[Bill Vanaver and Livia Drapkin are well known to people in the folkdance
world as leaders of the Vanaver-Drapkin Ensemble, which performs tightly
choreographed compositions involving everything from Appalachian clogging
to Greek and Balkan line-dances and English hornpipes. Bill is also a
banjo-picker of some renown, having played with a large number of people
from Utah Phillips to Tracy Schwarz. Both are currently involved in a
new play based on the Arabian Nights, and are planning a new production
revolving around the medieval version of the legend of Orpheus, Sir Orfeo,
in which the hero returns safely from the Celtic otherworld, having successfully
rescued his queen, Heurodis. The Vanavers make a fascinating couple, and
when we got the chance of a flying visit with Bill, en route from Washington
DC with a Tunisian drum that he was taking to New York for final rehearsals
of the play, we jumped at the opportunity to meet him in the house of
our old friend Mary McGlynn in Mt. Airy, Philadelphia. . Our only regret
was that we could not include Livia in the discussion, as she was busy
rehearsing the dancers in the final days before the play opened. We think
you will enjoy the discussion, and might point out some of the similarities
in the European experience of the Vanavers to that of Mary Faith Rhoads,
our August interviewee. But why spoil the fascinating conversation by
interpreting it beforehand? One word is in order, though: Bill got his
interviewer started on the subject of medieval drama, and almost turned
the interview around temporarily. We kept it, after discussion. It shows
another side of Bill Vanaver, his eagerness to learn and fascination with
whatever he hasnt heard of before. Maybe thats one of the
secrets of his success.]
Bill: Boy, listen to that note! [Tapping the drum-head gently, then
with gradually increasing force.] You never hear a drum that gives you
that kind of note! [Rolling syncopations in varying speeds, head titled
and eyes far away.]
John: It took you long enough to get rid of those newspapers it
was packed in what are these, Arabic?
Bill: Tunisian. We got this on the State Department tour we just came
back from, and it just arrived. Isnt that a beautiful sound? [A
final series of rolls, and the drum is laid aside, regretfully.]
John: When did you get involved in all of this?
Bill: I got involved in folk music at a camp called Circle Pines,
in Michigan, near Kalamazoo. It was a cooperative camp, and had been a
cooperative farm, back in the thirties. But by the time I got to it, in
the fifties, the McCarthy era, it was just a camp.
And Pete Seeger and Big Bill Broonzy were there that first weekend I was
there. I was just a kid from Philadelphia then, into rock and roll, but
not too involved with what the other kids were doing. The whole thing
you know, the camp was integrated, very socially conscious, and
I didnt have much of that stuff in my background just a slight
bit of it. So I was overwhelmed by it.
John: Sounds like a mind-job.
Bill: Well, its still there. I dont think its going
quite as strongly. It was basically a family camp, so there were all ages
there. Youd work in the mornings thats what made it
a cooperative. And then there were all kinds of things, besides folk music.
There was folk dancing, the real stuff. Then when I got home I took up
the guitar, and then I took up the banjo too, after a while. I had a lot
of energy. I was really into it. So by the time the commercial hootenanny
thing hit, I was more over into the traditional music already. Plus I
never stopped folk dancing. Thats how I got into the foreign stuff,
because with dancing, you dont have to know any language or anything.
Just the steps.
Thats what got me involved in foreign music too.
Was Ethel Raim there?
Bill: No, I didnt meet Ethel Raim until quite later.
At Fox Hollow, I think the first no, the second Fox Hollow
Festival. I got to know her I got to studying Balkan singing
styles with her. And then I eventually started accompanying the Pennywhistlers.
I was still performing basically American stuff on my own. But it
crept in more and more, and then I went to the Balkans, just decided
to go. I was in art school at the time, Tyler in Philadelphia. I went
to Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, because thats what I was interested
in. I wasnt involved in Greek stuff at all, then.
John: Did you ever get involved with Dick Crum?
Bill: Oh, yeah! Well, sure. I went to a lot of folkdance festivals,
and I guess he knows me by sight.
John: I was in a class with Dick Crum, Albert Lords first
class in the oral epic after hed published The Singer of Tales.
