Myths, lies and electricity

Unpublished letter to the Washington Post:

As an academically trained folklorist, I continue to cling to the hope that one day newspapers will update their style guides to effectively decouple the word “myth” from all things untrue. In oral and written traditions there are myths, legends, and outright lies. Robert McCartney’s 12/9 column on Pepco’s untruths clearly falls into the latter category. Folklorists define myths as narratives believed to be true, which may contain a grain of fact, but which deal with supernatural beings or events. There’s nothing supernatural in Pepco’s conduct and the company’s lack of reliability.

— David Rotenstein, Silver Spring.

Philly Folk Festival Season

Each summer Google directs dozens of visitors looking for information on the history of the annual Philadelphia Folk Festival. This year’s festival runs from August 20 through the 21st and the hits to my site are already picking up. Why is Google sending folks to my Web site? Because in the 1990s I covered folk music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and in advance of the 1992 festival I wrote a Sunday feature on the festival’s history and the folks behind it: The Philadelphia Folksong Society. I was finishing up my coursework at Penn at the time and I just happened to be enrolled in the now-defunct doctoral program in Folklore and Folklife. I also happened to be gearing up for the required FOLK 606: History of Folklore Studies class taught by the inimitable Dan Ben-Amos and I decided to use some of the reporting I did for the Inquirer article for one of my class papers. Since my time at Penn coincided with my early years writing about music I got to use interviews with folks like BB King and others as source material for term papers. Now that was cool.

For the Folk Festival story (and subsequent paper) I interviewed legendary Philly radio personality Gene Shay and many of the festival’s founders. I also interviewed Irish musician (and fellow Penn folklorist) Mick Moloney as well as George Britton (who died recently). Britton was a fun interview. Near the end of our interview he sang the chorus of a tune he wrote about the festival. He called the song, “Barefoot, Bearded and Bedraggled”:

I’m barefoot, bearded and bedraggled
Stoned and drunk as I can be
I’m the counterculture and I’m all folked up
This here’s my cry of liberty. Continue reading

Back to the Blues, Part I

Last week folklorist Bill Ferris gave a lecture at the Library of Congress in support of his new book, Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues (2009, The University of North Carolina Press). I hadn’t really thought about how much of an influence a brief 1988 meeting with Bill in his University of Mississippi office had on my career until after his lecture ended. In the summer of 1988 I was documenting folk artists in Arkansas and my background research for the project included meeting with folks who had worked there and regionally before my arrival. Bill Ferris was one of the people and Jim O’Neal, founding editor of Living Blues magazine, was another.

I ultimately didn’t get around to documenting a whole lot of artists before leaving Arkansas to return to grad school at Penn, but I did get to do some incredible fieldwork that exposed me to Delta blues culture. I went on to write about blues culture and heritage tourism in a 1992 article, “The Helena Blues: African-American Folk Music and Cultural Tourism in Helena, Arkansas” (Southern Folklore 49, no. 2: 133-46). I also found a way to help pay for school by writing about blues (and other) musicians for several newspapers and magazines. I wrote about zydeco musician Chubby Carrier for Living Blues magazine and did interviews for the Charlotte Observer, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Great contacts with Knight-Ridder newspaper chain entertainment editors provided me with a pipeline to the chain’s wire service and my articles were picked up by newspapers from New York City to Chicago to Portland.

In the meantime I was still trying to finish my doctoral program in Folklore and Folklife at Penn. In addition to the courses tied to my area of concentration, material culture and vernacular architecture, I took ethnomusicology classes and worked as a research assistant for an ethnomusicologist writing on the history of African American spirituals. In 1992 I decided to write a class paper on the body of legends that grew up around guitarist Robert Johnson (1911-1938). I didn’t want to confine my research to the library so I called up some musicians who knew Johnson some younger artists who were influenced by his music and I interviewed them for the paper. I also could draw on interviews I had done with artists who knew Johnson but who had died prior to 1992 (see Back to the Blues, Part II).

Bill Ferris’s lecture and book got me thinking about all of the old analog recordings I have lying around. I decided to try and take some of the recordings — some were done in crowded bars,  backstage at performances, and by phone for newspaper articles to be run in advance of gigs — and find some new life for them on the Web. My first effort, the Ziggy’s Blues Web site, was up from 1995 through 2006 and it had the copy from several of my newspaper articles. Ziggy’s Blues used to be available at the Internet Archive until aftermarket domain name thieves entrepreneurs got a hold of my old domain because I let the registration lapse. Ziggy’s Blues was listed in early books documenting blues on the Web and I’d like to think it was how New York Times writer Jon Pareles found my interview with John Lee Hooker to quote in Hooker’s 2001 obituary.

My latest effort is to try and combine photos I shot in the field and on assignment with the recordings to create media for distribution on the Web. First out of the can are excerpts from my 1991 interviews with B.B. King which were done in Atlanta, Georgia. The clip is available at my Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/#!/video/video.php?v=1365878913118&ref=nf.