Counterfeiting, Stealing, and Cultural Plundering:
A Manual for Applied Ethnomusicologists, with 12 Tunes for Fiddle by Hank Bradley
Mill Gulch Music Press, Seattle WA 1989
Hank Bradley, AKA The Poison Coyote Kid, is a multi-instrumentalist/cultural critic of ferocious talent and intellect living and playing in the Seattle area. At a jam session I attended many years ago he played hours of guitar backing up Romanian and Greek fiddlers in oft impenetrable time signatures and then turned to me, whipped out a fiddle and ripped through Bob Wills' most arcane and modal version of "Done Gone," just my kind of player. A wise music fan would be on the lookout for his singular LP release, "The Return of the Poison Coyote Kid," which features the greatest song ever penned about a Hot Dog stand ("The Mayor Is A Good Old Boy.")
Mr. Bradley hinted to me that little book got him in a bit of "trouble" when it was first published as many folks still avoid eye contact or give him a wide berth at festivals and other gatherings of "folkniks." As he explained it to me, he intended it simply to be a handbook of good manners designed for those folks who ran off into the hinterlands looking for old people they could hassle about music. His reflections on cultural differences between the applied ethnomusicologist (Yankee in this case) and the tradition bearer (a Southerner, closer to my experience) especially caught my attention, using "Villages" to stand in for cultures:
"Consider a Brooklyn bluegrasser at a 1970 Virginia Fiddlers Convention. A northern villager knows you're supposed to take public transportation, resist US war involvement, minimize meat and junk food consumption, excoriate polluters, and meet women and all socially conscious people as fellow and equals.
|Oh yes, Bad Livers are in part responsible for this, I'll cop to it.|
If these villagers stick to musical topics, all will go well enough socially, but if not it is easy to see how a heartfelt opinion on either side might lead to hurt feelings and hostility on the other."
As a Southern Jewish Bluegrass musician, I often found myself in the presence of folks at a picking session who would normally be burning a cross on my front lawn, (not a joke, BTW) so I could really relate. And these many years later, very sad to report, Bradley's warnings still seems to hold true. Just last year (2013,) a Texas fiddler I brought up to instruct at a very well known fiddle camp in the economically well off, socially "liberal" North West US had more than a few attendees going out of their way to make him feel very uncomfortable for holding the very sorts of opinions that in fact made him an authentic, living voice of his community. Lead to some mighty "hurt feelings" all around, I can assure you.
For some in the "traditional folk" community today it appears, there is still a glaring disconnect between the creative output of a living culture and what it is that actually makes the life that creates that culture's very output. "Just teach me the tune, I don't need to hear about what the tune is for..." is a phrase I've heard more than once as an instructor at a music camp. It's expressed in a way that I think isn't intentionally malicious, but sure could be seen that way. And worst still, its needlessly pointless, as it contributes to drawing people apart rather than focusing on the one thing music does best: bring us all together. **
|White Top Mountaineers, maybe TOO authentic?|
Not that long ago it was literally impossible for me to interest my local folk club in Austin TX in a rare performance by actual traditional bearer fiddlers from White Top Mountain in sponsoring even a little house concert, but they got real worked up about a foreign immigrant who plays their own version of American music. What's the take away from that? Must traditions be filtered and refined by outsiders before they are fit to be enjoined with? It's hard not to see racial and class prejudice behind such glaring disconnects, as the tradition bearers themselves never seem to mind who comes to learn from them. It's a troubling question on many levels.
But Mr. Bradley is wisely unburdened by others baggage as well. Hank is famous (infamous?) for presenting his original fiddle tunes as "learned from some old master he found in the hills somewhere," duping a hoople in the process and teaching them a fine lesson all at the same time. The last chapter of this thin tome includes 12 of these tunes with titles like "Dance of the Music Critics" and "Chase the Squid," and they are well worth your time in learning. Chock full of interesting insights on the process of the "folk revival," and a overall great read.
Copies can be secured contacting the publisher, 8033 14th Ave NE, Seattle WA 98115. Or simply email him here.
** (Possibly the "camp" model contributes to this contextual break, knowing full well these pointed political jabs would be very much out of place where this music is created and nurtured? Another conversation for another time. I run a camp of my own now, so its something I think a lot about.) :-)