And I said to this chap sitting next to me, "Whew! Incredible
book!" And he said, "See that wee man sitting up there with
the tufty white hair and the hearing aid? Hes the one who wrote
Bill: Who was that?
John: Dick Crum.
Bill: With the
John: Oh no that was Albert Lord! It was Dick who pointed him
Bill: Sounds like a description of Charles Seeger hearing aid
John: Petes father?
John: Thats how a lot of us felt about Lord, too, then. Was
there any connection with Dick Crum, who had been involved with the Tamburitzans
from Dusquesne, at that time, and your getting into Balkan dance?
Bill: Well, in the same way that folk music split off into a popular,
a political, and a traditional music group, folk dancing too split up
almost exactly the same lines. There was a social-recreational
type, there was kind of a left-wing type that emphasized peoples getting
together, and there was the traditional. And I was into the traditional,
and that tended
to be Balkan.
John: Why was that?
Bill: Why? Because Balkan music is the bluegrass of folkdancing. For
the age I was at and the kind of temperament I had it was real
fast, with fancy footwork. Just like bluegrass banjo-picking.
Bill: Right. But it was also done on a line, and that was
a great feeling, to dance in a line.
John: Tamburitzan partying?
Bill: Yeah, its the same kind of thing the Tamburitzans
do. So there was that aspect to it.
So I went to Yugoslavia and Macedonia, and it was really great.
I got the feel for it. And a couple of years later I met Livia
at a folkdance festival in New York. She was singing with Ethel
at a workshop. So we got together that weekend, and weve
been together ever since. Thats about seven years ago.
John: Did I congratulate you on your marriage?
Thanks. Ill pass it on.
John: Tell me a bit about Livias background, since shes
not here to defend herself.
Bill: Oh, shes been singing and dancing since she was little,
in different contexts. She was the head of two companies doing Israeli
dancing, in New York, and she went to the NYU School of the Arts, studying
modern dance. And she studies with a woman whos 87 years old. Its
the "Chechetti" I think technique of ballet. This
woman whos 87 shes incredible. Its so hard to
find really good teachers. She was a recipient of a CAPS
-- Creative Arts Program Services fellowship, and was the assistant
director of the Israeli Folk Dance Festival at Lincoln Center for two
years. She sang with Zenska Penska -- like the Pennywhistlers, but a little
more traditional. And I should interject that when we met, I began writing
music for her choreography, and we created this festival company that
does modern and folk dancing.
John: The Coming Together Festival?
Bill: Right. I think were now going to call it the Vanaver Caravan
its a little shorter.
John: Its got a nice zing to it too.
Bill: Right. Lets see that was seven years ago we met.
And just a couple of months before we met, shed already signed up
to go to Greece, to study modern dance on the islands. She has a background
in folklore as well as dance. And I said, "Look, I have to play in
Mariposa, and Ill come right over after Mariposa." I went to
Greece, and met her there, and she was already dark brown by that time,
really relaxed, and I was still filled up with all that city life
shed already been there for a month already. And we left there and
went to Crete, because we wanted to get into more folk music. So in Crete
we were looking for these musical instruments called "lyra"
John: Theyre used on your Philo album, Landfall II, arent
Bill: Right. So we couldnt find them, and finally we were up
in Iraklion, the capital of Crete, wandering around, and we asked these
women where to find lyra and lauto, and they said, "Ah! Lyra and
lauto! Nikos, Nikos!" They took us to this house, they knocked on
the door, and this beautifully angelic guy came out incredible
charisma, he looked like Christ, actually and he invited us in
and started to play for us. See, they thought we wanted to meet a lyra
player! We met his wife, and it was really nice, and wile we were there
he got a phone call, and his wife said, "Koh-lumbi-ya!" And
he got a call from Columbia Records wed met one of the two
or three most famous singers in all of Greece just like that!
It sounds a bit like Mary Faith Rhoads story about how she met French
musicians in Paris.
Bill: He gave us a note to meet Yannis Markopoulos who
has a song on that Philo record. At any rate, he got me into really
composing. In the Summer wed come back and stay with Markopoulos
whenever we were in Athens. So we have two real homes in Europe.
