Faster Folk

& WFDU-FM’s TRADITIONS Playlist for April 17, 2016

Folk songs, once recognized as transmitted from generation to generation in an oral tradition, took on a new method of delivery during the folk revival. Songs would be written and tried out on audiences in the clubs and coffeehouses. If the new song was good, other singers might pick up on it and share them in their performances in other venues, and the really good songs would be shared by folk music fans in their communities.

The Coop (Fast Folk) February 1982

The Coop (Fast Folk)
February 1982

Jumping ahead to 1982, singer-songwriter Jack Hardy led a group of songwriting friends to create The Coop, a combination magazine and LP that showcased a new generation of artists creating their own version of a folk revival in New York’s Greenwich Village.  In a time when the cost and technology required to make a record was prohibitive for most independent artists, The Coop, soon renamed Fast Folk Musical Magazine, provided songwriters a chance to record their songs and be heard by wider audiences. The project lasted until 1997 and documented over 2000 songs from more than 600 different artists, many of whom became staples on the contemporary folk scene.

In 2016, there are many new options available for both artists and listeners. Recording equipment is now within the budget for most artists and the ability to release CDs and file downloads. The result is not only a cost savings, but an opportunity to get their music out faster.

For topical songs, this has proven to be a blessing. Many artists are now seizing the opportunity by releasing single songs as MP3’s or videos to share on their websites and YouTube. They are also making these songs available to folk radio.  I had the chance to play several of these songs on Traditions.

In last week’s post here in the Folk Music Notebook, I discussed reaction from the music community over the controversial HB2 law in North Carolina. Incensed by religious right’s reaction, singer-songwriter David Buskin wrote and recorded a song called “Cardboard Christians.”

As a composer, David gained recognition by writing 5 songs that appeared on Mary Travers solo recording Morning Glory. In the early 70s he toured with the rock band Pierce Arrow where he met Robin Batteau. Baskin and Batteau formed their own partnership and the duo was quite popular on the folk circuit until they went their separate ways in 1990 , although they reunited from 2005 to 2014. In addition, David’s satiric genius was on display with the popular group Modern Man, a trio that also featured Rob Carlson and George Wurzbach. Since Modern Man ended their collaboration, David has continued to write and perform including occasional appearances with his talented daughter Sophie who is also a singer-songwriter. David is also well known for composing numerous television and radio commercials during the 1980s and 1990s.

I hope that David’s new song “Cardboard Christian” will be the first of many more songs from David. His talent for getting to the heart of the problem in a humorous but firm way will hopefully cause some people to think about their actions and reactions to such issues as HB2.

Satirical singer-songwriter Roy Zimmerman and his wife and co-writer Melanie Harby have started a new project in which they will post a new song each week on Roy’s website, right up until Election Day. It looks like he will have plenty of material for his weekly offerings.

For over 20 years, Roy has been using his gift for satirical song as a tool in the fight for peace and social justice. His progressive stance on issues including same-sex marriage, Creationism, guns, war and economic justice to create songs that have been heard on HBO (his song “Ted Haggard is Completely Heterosexual” was used in the HBO documentary The Trials of Ted Haggard) and Showtime (he wrote “I’m Fired” for the networks film Fired) and also as a featured blogger for the Huffington Post. Roy’s Election year topical song project will be featured on his website (www.royzimmerman.com) as well as on YouTube.

Just in time for Earth Day, Christine Lavin wrote and recorded a brand new song called “Sinkholes.” The dangerous situation, which can be caused by natural as well as man made causes, is particularly a concern in Florida due to the high concentration of karst limerock. Just a quick note – while this is a new song, it was not a “fast” song. Christine did extensive research to make sure the information was correct, which makes the song even more compelling. I now I’ve been watching where I step since first hearing this song!

Christine, an acclaimed singer-songwriter who has been an icon on the contemporary folk music scene, is well known for her superb use of humor in her songs and performance. She has also recorded numerous romantic songs as well as a few topical songs. She has tackled the NRA, Fox News, Dick Cheney and the Bush administration, cigarette smokers and more. Some of these songs have been deadly serious, such as the powerful “More Than 1,000,000 Americans” which deals with the tragedy of the senseless gun deaths that have occurred in this nation since the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Her inspiration comes from a variety of sources, often from newspapers or TV reports.

I’ve often felt that talented singer-songwriters see the world a bit differently than the rest of us, so it is no surprise that Christine used her special gifts to create a unique song to warn us (or scare us?) about the danger of “Sinkholes.”

Topical songs have long been a staple in folk music. Woody Guthrie and his peers would often create songs whose sole purpose was to be used on picket lines or political rallies. Songs of protest about current events can be found in most folk song collections.  Yet most of these song are what Tom Paxton once termed as “short shelf-life” songs.  Tom made several of these recordings available on his website in the hopes of reaching the ears of his audience while the topic was still current, rather than wait months or even years before issuing a CD. Today, using available technology, topical songs can reach people faster than ever.

Folk radio has long stood on the broadcasting of well-made studio recordings. Most of my peers still insist on professionally made studio recordings, delivered on CDs,  and delivered by well orchestrated CD release campaigns by professional promoters. Airing songs from MP3 that were quickly recorded is still an issue with some folk radio hosts, but hopefully that will change.

I would hope that folk radio hosts around the country will embrace the opportunity. I also hope that more artists will contact folk radio hosts and offer songs like Roy, David and Christine have done. It is true that many of my peers still have reservations about downloading and airing files, but the ability to share topical songs that deal with fresh issues is an important facet of folk music. In addition to playing older recorded songs that have a relationship to a current issue, why not offer listeners a chance to a brand new song that might only be a few days or hours old? The reach and impact we can have on our audiences is an important link in the evolution and perpetuation of folk music.

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About Ron Olesko

For over 40 years, Ron has been a radio programmer with WFDU-FM in Teaneck, New Jersey. He created WFDU-FM's TRADITIONS in 1980, a show that he continues to host and produce every Sunday afternoon from 3 to 6pm Eastern Time. He's the president of and booker for the Hurdy Gurdy Folk Music Club in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and is a regular contributor to Sing Out! as well as the host of the Folk Music Notebook blog on this site. Ron can also be found emceeing concerts and festivals around the NYC/NJ area. A lifelong Mets fan and a rabid soccer geek, Ron is a Red Bull season ticket holder since their inception and will most likely be in his seat when not in the studio.

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