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Folk Alliance Newsletter

Performers Column

by Joel Mabus

written December 2001


The Name Game

By Joel Mabus

Been shopping for fruit lately?  You might have a hard time finding the prunes at your local grocery. That's because the "Fruit Council" or " American Plum Board " or some such group (perhaps the "Food Alliance?") has decided that the word "prune" has bad connotations.  Old, wrinkled and ugly, don’t you know.  So now the sweet little darlings are packaged as "dried plums."

Makes me think of the old commercial that bragged, "Today the pits -- tomorrow the wrinkles! Sunsweet marches on!"  That commercial from the 1960's was the brainchild of funnyman Stan Freeberg.  It was the same Stan Freeberg who poked fun at the name game of euphemism-in-packaging with his brilliant radio skit wherein he sang "Old Man River."  He was chided by his ever-interrupting censor into singing it as "Elderly Man River" -- so as not to "offend our senior citizens."

Sunsweet (also known for their dried grapes) is easing into the name game by stages, it seems.  Some of their packages are labeled “prunes” followed with a line in only slightly smaller typeface that says “dried plums.”  While other of their packages do the opposite – “dried plums” gets top billing while “prune” gets the lesser font.

Is "dried plum" really more attractive than "prune?"  Is anybody going to be lured into a purchase by this ploy? I shudder to believe it might be so.  I remember reading a Harper's Index a few years ago that stated "48% of Americans believe oatmeal is a wheat product."  So I guess it is true that you can fool some of the people all of the time.

This is old news in the folk music community.  For thirty-some years now, ever since the Eisenhower-era folk boom faded, there have been any number of "new" names for folk music -- roots music, acoustic music, acoustic roots music, new acoustic music, Americana, etc.  None of them has really worked out, however, and the search continues. Then there are some who prefer to associate themselves only with their own little slice of the folk music pie. Thus country blues players, bluegrass musicians, world beat musicians, old-timey, Cajun or Celtic players might each wear their own stripes proudly but most often avoid the epithet known as "folk." 

Others prefer to add a mollifying  measure of coolness by attaching a hyphen to their folk, yielding the folk-rock, folk-blues, country-folk, etc. (Somehow I don’t believe this is done to make rock, blues, or country more salable. It’s these other genres that have the coat tails, not the “f” word.)  All this name-shifting to avoid the nasty connotation that unadorned folk music might conjure -- pleasant people having a pleasant time with pleasant music.  Oh, the horror!

Ironically, about the time of life when you actively seek out prunes to add to your diet, you probably will enjoy folk music too. The tough part is figuring out what they are calling either one these days.

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