One is in Athens, the other is in England, where we stay with this
director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, David Jones. We met David
and Sheila Allen at Yannis house in Athens, and when we got
off the plane in England there had been some royal screw-ups in
our booking, and we were stranded. So we called him, and they came
and rescued us. Markopoulos had been in England the year before,
writing music for plays, and that was that connection. So they rescued
us, basically, and we stayed with them, and went around to folk
clubs and so on. We met a lot of people that way, too. Stefan and
Liz Sobell, thats the way we met them. I decided I wanted
to go to a festival in Tynemouth, and there was a guy on the train,
Dave who turned out to be Dave Richardson, from the Boys
of the Lough but we stayed at his place, and he took us to
meet Stefan and Liz, who were living at the Blackgate Bagpipe Museum
in Newcastle. So we got there, and met Jules and Janet Schneider,
and they introduced us to the Boys of the Lough and there
was this guy Dave. So thats more or less a quick sway of describing
how we got to where we are now, in terms of the people we connect
with and the kinds of music were trying to do.
Pretty quick, Id say.
Bill: Well, Ive been trying to keep three heads together, in
terms of what we do. Weve got our own performing, just Livia and
I, and then theres the company, and now Im trying to write
music for movies. Because everyone knows how hard it is to make a living
from just singing folksongs.
John: If I can say it, you remind me in a lot of ways of David Amram
that energy. And hes got a lot of experience writing for
movies The Arrangement and so on.
Bill: Well, its something a bit different. Last year, Kermit
Love, who does the puppets for Sesame Street, made a puppet film for a
pharmaceutical firm, about pinworm, which infects kids, mostly. Its
a film about how you shouldnt be embarrassed if you have an itch,
and how you should tell your Mommy its really a film about
embarrassment, and I think its really good quite apart from
the pinworm thing and they want to sell the drug. Its really about
kids who are too embarrassed to say anything to their parents, and I think
that in many families people probably transmit their uptightness to their
kids, even when they dont mean to. And its a great puppet
funny! and it takes six people to move it! Anyway, I did
the music, and theyre really very happy with it, and now Ive
got two more films to do the music for. At the same time, somebody asked
me to do music like the Thirties for a film about the WPA. And of course
right now the play is taking up most corners of my mind. Its opening
on Wednesday, for a three-week run in New York. I imagine itll be
closed down there by the time this appears in The Folk Life. Though it
could run again, of course, if it gets good reviews. Ive got a lot
of faith in it, I mean weve been working on it for two years now,
almost daily. I think its really good this time. Last time you werent
really sure whether you were supposed to be living in a fantasy, or with
these people who were actors who were telling you a story. Its no
longer the same thing as far as believability goes, its no
longer supposed to be. Its right upfront, really Brechtian. Youre
really conscious of these people in front of you its very
like folktale in that sense.
John: My doctoral dissertation dealt with that. The alienation effect
in medieval drama.
Bill: No kidding!
John: Oh yeah. The argument runs that if youre playing Christ,
for example, you could be regarded as trying to take the place of Christ
and thats the crime for which Lucifer fell, thats blasphemous.
So you have to get it right upfront this is only a game, its
only a play. That was also one of the problems with the Puritans and Elizabethan
theatre, later boys pretending to be women onstage was wicked transvestitism.
Well, if its recognized as only a play, that removes that objection.
Or it should, although it didnt stop them from closing the theatres
in 1642. V.A. Kolve wrote a book, The Plaie Called Corpus Christi, about
this an application of Johan Huizingas Homo Ludens to medieval
Bill: So, in other words, in the Middle Ages they didnt want
John: Well, they were opposed to an illusionistic theatre, I think.
Its Brechts didactic use of the theatre, too the audience
isnt supposed to be lulled asleep.
Bill: Well, thats an interesting argument towards the archaic
approach to art. We tend to think that when another culture does a face
or whatever in a non-photographic style, that they couldnt do the
other. But obviously thats a ridiculous argument. If you look at
Egyptian art, half of it is "archaic," the other half is totally
John: Yeah, it has nothing to do with ineptitude. In fact, its
a very sophisticated art, which the Cubists picked up on in their fascination
with so-called "primitive" art.
