So it was all folk music to me. Somehow I made the transition from the Brothers Four to Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, and Dave Van Ronk (and from Rat Fink to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Blind Blake). I have to thank my local library and a hip neighbor for even being able to find recordings of “real” folk music. Then after this basic education, I stumbled upon Bob Dylan. Where my parents could almost fathom Woody and Cisco, Mr. Dylan was not welcomed. Especially when the electric guitars and drums were added. Perhaps my folks were related to Pete Seeger.
I was glued to the radio in the days of seemingly endless hours of the San Diego Folk Festival on KPFK. I listened to all the KPFK folk radio shows, of which there were many. And I played folk music. After starting to play guitar, I rummaged the bins at my local sheet music store (there’s an expression guaranteed to age someone) and found several copies of Sing Out! magazine. Sometimes they had chord shapes over the lyrics of the songs, and since I couldn’t read music, I made up my own melodies. I learned later I was part of the folk process food chain. Woody borrowed most of his melodies, so it made sense that I was making my own melodies to his songs.
Eventually I got moved “beyond” folk music to other styles/types of music. At some point in my music “career” I sort of dropped folk music, and didn’t listen or play much folk for about ten years. There’s no reason to publically admit I was playing rock and roll in the interim, but I was. I also was beginning to become involved with THE MUSIC BUSINESS. This meant instead of just playing for fun, I was trying to make money through my love of music. That not only meant playing gigs, it also meant recording and chasing after that elusive record deal. A record deal was similar to what some folks call nirvana or satori: with a record deal, all is bliss. All is one.
Luckily for me my “record deal” didn’t hit until I was nearly 40 years old and at least a bit more mature than my 20 year old self had been. And by the time I was 40, the music business had changed mightily. There were independent labels again, just like in the 1940s and 1950s. And independents are supposed to be more family oriented, more centered on the artist than the profit.
We all learned the fallacy of that after doing two CDs for a semi-well known folk label and being treated in a nicer, more family like way while we were being taken to the cleaners. In this case, there really was so little money involved it seems almost laughable, but when all you are owed is $5.85 for that quarter’s sales, that $5.85 becomes very important.
The story of being taken advantage of by a record company is too familiar to be much more than boring, so I’ll spare you that and mention again that we are taking tens of tens of dollars. This is folk music, right?
Jump to today. I get an email from the record company president/owner. I love calling him that, keeping in mind that the studio is in a converted studio apartment with the drum isolation booth doubling as part of the garage. Anyway, he’s noticed that my most recent CD has one seller on Amazon that expects to get $66.99 for it. You can buy it new from Amazon for $18.99 and if you don’t mind used, you can pick up one for $4.99. In fact, if you go to the Walmart page, you can buy the songs for 69 cents each. Why in the world does one firm think anyone will pay $67 for something they can buy for so much less? I mean, this is folk music. And the CD is still in print. All in all, it made my day. I hope someone buys it, since that will make for an even better story.
I still play folk music, sometimes for money. I got to play the San Diego Folk Festival a few times. I still listen to the remaining folk music on KPFK. I love music, but I doubt if I would ever pay $67 for a CD.
Listen to music. Don’t listen to MP3s. Go out and enjoy live music, whether it be at an expensive concert hall, your local bistro or listening to some odd looking guy near the entrance to the beach. It might be me.
Dennis Roger Reed is a singer-songwriter, musician, and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He is apparently somewhat of an expert on Gram Parsons, with his writings on the subject having been featured in Mojo and in God’s Own Singer: A Life of Gram Parsons by Jason Walker. Writing about his music has appeared in Acoustic Musician, Bass Player, Bluegrass Now, Bluegrass Unlimited, Blues Access, Blues Revue, Blue Suede News, Dirty Linen, the LA Times, Living Blues, and Sing Out! He is still decidedly not famous.