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Folk Alliance Newsletter

Performers Column

by Joel Mabus

written June 2000



Folk Music in the Brave New World
By Joel Mabus

I should start by admitting that I play the banjo. This past year a wonderful book on banjos was published: America's Instrument - The Banjo In the Nineteenth Century (Gura & Bollman, U of NC Press). It is a marvelous book, full of pictures and plenty of detail in describing the transformation of the banjo from homemade slave instrument to the ornate gilded-age parlor piece every proper Victorian home would display. The book's story ends at 1901, when the five-string banjo peaked in popularity.

Fast forward to 2000. I just came from an event where every banjo joke known to humanity was trotted out, to the guffaws, groans and smirks of all. This was a folk music event of course. No one tells banjo jokes except in the world of folk and bluegrass music. As a banjoist, I wasn't particularly offended. I've heard 'em all before, and told a few good ones myself. Banjo players, as a group, have a pretty good sense of humor about themselves.

But I must admit, after a while the punchlines about drooling on stage, and perfect pitches into the dumpster get a little uncomfortable. This especially resonates when I talk to a DJ who says "I air folk music, but won't I won't play a cut with a banjo. Nobody wants to hear a banjo." (actual conversation) Now, certainly, that's her right, even if I think she's wrong-headed. It's a free country (so I've heard). And since I also play guitar and write songs, she considered me "more than just a banjo player," and thus not the pariah she would otherwise avoid.

I know, don't be so sensitive. Take a joke. Lighten up. There's plenty of banjos to go around, right? Well, yes, and no. It is getting harder to find parts - and players - for the old style instruments. At the most recent Folk Alliance Conference, the marvelous and truly adventuresome banjo showcase was pretty much attended by only a small handful of aging banjo players, myself among them. (Pete Seeger popped in early and jammed a little with me and two guys named Ken - but that's another story.) I certainly won't be the one to cry "politically incorrect" at the next banjo joke I hear. But somewhere in my mind I hear the echoes: "First they came for the banjos, but I didn't play the banjo, so I said nothing. Then they came for the accordions…"

If the banjo seems perfectly cast in the role of folk music's "crazy aunt in the cellar," it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure that folk music itself is the crazy aunt of the music industry. The biggest players in folk music make barely a blip on the sonar of popular music. Folk music on the radio is mostly relegated to off hours at low-rated community or public stations. Our most prestigious folk record labels are considered flotsam to the moguls of AOL-Time-Warner or Disney. To most popular media writers, folk music was a '60's fad that almost caught on. Last year there was a young mainstream pop-rock singer who featured a banjo in one of her songs - her record company was furious and delayed her project by months, sure that even one twang spelled media death. I have seen good and honorable colleagues grope for alternative wording to market their music - acoustic, new acoustic, Americana, etc - anything to avoid the deadly "F" word. 

The existence of the Folk Alliance in this past decade has given a new breath of life to the culture of "folk music," or at least a modicum of dignity to the word "folk." Even as we avoid the sticky topic of defining what "folk" is, more people now use the word proudly. Sometimes I think our biggest impact as an organization is seen in the inquiring faces of the cops, taxi drivers, hotel employees, and restaurateurs in the convention cities we invade every February. "What are all you people carrying those guitars for?" "We play folk music!"

As I write this column, a French sewage and water utility is poised to become the second most powerful entertainment provider in the world. By the time we go to press and you read this column, you may already be downloading music videos to your cell phone, monitoring them directly on your retina, and storing them in a memory chip imbedded in your nose ring. The world of music delivery is a shifting sand, and getting shiftier every day.

Amidst the storm of controversy over song piracy, Napster and Gnutella, MP3 file sharing and copyright infringements, I recently read the text of a speech by 90's rock icon, Courtney Love. She bemoaned the "plantation system" of the major record labels. She went through the economics of how a newly signed band can be advanced two million dollars and how that band winds up broke while the label clears 8 million. 

Divide those numbers by a thousand and you have a typical folk deal. No joke. However, broke divided by a thousand is still broke.

Ms. Love's point was that the young rock band would be better off working at Burger King and giving their music away for free. Now THAT is a punchline worthy of a banjo joke.

What MY point is - and I do have one - is that those of us who are fortunate enough to make the music we love into a career (or even semi-career) are truly blessed, even if that blessing is the blessing of poverty. In the words of the old spiritual, we may be "rebuked and scorned" for being out of step with pop culture, but we are stepping right along, aren't we? We may fly so close to the ground that we escape the radar of the mainstream press, but we do fly under our own power with our wings unfurled. And if it seems folk music in the year 2000 is only treading water in a sea of digitized sound bytes -- well, we aren't drowned yet. In fact, some of us walk on water every day.

And here on the doorstep of the 21st century, let me describe the perfect music delivery system. I grab a guitar - better yet, make that a banjo - and sing a song I have stored in my memory. You hear it with your ear. Both ears will count as two hits. Now it's in your memory.


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