Bill: The reason were doing that you know, it would be
very interesting for you to see this play. Because were coming out
and very deliberately asking for peoples approval. I know, actors
are always doing that! But quite openly we go out there and we ask people
to like us. The play starts, and while the overture is going on, they
build the set out of cardboard. The play turns on the story of the hunchback.
Hes been killed, and everybodys blaming everybody else, and
the judge says, "Youre all guilty, and Im going to kill
you all." And then theyll say, "What a fitting end to
the story of my life!"
And the judge, whos a story-addict, says, "Youve got
a story?" And he starts telling the story of his life, so everybody
wants to tell the story of his life, to get them off the hook.
And thats essentially the story of the Arabian Nights, as were
doing it. Theres another part of the story, called Scheherezade,
that were not doing this time. The last time we did it, with the
story of the hunchback embedded within it. But it didnt work for
us, so this time we have the hunchback story containing the others. And
this thing with the audience is related to that. Whenever in the play
something happens and someone in the audience laughs, the actor has the
option to back up and do it over again, and re-connect. And theyre
very skilled at that these actors are just right for that approach.
John: It reminds me a lot of Brechts Caucasian Chalk Circle,
where the judge, Adzak, is a scoundrelly peasant whos elevated to
the judgeship during the Revolution. And one of the cases hes asked
to judge is between the rival claims of a peasant girl who has been protecting
a little boy, named Michael, whos the natural son of a landlord,
and the landlords widow, who wants the child back so she can make
her legal claim to the estate.
So he has to do a Solomon, this scoundrel. And the whole thing is told
as part of a communal celebration of the harvest.
Bill: And the
audience is part of the celebration.
John: Right. The audience in the theatre is like the audience
onstage, sitting in judgement of the rival claims. Theatre like
that is clearly using the stories for didactic purposes.
Bill: Yes, I think you could say theres a certain didactic
purpose in what were doing too. In respect to the play,
theres a lot of themes on the Arabian Nights. And the ones
weve focussed on are sexual craziness and religious persecution.
John: And human cowardice.
Bill: Exactly. Its a satiric play, about how the lower
parts of people take them over, basically, so they never reach
for the higher. And of course Livia and I have been working on
a piece which is based on the medieval "Sir Orfeo."
Are you familiar with that?
John: Are you kidding? This is funny in the Journal
of American Folklore, Summer of 1974 or 75 I think it is,
I have a piece in there about "Sir Orfeo as Return Song."
Bill: No kidding! Wow thats really funny.
John: Sure. See, as a Return Song, theres a resurrection,
Orpheus doesnt die or lose his wife, he comes back to his
kingdom, so hes like Odysseus, in that sense.
Do you understand the relationship between the two?
John: Thats what the articles about the argument
is that youve got a classic old Indo-European Return Song, appearing
in the Odyssey and also in "Sir Orfeo." Your hero returns in
disguise, telling false tales, being recognized by the worthy in the end
after he returns to his palace, to the marriage that ties up the whole
Bill: So it a way its much closer to the Odyssey than it
is to Ovids Orpheus?
John: Oh yeah, much closer. You get the same thing in other medieval
romances, like King Horn and so on. When you mentioned the Balkans, I
was thinking that Albert Lord has cases of exactly that patterning in
his Serbo-Croatian Heroic Songs. "The Captivity of Djulic Ibrahim,"
for example. Studies of these Balkan stories, using the same patterns
as in the medieval poems and the classical Homeric epics. It seems to
me that theyre passed along in oral tradition, surfacing as folktales,
romance, epic, and so forth.
Bill: What level do you think they were transmitted do you
think its a bardic situation?
John: I wouldnt know how you would tell the difference. I think
its the same story-stock, whether youre dealing with princely
minstrels or gypsy vagabonds. And I think it may go back to mythological
tales of the gods and the otherworld. The same place where the Dead-and-Rising
God came from.
