A Production of The Folk Life ( Inc. 1976)
John McLaughlin and Jamie Downs, Editors


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The Folk Life

The Digital Folk Life

So we were standing at the top of the hill at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1976, looking down at the main stage, the crafts stage to our left, the tank stage to our right, and Jamie said, "Why don't we start a magazine?" I looked at her.

"I've got these cameras," she said -- she was a press photographer for two daily newspapers at the time, as well as an abstract expressionist painter -- "and you know these musicians. You interview them, I'll take their pictures." And I kept looking at her, thinking.

We'd moved to the Philadelphia area a few years before, when I was teaching at La Salle College, and Albert Lord, author of *The Singer of Tales,* a study of "the Homeric question" -- who was the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey? -- had told me to look up Kenny Goldstein, at that time chair of the Department of Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania. I'd done so, getting from him the interesting comment, "You're very much under the spell of Albert Lord, aren't you?" At the time, I'd taken it as a compliment, Lord's elaboration of Milman Parry's theory of oral-formulaic composition-in-performance -- based on fieldwork among Serbo-Croatian guslars -- having captured a whole generation of young classical scholars and medievalists, among whom I felt honored to be counted, Lord's seminars on the theory having exactly the hypnotic effect Kenny Goldstein had spotted.

And then one Friday night, a couple of my students at La Salle College had invited us to go along with them to the Commodore Barry Club -- the Irish Centre in Philadelphia -- where I'd met Eugene O'Donnell, a wee leprechaun of a fiddling genius, charming the ladies in the bar, and then, through Eugene, Mick Moloney, who'd just come over from Ireland to do a PhD in fieldwork at Penn, under Kenny Goldstein. Another Irish charmer, Mick. Also one helluvah banjo player.

And Kenny was at the Irish Centre one Friday night too, and pretty soon Stretch Pyott, the industrial electrician who'd wired the Philadelphia Folk Festival site for sound -- and, eventually, TV cameras -- and was chair of the Community Relations Committee at the Festival, came sauntering over to me, and said, "So McLaughlin, when are you gonna work for me?" And I wound up getting the Upper Salford Township supervisor to help me park the cars in the upper parking lot the next year, while also chaperoning Eugene around to hotel sessions, carrying his fiddle for him, visiting with musicians, learning about how the oral tradition *really* works, while Jamie moved around, just outside the edge of vision, taking her pictures for the paper, Nikons dangling around her neck.

So here we were, standing at the top of the hill, looking at one another, turning over the idea in our minds. The newspapers Jamie worked for had a tradition of "midnight publishers," employees with sidelines getting access to production facilities for their own purposes -- tabloid-sized weekly or monthly newsletters, for the most part. We could do that too. There was computerized phototypesetting and there were layout tables.

What would we call it? A folklore or folklife publication, obviously. Besides oral-history-style interviews with folk musicians, photography would obviously be a major element. There was Life Magazine, of course, with its tradition of large-scale photo layouts. "I know," I said. " How about -- The Folk Life?" ("*THE* Folk Life?" said Saul Broudy when he heard the name. "No," I said. "The FOLK Life." There you go.)

And that's what it was, for three years, 1976-1979. The first issue appeared in time for the annual convention of the American Folklore Society, held that year in Philadelphia, as it happened. It featured Charlie Barnes, a banjo-maker from Bloomsburg, where we were living at that time -- the La Salle job had petered out, as sometimes happens with college teaching jobs -- and the next issue had Eugene O'Donnell on the cover. Equal time. For the next issue, David Amram called us up, we did an interview over the phone, and it appeared under glass at the Institute of Music, in Philadelphia, where he was conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. No more walls. We went to the Mordansville Inn, near Bloomsburg, for the next issue, and their old-time square-dancers went on our front cover.

The Red Clay Ramblers played the Philadelphia Old-time and Bluegrass Music Festival, and Tommy Thompson sat down for what turned into a two-part interview, as he philosophized about music and life, in neat, one-paragraph ruminations that put The Folk Life on the map. We went up to Mariposa, ran into Stan Rogers, whose first album I'd just reviewed for Audio Magazine, and he sat down with us under a tree on Centre Island and talked about the simple heroism of fishermen, going out each day to risk their lives to put food on the table for their families.

While Jamie ran a fiddle contest for The Folk Life down in Skippack, I went up to Croton Point, and talked to Martin Carthy about Steeleye Span, the Morris Dance, magic ("Let's see, is that magic with a small c or a large C...?), showbiz, and living a complicated life in order to live a simple life (you can read excerpts from that interview in the liner notes to Martin's Green Linnet CD, *The Collection*). John Hartford sat down for an interview about life as a Mississipi riverboat pilot, at The Main Point coffeehouse in Bryn Mawr.

The cassette tapes piled up, the proof-sheets filled the house, the magazine got put together at the newspaper, picked up on the family station wagon, bulk-mailed at the local post office, and over time, as you can imagine, it took over our lives. Finally, after three good years filled with music and travel, we decided we had to call it quits for a while. We were wiped out, plain and simple, exhausted from too much fun. Time to circle the wagons for a while. I'd started doing a weekly folk music radio program -- who doesn't wanna be Gene Shay when he grows up? -- and we had a new baby to take care of.

So we let The Folk Life go to bed, held on to some reference copies, and stepped back from the folk festival circuit for a bit. We still made the annual trek to Philly, coming as it does right on our anniversary weekend -- how can you miss Philly? -- but for the rest, we'd had enough for a while. Folk music on the radio was about our speed, for the time being.

Time passes, as it will. The radio program is now in its 18th year at East Stroudsburg University, where I've been teaching since 1982. The baby born in 1979 is in his senior year in college. And Jamie just got a lovely little digital camera, which gets superb pictures. We just got back from the first Philadelphia Folk Festival of the new millennium, and she's been busy downloading them into the computer, alongside my weekly playlists. Time to take stock.

First of all, there's all those interviews from The Folk Life, 1976-79. Somehow, it seems they've got some at least historical value, as a record of one of those cyclic "folk scares" which come along every twenty-five years or so in the USA. The newsprint reference copies we kept aren't doing much good on our office shelf (the Library of Congress got an early subscription, but it may be a while before that's readily available to curious folkies at their local libraries).

So we've started re-transcribing them, scanning them in where possible, finding some shocking proofreading errors in the originals that just have to be removed if we're going to keep any credibility down the line. I know, they're much too long for reading on the Web -- the miniscule jitter of the screen makes extended reading a painful process -- but once they're up there they can be downloaded for more leisurely reading at your pleasure. Perhaps they'll fill in some blanks for some folk DJ somewhere, looking for background on old folkies. Maybe some parts of them might find their way into somebody's term paper on "The Folk Revival of the 1970's" (just give credit where credit's due, OK? Nobody loves a plagiarist).

And there's this incredible memory card in Jamie's new camera. She got about a hundred and fifty shots at Philly this year, everybody from Nanci Griffith to Mollie O'Brien, Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer both, the Boys of the Lough to John Gorka, even Gene Shay in his superhero sunglasses. Once she downloads them into the computer, the memory card is free once more, ready to go again.

Where next? I dunno. But somehow it feels right to be thinking about getting on the road again, and somehow access to the World-Wide-Web, email, the Internet, has created a whole new ballgame. It's near irresistible, isn't it? The Digital Folk Life. Works for me.