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Folk Alliance Newsletter

Performers Column

by Joel Mabus

written October 1998

 

 

MusicHound Folk

A rather remarkable book was published in the fall of '98 -- MusicHound Folk. Subtitled The Essential Album Guide, it is published by Visible Ink Press and is the latest in the series which includes MusicHound Blues and MusicHound Country.

Weighing in with 1030 pages of biographies and discographies of seemingly every performer in folk music, this is no small tome. Edited by Neal Walters and Brian Mansfield this is very nearly a "who's who" of folk performers past and present. As Singout's Mark Moss writes in his forward to the book: "You're holding in your hands an answer to that most reviled of all rhetorical questions: 'What is folk music?'"

With entries of Cajun, Celtic, old-time country, bluegrass, 50's folkies, 90's newcomers, folk-rock to country-folk, a browse though the entries does start to give one the feel for the depth and breadth of what we call "folk." The entry for each performer or band gives a brief bio or history and lists a critique and recommendation for CDs along with influences for further investigation. Peppered with short essays on a wide range of topics such as "morris dance" or "zydeco" written by people who really know the topics, this becomes more than just a CD guide.

Pete Seeger graces the cover, but inside you'll also find Hobo Jim, Jimmy C. Newman, Sandy Denny, Phranc, "Chirps" Smith, Blowzabella and Milton Brown. Hank Williams alongside Mason Williams, Jack Guthrie as well as his brother Woody -- page after page of insightful commentary on how this music comes together as the crazy quilt we call folk music.

To be sure, this book will have its critics. With scores of contributing writers, there is a certain unevenness to some of the reviews. Some seminal figures get a terse overview while a few lesser acts get reams of detailed background. But on average most entries get a fair shake. The book admittedly has limited itself to Anglo and Celtic based folk music, so "world music" as we know it is not really represented. And with the promise of "album guide" in the title, the editors have limited themselves to artists whose recordings are available in the US. That means that some Canadian acts who don't tour the US much (for example, Valdy) are not here, though they may have huge followings in Canada. Still, plenty of Canadians are included: for example, James Keelaghan, Ferron, k.d. lang, Wilf Carter, and Stompin' Tom Connors are listed as well as the expected entries for Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Buffy Sainte-Marie and the McGarrigles.

But to the editor's credit, it would have been easy to just list the rosters of a half dozen better-known labels such as Sugar Hill, Green Linnet and Rounder (who includes a sampler CD from some of their acts pocketed in the back cover) and be done with it. But a huge number of these entries are from hard-to-find micro-labels or self-published works. This book was obviously a labor of love.

Check it out. My recommendation is that every presenter or folk organization who books folk music should have MusicHound Folk on its shelf. Likewise any folk DJ. Lobby your local library to buy a copy. An evening of browsing this book is an evening well spent.

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