Bill: The god, not the hero?
John: The god transformed into the hero in course of time Gilgamesh
Bill: Did you ever read Joseph Campbell?
Bill: Well, his wife runs the theatre where our play is going to take
John: Its a small world.
Bill: Its funny how everything comes together. I mean, youve
obviously got these interests, in the ancient mythologies and in modern
folklore, whats happening now.
John: I dont think we should make these divisions. Distinctions,
Bill: Right. I know, theres a different feel about it, but the
one learns from the other. I mean, Livia and I were doing these theatre
pieces, and theyre very spaced out, science fiction, and one of
them has Stonehenge as a setting, its called "Bird Among the
Blue Stones." Its based on a Robert Graves poem, a Celtic charm
that he translated or reconstructed. And these people were saying "Oh
not the same old banjo player!" And they
just couldnt handle it. And people that knew Livia thought it was
weird why doesnt she just stick to dancing? Its a hard
attitude to fight.
John: But then you run across something like the John Edwards Memorial
Folklore and Mythology Foundation, and thats exactly the point.
There shouldnt be that division. Distinctions, all right. I can
see mythology as having to do with the sacred and folklore well,
I was going to say the profane, but even that
Bill: Thats a good question. You could use the profane to mean
secular, but even then
Well, thats how they are sometimes used. But there are studies of
the folklore in the ballads, and they focus on the supernatural elements
in the British ballads, so its a weak distinction.
Bill: Well, Christianity is certainly founded on fusing these distinctions
Jesus being a carpenter, the everyday person being a god.
John: And all through the Middle Ages, the Apocryphal Gospels
which are now regarded as "folklore" were accepted as
embodying the myth, the religious faith.
And then theres the idea that the ballads are simply versified folklore
if you take a folktale and put it in verse, youve got a ballad.
Or you can take a folktale and put it on stage, as you do with The Arabian
Nights. Are you into this in your version of Orfeo?
Bill: Well, we came at it from a different angle. I remember Martin
Carthy sang me a version of "Sir Orfeo," from the London or
Caedmon Records. Its got an old man, I think from the Shetland Islands.
John: Childs collection has a late 19th century version from
Bill: Well, Martins version has Sir Orfeo in it, with a king
in the East and a king in the West. He doesnt perform it onstage
as far as I know.
John: Yeah, the king in the East and the king in the West correspond
to Orfeo and the medieval King Pluto Plutus of the Underworld.
The rivalry is over the queen, who is in the middle.
Bill: No kidding? Maybe I should have a copy of this tape!
John: Oh, youll see it in The Folk Life!
Bill: Its much different though. It starts out with the king
in the East, and from then on its all Orfeo and the faeries. Orfeo
plays a pipe, rather than a harp, which I would keep Id substitute
that. Its basically the same he goes to the woods and charms
John: Yeah, in the medieval texts that follows the abduction of his
wife, and before he goes to the otherworld to retrieve her. It doesnt
follow the failure in Hades, as in Ovid.
Thats his disguise when he comes back to his palace he was
wandering in the woods all those years, you see.
Bill: The one nice thing that the ballad doesnt have is this
thing with the steward who takes care of his lands.
John: Well, hes the worthy party to whom one returns in the
end, the one who sees through the disguises.
Bill: Well, it also corresponds to the idea in mysticism, in spiritual
growth, of finding a steward in yourself, to coalesce all the parts of
yourself that you want to keep. Your real "I" thats
God, or Orfeo comes to the foreground then.
John: So its really yourself that youre testing?
Bill: The inner growth is the same as the myth. Supposedly, thats
what youre doing, teaching about inner growth.
John: Thats interesting, because American Indian folktales also
teach you about the return from the otherworld. Any religion that only
teaches you how to prepare for the otherworld, for heaven beyond, and
doesnt teach you about how to use your hard-won wisdom back home,
is only telling you half the story.
Bill: Well, how different is that than Jesus telling you that you
must die to the world to be reborn. You become dead to all your petty
little likes and dislikesyou know, when I was a child I spake as
a child, and then I have put away childish things. And then you find God.
Its the same idea.
