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Folk Alliance Newsletter

Performers Column

by Joel Mabus

written August 1998



Passing It On -- The Teaching Performer

One of the differences between what we call "folk music" and everything else, is that folk music has the mystique of "home made" art. In fact, that very homespun quality is the defining feature for some people's idea of "folk." Others, whose definitions may be wider, or more urbane, still will cite the quality of accessibility as an important aspect of our music. However you cut it, one of the hallmark traditions of folk music is that the skills of musicianship are passed along, mouth to ear, hand to hand, finger to finger, generation to generation.

In an earlier time in North America, the parlor or back porch was the place where young musicians learned their craft. Singing in the kitchen with grandma or fiddling behind the barn kept the old melodies alive. Work songs were just that -- songs you actually worked to. In today's world things are of course very different. Our folk culture is to be found in the marketplace, cheek-to-jowl with movies, video games, high art and low pleasures. The passing along of folkways from one generation to the next is no longer a given. How are we to insure our musical heritage will be preserved?

Enter the institution. Field recordings over the past hundred years have frozen in amber the sounds of the twentieth century. The vaults of museums are stuffed. The plethora of CDs made in the 1990's alone will certainly give any future scholar a taste for the state of folk music in our time. But what of the humanity? Will all future folk musicians learn their sense of culture from recordings? Instructional videos? Are we to that point now?

No, not quite yet. Institutions like The Old Town School in Chicago, and dozens of camps and festivals like Augusta Heritage and Pinewoods have provided a sort of faux backporch where masters and seekers can come together. Even if it is outside the confines of a family or the borders of a community, elders can still teach their crafts to a younger set. Educational endowments from the US and Canadian governments have helped. Our own Folk Alliance has it's shoulder to the wheel, too.

But the real victory comes in smaller doses. All over this continent, I find folk musicians willing and eager to pass along their craft. Some of us simply offer lessons at a music store or in our homes. Others are organizing camps or seminars. One pair of Nashville songwriters I know are touring schools with a program of teaching songcraft to youngsters -- one to one and hands-on.

But it's not only for the greater good that musicians teach. The old saying goes, "If you want to learn a subject, teach it to someone else." Nothing could be truer when it comes to music. Over the past 25 years I've probably taught a thousand people to play the banjo or guitar, and each student, whether beginner or genius, has taught me something in return. A quarter century later finds me a more patient and more focused player.

The late Jethro Burns was arguably the best mandolin player in the world. He'd be in anybody's "top five" list, anyway. But to me, one measure of his greatness was that he would give mandolin lessons in his hometown of Evanston at the local music store. In doing so he spawned a nest of great pickers in the Chicago area that reverberates far beyond. You can hear the same story said of Rev. Gary Davis in New York or Benny Thomasson in Texas. They simply took the time to show somebody else how it's done. And by that act of teaching, they left behind a bit of themselves that lives on in a way that mere recordings could never do. 

What they did was keep their own flames alive in the torches of others. And that is exactly what folk music is about, by my measure -- keeping the flame alive. And that doesn't only mean reaching a wider audience of folk fans. It means teaching -- one folk at a time.

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