Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for July 1st, 2017

Listening to West Virginia

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Part of folk’s appeal, particularly to young adults in the 1950s, was its antihero mythos—a sense of the music as the property of outcasts…Prep school students from the Northeast would stay up all night listening in the dark to WWVA out of Wheeling, West Virginia…Forty years later, listeners from Boston could imitate the deejay, Lee Moore, “your coffee-drinkin’ night hawk,” and recite the commercials for a hundred baby chicks, just five dollars…

“One of the things that made this music different and better than whatever everybody else was listening to was the fact that everybody else wasn’t listening to it,” said John Cooke, a New York blueblood who played bluegrass guitar at Harvard. (He was the son of writer Alistair Cooke and great-great-great-great-nephew of Ralph Waldo Emerson.) “It was not merely not commercial music,” said Cooke. “It was anticommercial music…”

Young northeasterners like Cooke and his friends apparently never realized that the music they revered as noncommercial (or anticommercial), the sound of rural artists that struck them as exotic and obscure, was really nothing of the sort in its time and place. Every track that Harry Smith collected for his Smithsonian Folkways albums was originally a commercial record, produced and distributed for profit; these were not field recordings by folklorists such as John and Alan Lomax. In West Virginia, WWVA was a commercial radio station, broadcasting songs its local audiences considered the hits of the day.

David Hajdu, Positively 4th Street

Written by nevalalee

July 1, 2017 at 7:30 am

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