John: Does the play, as public entertainment, have this kind of thing
as an underlying point youre making?
Bill: Not really, except in the sense that its all there anyway.
I mean, you cant teach that the play has to exist on many
different levels, and its there for you if you I mean, for
some people, the play might appeal to their prurient interests! The inner
growth idea will miss them. People have to come away with different things,
in the end they have to get what they get. Its the same thing
when you do a song and there are all these things working together, texts
and melodies and so on, and people pick up what they can. So many different
levels something has to exist on. Its in the stories, though, its
not something were superimposing.
John: Would that be a basis for your choosing one story over another?
Bill: Maybe somewhere in my own work, but The Arabian Nights is directed
by someone else. Its totally secular in its feeling totally,
totally. I guess when we do "Sir Orfeo" it will be less so.
But I think weve been very romantic about that, and we want to be
less so. Dance tends to be romantic anyway. Youre idealizing movement,
and youre making things bigger, you know. And so we have to find
a way to make things more human as well. The kind of dance that we dont
like is the kind that separates you. Though we dont like the "happening"
John: What kind of feedback have you been getting from people in your
attempts to bring together these different traditions from different countries?
Bill: It really depends on who youre talking to. Part of it
is people trying to find "more real" things. Though of course
one mans "real-er" is another mans cop-out, isnt
it? Some of my friends who were rock musicians thought I wasnt doing
the real "going to essence."
John: They were?
Bill: Of course. I was really just being naïve, doing something
that doesnt exist, because they realized that folklore really didnt
exist. But I sang rock, you know! I just never identified myself with
it. For instance, we had a Jewish wedding. Five years ago, I might have
thought that was silly. But it was great. I dont believe on these
things on a first-level basis, thats for kids. But it was never
intended to be read on that literal level.
John: That seems to be the reason behind a lot of rejection of religion
and of folklore too. If you cant accept it on that first
level, you have to throw it away.
Bill: But surely the people who laid it out werent that stupid!
John: Not religious adepts!
Bill: This is getting pretty heavy, isnt it? (Laughter)
John: I agree, and I know we have a lot of ground to cover. About
the music, for example. How long have you known Jay Ungar?
Bill: I met Jay and Lyn with the Putnam County String Band. I was
with a thing called the Newport, and then the Sing Out! Travelling Folk
Festival. It was funded to bring traditional and interpretive music around
to all the different colleges, at really low prices. I mean, for a thousand
dollars you could have the Georgia Sea Island Singers, Almeda Riddle,
Elizabeth Cotton, some really incredible things. Thats where I met
them, and started playing with Jay. And Abby Newton played with the first
Coming Together Festivals we put on.
John: When did those start?
Bill: That was when I had first met Livia, we put those on. When we
came back from Greece about five years ago, I think. We did one
down at the Washington Square Methodist Church, and we did one down at
the South Street Seaport, on the deck of that restored whaling ship down
there. It was a really nice time. It was a freezing cold night, and with
those metal decks the audience was really freezing their butts off. So
every few songs or dances wed get them up to dance around, just
to warm up! Our idea always was, with audiences, that we wanted to dance
with the audience, not just perform for them.
John: Which brings up something else the South Street Seaport,
I mean. On this Philo album, the first piece, with Jays fiddling,
is called a hornpipe
Bill: Yes, but this piece isnt really a hornpipe! Its
got more of a Latin feel to it for some reason I dont know,
it reminds me of some early Alec Guinness movie
John: "Our Man in Havana"?
Bill: Thats the one!
John: Why is there the sequence there is on the album the alternation
of Greek music on Side 2, for example?
Bill: Well, there wasnt always an intellectual reason
wed just recorded about one and a half times more tunes than there
are on the album, so we just tried to make it a composition. Sometimes
its because of a big change from one to the next, sometimes its
a link because of the meaning. In the past few years weve done a
lot of change-change-change, now were getting more thematic. Sometimes
if we had three Georgian songs, wed spread them out over an evening.
Now we tend to put them together, to form sub-structures in an evening.
And this record isnt just background music it isnt
music to do something by.
