[Comments to a particular singer/songwriter’s mailing list, revised.]
I was chuckling at the various “if I never hear Pancho & Lefty again…” comments [on the mailing list], having remarked very recently that it’s on the short list of pop songs that I never tire of. (The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is another, despite its having been the background, on a boom box outside, while I took the SAT. It’s also another where many people disagree with me.)
I grew up listening to, among other things, the traditional ballads (long story-songs) of Anglo–American folk: Songs passed down through the generations, whose authors’ names are long since lost, but which are known by many people in a culture, and sung by professionals onstage and equally by people in the shower or at work or whatever. One of my friends has a large hard drive on her computer entirely dedicated to versions of the Child Ballads. My library is not so complete as that, but still contains dozens of examples from the collection with which Francis James Child blessed us.
Don’t get me wrong. I also love an enormous amount of “singer/songwriter stuff,” the modern “folk” whose authors are known and which is performed for audiences, for pay. But to my mind these are different genres, and modern “folk,” copyrighted and mostly sung by those who write it, is in the second category. And of course it’s a spectrum, or rather several spectra across different dimensions. There are singer/songwriters whose work is acoustic pop-with-guitars or maybe pianos, and singer/songwriters whose work is rooted in and almost indistinguishable from the ancient traditions,* and everything in between. (To my mind, modern–ish political folk—Woody Guthrie, for instance, and his spiritual descendants—is either somewhere in the middle ground or orthogonal to this particular discussion, off on another plane.) My taste tends very strongly toward the latter: trad-style or neo–trad or whatever we choose to call it. And count me among those who can hear a good song over and over and over, performed by different artists or the same artist, in similar or wildly varying styles, and still enjoy them no less. For whatever that’s worth.
* Stan Rogers used to introduce The Witch of the Westmorland (as Rogers spelled it, along with other edits—-the folk process in action!) as “a 300–year–old ballad written by my friend Archie Fisher,” and that’s the sort of thing I mean.