Mortifying Moments: folk songs, technology, the masses.

I was washing dishes the other day and I was suddenly overwhelmed, at the sink, up to wrists in a soapy quart jar, with a vivid mortifying recall. I can't be the only one to get these: sudden attacks of deeply stupid things you said or did years ago.  Also a quixotic need to right the ancient wrongs!

Here, to exorcise it forever, is this kitchen-sink mortifying moment.

I was at the Atlanta American Folklore Society meeting. I presented a paper about Hawaiian Slack-key guitar and the vagaries of teaching a traditional artform using modern media, and felt a little like an academic poseur. I took a tour-- a packed tourbus full of American folklorists-- graduate students and professors-- to several Deep South potter's workshops-- saw the giant sieves to press the rough red clay and pull out the hand-shredding glass shards, the huge infernal wood-fired kilns with the godly white-hot pots transmogrifying inside. We got shown around and fed collards and pie by shirtless, overall wearing folks carving bible verses on the bottoms of their intentionally ugly folk-art pottery.

The last place we stopped was a ramshackle long shed, with a couple of kilns, stacks of pots, long rough tables, stacks of salvaged construction supplies. The potter, the last in a long family line, announced to the group that-- "as of today, this is it. These are the last pots I'm ever firing." His dad had recently died, and here, the last of Daddy's ashes were being baked onto the pots to steam iridescent glazes onto the clay bodies, and then the legacy was over. There wasn't any money in it-- he was going into construction full-time. He was tired, he was bitter. He was baking his father into clay and selling him, piece by piece.

And from the group of noted anthropologists and folklorists? Uproarious laughter.

The guy talked like a bumpkin-- a sitcom slapstick joke. So they thought he was hilarious. It was surreal-- folklorists-- academics supposedly attuned to the merit of overlooked histories, crafts, lifeways-- laughing their heads off at this guy's deep south accent. They just couldn't hear what he was saying through the drawl. That was awful. But that wasn't the mortifying moment I set out to purge.

Every night of the conference, after listening to brilliant talks and sampling local cuisine (chicken and waffles at Gladys Knight's own restaurant, a high-stakes hot dog place where they ignore you unless you shout the order in code) there were two music sessions in the basement of the conference hotel. One was instrumental-- mostly pumped-up adrenaline-junky fiddlers trying to out-obscure each other. "Hah, Oneils number 740? How cliche! I only play unpublished Strasthpeys from Badenoch!"

The other session was much quieter-- a group of polite singers, sitting in a big circle across the hall from the rowdy fiddling. Singers volunteered, one at a time, to introduce and perform a favorite song. A tall bearded man sang long polyversed ballads in a high tenor-- endless verses of may mornings and woeful shores. A sardonic American taught everyone a campfire song about chicken fricasse. An angelic Scottish woman performed a call and response hymn. A mountain white girl slipped in, sang a spooky Appalachian lullabye, and dissolved again. And I froze. I couldn't think of any tunes I knew-- it was my turn and all I could come up with was a favorite from my Fiddlesticks days. Ooh, you can even hear me sing it right here. So I introduce myself and say, "this is a tune my mom taught me, and that her dad taught her. My Young Love, or She Moved through the Fair."

And this, friends, is the moment of mortification. As soon as I said the name, every folklorist and singer in the room rolled their eyes so hard, I could hear it. All those eyeballs, grinding around in their sockets. I might as well have said it was a tune I learned on my grandpappy's knee called, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." According to wikipedia, this darn song has been recorded almost 40 times, by such famous folks as Sinead O'Connor, the Chieftans, Riverdance, Sarah Brightman, Loreena McKennitt, Van Morrison and Moire Brennan.

This song comes close to such worn-out overdone folktune beauties as "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" or "Goodnight Irene." But, gall-darn-it, the story is true! I really did learn it from my mom-- she sang it with her odd Celtic-Klezmer band. And she really did learn it from her dad, along with some other musical gems such as "She's a One-Ton Tomato" and "On Ilkley Moore Bah tat." Of course, he probably got it from the Johnny Carson show or some hoaky Irish record from the 40s.

But my nice authenticating claim, that this was an authentic piece of musical family folklore, lovingly handed down through the generations, seemed farcical. A popular song-- a well-known song-- couldn't possibly be traditional! But here, years later, I'd like to stamp my foot and say-- no.

Technology can't invalidate art. Popularity doesn't diminish excellence. Everybody liking The Lord of the Rings doesn't make it less wonderful. Recording a song doesn't remove it from the person-to-person folk music repertoire. If you say that only undiscovered, unrecorded, secret and long-lost art forms are authentic folk art then you dehumanize-- un-folk-- all of the stuff that the masses love. So, eh-hem, yes this ole family favorite is overdone and isn't some obscure Hebridean Witching Chanty, but gole-durn-it, it's still a good song.

So take a listen to Burt Jansch's version and purge the mortifying moment with me.


  1. I love your writing--you could hear them rolling their eyes. So lovely. When is your first book coming out?

    But, I love the point you make. The fact that I found a video on youtube of Joan Baez singing the song my mother's brother taught her and which she then taught me and my sisters doesn't make the song not a part of my family's tradition. I like our version better than hers anyway. Except we're not as good as her. So.


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