John: Well, I was looking at "Georgia, USA" and "Georgia,
Bill: Oh, right! I think those two, Uncle Dave Macon and the other
Georgia one, work well together.
John: I was interested in the Uncle Dave Macon, "From Earth to
Heaven," condemning the car, because on one of the County Records
Early Nashville String Bands albums, he has a song praising his "Henry
Bill: Praising the Ford car? Thats funny, because most of his
songs about cars really oppose the automobile, because he ran a freight
wagon business. Thats an interesting shift.
John: And I see the Georgia, USSR, song, "Netavi Gogo,"
is listed as "traditional." Where did you hear that?
Bill: From a group of records put out by a Soviet company, which have
a booklet with the words and everything. Theyre by a Georgian woman,
Mrs Somaya, who helped us with the pronunciation and everything. Usually,
we like to make sure that whatever song we sing in another language, we
could sing it to the people from that culture too. Most of our Greek music
is pretty easily appreciated by Greeks. Though I feel more at home with
the Appalachian music and feel more able to take liberties with the material,
because I know the idiom better.
John: You know, its a different definition of "folk,"
when youre dealing with someone whos within one tradition
Bill: You mean, comes out of a tradition?
John: Right as opposed to someone who crosses from one tradition
to another in their performance.
Bill: What I feel about that is that it depends on where you are from.
There are a lot of folk musicians who are familiar with different folk
idioms. There are people like gypsies, especially, who can play in many,
many different folk idioms.
John: I hadnt thought of that case. I was thinking of Aly Bain,
steeped in the Shetland folk tradition, yet willing and able to play with
Paul Siebel on Hank Williams songs at Mariposa. Or Lou Killen, singing
Delta blues to American audiences as a demonstration that British folk
revivalists, at least, have heard something other than Child ballads as
they were growing up.
Bill: Especially in Europe, with all the migrations. Especially fiddlers
and we tend to think that musicians play this or that out of choice
more than anything else.
John: That seems to be David Brombergs attitude.
Bill: I wouldnt go so far as David would. Ive had this
kind of talk with him too, and he tends to see music as just music. Not
to judge different musical forms. And to me different kinds of music do
have different statements, do make different kinds of appeals, have different
psychological statements, work on various levels with different parts
of the personality. So Im apt to find myself making value judgements
John: Well, David had a July interview with Folkscene Magazine, out
in Los Angeles, and he does make that point too. He talks about the different
disciplines that underlie each kind of music how, for example,
jazzmen used to sneer at rock-and-roll, saying anyone could play that
stuff, but when they tried it, it just came out "wimpy"
like jazzmen trying to play rock-and-roll.
Bill: Absolutely. And I think David would go for quality in any of
them, because he has just excellent musical taste. I dont think
were presently talking about quality, but kind, you and I.
John: I think so, yes. But it does seem like a difficult feat, to
immerse yourself in another culture, such as the Greek or Balkan music
you deal with.
Bill: Yes, but in some ways its not so different. I mean, the
skills involved in singing an old American hymn you know, the real
"high lonesome sound" of Roscoe Holcomb and that kind of singing
is not all that different than in Greek singing. Certainly theyre
closer to each other than either would be to modern "pop" singing.
John: Why would that be?
Bill: Because of the placement the vocal styles are not all
that different. The style that goes through non-commercial Western
and Eastern, from China to India music, all have the same basic
John: Thats not a matter of the scales that are used?
Bill: No, its a matter of the styles, the vocal production.
Now, many of he scales we have in the old styles are Byzantine in origin.
But when you think of a scale, theres more than a scale in
Greece you have "droma," the same as raga in India, or macams
in Arabic music. And in the higher art forms, in classical Indian music,
you find the ragas they dont think in terms of ragas in their
folk music. And its the same in Turkey or in Persia, or in Greece,
even in the church. They think of these musical "modes." Theyre
things like, you can go from "doh" to "me"
but you have to go down to "ray" before you can go on to "soh."
