley, wrote the music. It was first published in a Kansas newspaper in 1873. By 1910, it appeared in John Lomax's first book, Cowboy Songs, as an anonymous composition. Only when Vernon Dalhart recorded it and it started earning money in the 1930s did a number of people come forth claiming authorship. Samuel Moanfeldt, a New York lawyer, tracked down the real author and reattached Dr. Higley's and Dan Kelley's names to a song that by then had traveled round the world. Is it no longer a folk song? If it isn't, I don't know what else to call it.

So call them "fauxlk songs."

They may not be the real thing, but they are close enough for folk music.


Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it." target="_blank">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

  

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