Posted by Brooklynbanjoboy on Monday, February 17, 2020
In 2017 or so I was at the point in writing a book on Tommy Thompson that required me to focus on his long deliberative process about making a living by playing banjo, turning his attention away from his plans to teach college-level philosophy - after an investment of ten years in academia - in order to focus fully on his band and what it would take to keep them on the road, with a yearly calendar of gigs.
I had just read two articles:
Mac Benford, “Buy or Bye!: Old Time Music in the Consumer Age - with Personal Reminiscences,” Old Time Herald, Spring 1988, Volume 1, Number 3, pp. 12 – 16.
Joe Wilson, “Confessions of a Folklorist,” Old Time Herald, Spring 1990, Volume 2, Number 3, pp. 25 – 31.
A lot became clear about the decision points string band members in musical agglomerations like the Red Clay Ramblers and their friends in the Highland String Band had to face in turning to music (especially old time music) as their primary means of making a living.
Mac and I talked about this by phone a bit, and he helped clarify the context in which he and his fellow Highland String Band musicians made these decisions.
Today I found a note I wrote to Mac after sorting through these things.
I just managed to snag a copy of your OTH article from 1988 – I have not yet received the copy of the OTH with Wilson’s article in it. I did see some of the other responses – Tracy Schwartz, Ray Alden, etc.
But to me the value of your article was not necessary captured in the matters that became the basis for the outpouring of views that were given air in the pages of the Old Time Herald.
For me, your article crystallized the issues that Tommy Thompson - the subject of my current writing project - must have been mulling over between 1971 and 1973 when he was weighing the possibilities of a career in music, evaluating the pros and cons in quitting his day job, so to speak, and calculating what it would take to form a band and play music that would give him both the opportunity to
(1) play the traditional music he had learned to appreciate in the Hollow Rock String Band and
(2) find the creative space and for pushing the musical envelop in a manner that gave lead to his own intellectual energy, curiosity and creativeness.
By that I mean he had to carefully think about precisely the things you enumerated:
Can old time music work on a stage,
pay a debt to the past and satisfy the demands that the future will impose on music,
return lyrics and singing prowess to the mix in a way that underscores the importance of singing to old time musical traditions,
integrate “flash” and “show business savvy” into the equation,
insure that variety (medleys, breaks, skits, recitations) has a role in the performance in a way that contributes to “survival on a performance level.”
You brought a lot of clarity to the decision point that Tommy attempted to describe in his several musings about the formation of the Red Clay Ramblers.
Today, Mac's "formula" for a successful old time music string band stands as a reminder that old time music was - and is - an assemblage of numerous kinds of creative elements.
Not just musicians but:
people capable of mastering theatrics and pomp
people who learned that it took to put on a good show
as well as careful managers capable of planning the financing of such ventures in strategic ways.
Mac reminded me that the whole string band revival that Tommy and the Red Clay Ramblers, and Mac and Walt Koken and their fellow Highland String Band members, and legions of others experienced was far more complex and kaleidescopic than simply getting a band together - far more multifaceted than just finding a fiddler and a banjo player, a guitar player and a bassist, and keeping in tune.
Monday, February 17, 2020 @6:43:42 AM
Carl Baron pointed out that I got the name of Mac's band wrong - Highwoods not Highlands - I have Highlands on the mind because of Jim Scancarelli's Molehill Highlanders. Apologies.
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