It seems that a friend’s teenage son, who plays guitar and harmonica, has discovered and been impressed by another harmonica player. The latter lives in France, and reaches whatever audience she has by way of YouTube. In general, she performs by turning on a webcam, putting on a recording by a well-known artist, and playing along, adding her harmonica part to an existing song. Her name is Christelle Berthon, and her YouTube channel has (as I type this) 1,336 subscribers.
But the video below is a bit of a departure from the scenario just described: It’s a duet between Berthon and Vamos Babe, another YouTubing musician, a guitar player whose YouTube channel has (at the moment) 943 subscribers — and a section called “YT Collabs.” These are her YouTube collaborations with other musicians.
So what’s folk, anyway?
To a large extent the article is about the question of what, exactly, folk music is. Writer Burkhard Bilger paraphrases Rosenbaum’s criteria. For one thing, “the songs had to be traditional, the music learned from relatives or local musicians.” On the question of the folk performer, Bilger notes that Rosenbaum never recorded the major figures of the folk revival that was going on even as he began his field-recording career: “Folk music, to him, was the art of the anonymous.”
Elsewhere in the article, John Lomax is quoted saying, in 1937, that the sort of field recording he did (along with his son Alan) would soon be rendered either impossible or pointless by the march of progress: “The influence of good roads and the radio combined will soon put an end to both the creation and to the artless singing of American folk songs.”
About anonymity, to a large extent it’s just bad record-keeping. There’s no such thing as anonymity in folk-song composition. That’s a fiction of the Lomax generation.
The important thing is iterative development within a lineage. For example, “Saint James Infirmary” is an iteration within the same lineage as “Streets of Lauredo.” “Frog in the Well” and “Froggie Went A-Courting” are relatives. This iterative process is what allows one generation of musicians after another to make their work from the best possible sources.
You see the same process with sampling in the mashup world. A good riff appears all over the place, making every work that uses it better and empowering musicians to do the best possible overall work.
To trad folk people like Alan and John Lomax, the idea of folk was tied into the idea of authenticity, and authenticity had to do with oldness, rural roots, low-technology. For myself, I am comfortable in my own authenticity. I am authentic, and so are you. Other people see you as authentic. Future historians will see you as old and low tech.
The key turns out to be iterative development, and iterative development turns on the public domain. It’s copyright that prevents musicians from iterating on one another’s work.