(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
You know, it’s nice to
see that folk music has pretty solidly made a comeback, with an active bunch of artists making records and touring. The Billboard
folk albums chart shows consistent, if not especially spectacular, sales of folk acts. Mumford
Sons, of course, were the big exception and became a major sales story of the year when they moved more than 600,000
copies of the album Babel in its initial release week. There have also been impressive works such as the
Avett Brothers‘ Carpenter and The Lumineers’ self-titled album.
music has traditionally been the chronicle of historical events. Before (and even after) the advent of newspapers and radio
and TV and blogs and tweets, the folksinger, the troubadour, chronicled the events that people cared about. Whether it was
the shooting of Billy the Kid or the tragic railroad crash of Casey Jones or the disappearance of the pioneering aviatrix
Amelia Earhart or the sinking of the Titanic, history was preserved in song.
Woody Guthrie, especially, told the stories
of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression and the migration west by the Okies with iconic songs such as “This Land Is Your
Land,” “Hobo’s Lullaby” and “Worried Man Blues.” Guthrie’s musical children include Bob
Dylan, Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny
Cash, John Mellencamp and Emmylou
Harris. Cash’s folk albums depicted the sagas of the Native Americans. The folk tradition is intertwined with country
music and blues music, beginning with the Carter Family, Jimmie
Rodgers, Hank Williams, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Hurt and Mance
Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and John Prine were all branded
folk singers. The rodeo songs of Chris LeDoux are straight out of the
folk ethos. Guy Clark and Townes
Van Zandt were pioneers on the Texas folk club circuit. Country stalwarts such as Waylon
Jennings and Bobby Bare in Nashville were marketed as “folk-country”
even as such country-leaning groups as the Byrds and Poco were labeled “folk-rock.” Kris
Kristofferson in Nashville was pretty much a pure folk singer.
What is now remembered as “the great folk scare”
of the 1950s and 1960s was a time for discovery and renewal of the folk tradition. It started with the huge commercial success
of the Kingston Trio with their debut album in 1958 and the hit single “Tom Dooley,” which sold 3 million copies. The song
was a smoother modern version of the old folk song “Tom Dula,” which was the story of a real Southerner who was convicted
and hanged for killing his fiancée. That sort of revamping old songs became a pattern in commercial folk music. Their
lineup — guitar, banjo and bass and three voices — was widely imitated.
Unlike the Kingston Trio’s political neutrality,
the folk movement led by Dylan and Joan Baez and groups such as Peter, Paul Mary shifted leftward and gave rise to protest
songs addressing the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War rallies and marches and gave inspiration to countless new
folk groups, especially on college campuses.
One of my favorite albums this year comes from the stellar country singer
Bobby Bare. His new CD Darker Than Light collects 16 folk songs, ranging from “Tom Dooley” to “Tennessee Stud” to “Woody”
to “Dark as a Dungeon.” His laconic vocal deliveries render these timeless songs vital again.
Bare has been adamant
as identifying these as “folk songs,” not as “folk music,” because isolating them and identifying them as stand-alone songs
is important to him as marking them as significant event songs in American history. For example, the song “Boll Weevil” encompasses
a period of American agriculture when cotton was king and boll weevils loved to eat cotton plants.
“What drives me
with the folk songs,” Bare told CMT Edge, “is the melodies. The melodies are great, and if they hadn’t been great, they wouldn’t
have been around this long. I’m talking hundreds of years, some of these great melodies — and a lot of the folk songs were
like CNN is now. They were the news of the day. Anytime a disaster or tragedy struck, somebody would write a song about it
and put it to the tune of who knows what — but always to the tune of ‘Red River Valley’ or something like that. That’s the
way it goes.”
Bare closes Darker Than Light with the newest song here. The late songwriter, artist and author
Shel Silverstein wrote “The Devil and Billy Markham” as a poem, published it in Playboy in 1979, and it was later turned
into a stage play. Set in the old Lower Broad diner named Linebaugh’s, it tells the story of an epic dice game between the
devil and a down-on-his-luck songwriter named Billy Markham.
Some sample lines from the song: “Well, then, get down,”
says the Devil, “just as if you was gonna pray. And take these dice in your luckless hand and I’ll tell you how this game
is played. You get one roll — and you bet your soul — and if you roll 13, you win, And all the joys of flesh and gold are
yours to touch and spend. But if that 13 don’t come up, then kiss your ass goodbye. And will your useless bones to God, ’cause
your goddamn soul is mine!”
It’s good to remember that Shel, like Woody, didn’t have co-writing appointments on Music