I’m an old guy, been playing folk music for 40 years plus now. When I started playing the guitar and singing folk songs like You Are My Sunshine, Red River Valley and Light My Fire, we tuned our guitars to a tuning fork. And re-tuned, and tuned again and then fired our autoharp player. Electronic tuners are a wonderful invention. It’s important to know how to tune your instrument without an electronic tuner, but they easily solve most tuning argument prior to fisticuffs.
At our gigs in the old days, we put microphones in front of our guitars on stage. (We also used to walk 2 miles in the snow to our gigs. In Southern California) Pickups were in electric guitars, not acoustic guitars. Our PA systems were big, heavy and had little power. I was in awe of anyone that owned a sound system. All those cables and stands and stuff. And hernias.
We learned songs from other people, and from records. It would’ve been nice to have a DVD of our favorite folk artist showing us exactly how they played that song that we loved, but music lessons were given by live people, and not stars. And it was difficult to find someone to teach folk music. More likely your instructor would trot out Walk Don’t Run or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. But although I am terrible about using instructional DVDs appropriately, now I do on occasion buy them and watch my heroes like Tom Rush or John Sebastian show me exactly how they played that song that I’ve been playing incorrectly for 30 years. That’s progress.
Recording stars made records, and record companies owned record companies. Not individuals. I was completely unaware that anyone could ever record and release a record without being on a label. You worked on your music, and you sent tapes to record companies and tried to finagle A&R guys to come to your gigs so that they would be impressed and sign you and make you a star. By the way, A&R means Artists and Repertoire, except nowadays it doesn’t really mean anything. So there were two levels of folk artists: those that made records and those that did not. This was a HUGE distinction, especially for those that had made records.
I’ve always loved recording. When I was a teenage kid, one of my buddies had a decent reel to reel deck, and it was big fun to actually overdub our voices or instruments. When he moved away, I couldn’t afford a reel to reel, so I’d record onto one cassette recorder, then play it back in the room, play along, and record to another cassette recorder. Overdubs! The hiss was simply awesome… and people thought 78s sounded scratchy! On the other hand, that hiss was probably the most authentic part of the recording made by a group of suburban white kids playing the blues, or at least trying to play the blues. I’m pretty sure we succeeded in at least giving our neighbors the blues.
Radio was very important. Commercial radio used to play different kinds of music, even folk. But non-commercial radio was where it was at. A station like KPFK didn’t have one folk music show, they had lots and lots of folk music shows. The disk jockeys played music by people that I’d usually never heard of, but LOVED. One of the biggest thrills of my life in my early twenties was sending a cassette to Folkscene and having the real Roz Larman call my house and ask me to play live on their show. I felt like I’d made it now: I was going to be on the radio! And we did Folkscene a couple of times in the 1970s. I went the way of other types of music for many years, but when I ran into Howard Larman about 25 years later, he not only remembered me and my music, but the band named we’d used on the show. Amazing man.
Years later, when I did make a record (or in my case, a cassette) the very first airplay I received was on John Davis’ show on KPFK. When my song came wafting out of the portable radio in my girlfriend’s driveway during her garage sale one summer Saturday morning, I looked wildly about to see if there was anyone I knew that I could tell this about. No one. I ran very rapidly to the rear of her home where she was showing a potential customer some merchandise, carrying the radio and turning it up as loud as I could. “It’s me!” Of course, fame and fortune followed immediately.
Simplicity in folk music was more important then. There were actually radio hits that didn’t have drums or bombastic arrangements. Artists actually sounded like they could be in your living room.
Festivals were very important. There were a lot of folk music or folk type music festivals in Southern California or within driving distance every year. People actually attended these events, and listened to music and enjoyed themselves. And even big festivals, ones that were music festivals as opposed to folk festivals, hired folk musicians, too. Remember, there were folk musicians at Woodstock.
There were clubs that featured just live folk music. Really. Usually little clubs with so few seats you wondered how any profit was possible. Usually with really bad food and mediocre drinks. And we’d drive many miles to sit in a cramped seat, swilling dubious herb tea and munching on baked goods that tasted like sawdust and honey. And usually hearing music from someone that heretofore only been a photo on a record jacket. A hard travelling guy drinking out of a bag once stepped out of the shadows near the box office of a tiny club in South Orange County. “Hey man, know anyplace you can get a sandwich this time of night around here?” he asked, and I was forced to admit in our little town the answer was no. “Oh well, I guess this is dinner,” he said somewhat optimistically, hoisting the bag and bottle. Thirty minutes later Tom Rush walked on stage and laid down the bottle in the bag.
There were folk magazines. Publications that wrote articles about folk music. You could find these on the newsstand and buy them. I promise. Newspapers (remember them?) actually reviewed folk music concerts and recordings.
The recording studio where I work on occasion actually stopped using analog tape about three years ago. I have learned to live with digital, but my abilities to run the board are gone. I am now a “not hands on” producer and artist. I fought digital for a long time, but it has not proven to be a horrible beast, though the dreaded “we’ve lost everything!” alarm went off a few times. On the bright side, I no longer cut my fingers with a razor blade when editing.
Probably the biggest improvement through technology is musical instruments, especially acoustic guitars. In the last ten years, the cost of a solid wood guitar has dropped dramatically, and overseas production of acoustic instruments is astounding. The quality entry level guitars have improved dramatically. This allows musicians to possibly own more than one guitar, or gamble on taking up mandolin or bass. This is very good stuff.
Artist promotion is a whole new world. No more postcard mailers. No more slapping posters on telephone poles. Via my website (or myspace or whatever) I can now let people all over the world know how few gigs I was able to book this summer. And the ability to contact people world wide is now as easy as a keystroke or two. Getting your product to that disk jockey in South Africa is very do-able now. I can suffer through several youtube performances that I would rather not have on youtube, but someone across the world may stumble across one of my performances and actually like it. It could happen.
So things have changed. Some things are better, much better. Live music is still the coolest thing around, so take a walk or get in your car and head out to listen to someone use technology to get some folk music in you. It will do you good. But avoid the baked goods if you smell wood chips.
Dennis Roger Reed is a singer-songwriter, musician and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He’s released two solo CDs, and appeared on two CDs with the newgrassy Andy Rau Band and two CDs with the roots rockers Blue Mama. His prose has appeared in a variety of publications such as the OC Weekly and MOJO magazine. Writing about his music has appeared in an eclectic group of publications such as Bass Player, Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Blue Suede News and Sing Out! His oddest folk resume entry would be the period of several months in 2002 when he danced onstage as part of both Little Richard’s and Paul Simon’s revues. He was actually asked to do the former and condoned by the latter. He apparently knows no shame.