That kind of thing. And the ways you can ascend and descend, thats
a set rule, and any melody you write. It follows one or another of them,
or a combination fro the same psychological reason they were created
in the first place. And especially the older ballad melodies follow them
closely. So you find some of the older ballad melodies being exactly the
same as Greek folk melodies. And most of the successful folk melodies
"This Land Is Your Land" follow the same sequences.
Sandy Paton, talking about the ballads that he picked up on Beech
Mountain, in North Carolina, noted that some of the old, old singers
sang in ways that the younger singers simply couldnt.
John: Theyd flatten out the melodies to fit popular songs
Bill: Of course, and theyd add a vibrato or something
John: Theyd drop off grace notes and so forth. Things that
were natural for the older singers.
Bill: Sure. This kind of ornamentation is quite European, in fact.
It goes all through European music, and its difficult to gain
an appreciation for the one when you have a musical language thats
geared to another.
John: What about I took a devils advocate position
not too long ago, half-joking, that you shouldnt learn to read
music because youd have to filter your perception of folk music
through a standard musical notation which wasnt made for that.
Bill: Hm. Well, I dont know as Id go that far.
I wouldnt argue that you shouldnt learn to read music. In
my case, it only helps me to identify more quickly the ornament I want,
for instance. I mean, almost anything can be written in notes at
least on the same level as you could perceive teaching someone about it.
But I would certainly recommend oral transmission along with it.
John: I was just reading a book on blues piano, where the author points
out that there are certain notes in the blues which simply dont
exist in your standard piano tuning on your standard piano keyboard.
Bill: Right, which is exactly why they have to hit two keys at once
to get "in between the notes" the quarter-tones. Which
is also true of ballad singing, they do sing in quarter-tones there. And
these same quarter-tones are also perceived in Byzantine music and in
Arabic music. But we dont know how to identify them in terms of
the discipline itself, the set of rules, which is lost. But they still
sing in the same quarter-tones, because you can go to Greece and hear
the same tones and the same melodic type.
John: Has that been transcribed?
Bill: Im sure there have been papers about it, but I dont
know with what kind of orientation. You know, some ethnomusicologists
are more concerned with the vocal "coloration," and they measure
everything on a computer in terms of what vocal bands are "happening"
at given points. The notation really varies, in terms of what people are
interested in. But thats an interesting subject. Diffusions from
East to West, particularly
John: Assuming one is trained in one vocal tradition, how does one
pick up another?
Bill: Well, what Im saying is that they are the same tradition!
Deep down, theyre the same, and if you get deep down, if you get
into various traditions, you see what are the various idiosyncrasies,
and what are the general things that go right through them. And of course
were fortunate to have so much represented even in Western
music, there are such similarities to say, Indian music, that go right
through. There are pentatonic ideas that go right into it, and influences
from the American Indian, and theres the whole African influence
on our pop music.
John: I was thinking of American country music, and the direct influence
right through from the Appalachian versions of the English and Scottish
Bill: Well, thats the same all over. Its the difference
between plain home cooking and McDonalds. Some of the differences
have to do with access to the media media and technology have a
big influence on the styles. Also, the commercial, hard-sell approach,
grab-the people-quickly approach. And the kind of time that people have,
or that they live in. I dont mean in terms of the times, but the
times that people have. I mean, for instance in the ballad thing people
are more relaxed, you have more of a horizontal approach. When youre
listening to the Beatles, its immediately changed to grab-you, grab-you.
Its a different psychology when you sing the ballads although
of course ballads can turn into a one-up-man-ship thing too. People trying
to impress you with how many different ones whereas in folk cultures
I would imagine people singing the same ballads for years and years. Which
is one of the things that attracts me to it.
[But despite that, the times were upon us, and he did have to run; rehearsals
in New York were calling, and then the play itself
. So endeth the
reading of the original text, from The Folk Life Magazine, in November
1977. To check on how Bill and Livia and the Vanaver Caravan are doing
now, as of July 2001, go on over to their website how can you miss
the Vanaver Caravan? and check out their new CD, Pastures of Plenty,
based on the work of Woody Guthrie. Theyll be doing the show based
on the CD or is it the other way around? -- with Arlo Guthrie in
the not-too-distant future. I bet Lila Downs would love it.]