I love folk music. Celtic, English, Mountain, bluegrass: you name it, I like it. (Not, of course, that horrible ersatz called “Country.”)
But let’s face it, folks: Michael Cooney was right. Folk music tends to be “heavy on the fiddle, heavy on the harmonies, and light on the rehearsal time.” (That’s as opposed to Tom Lehrer’s clever but fundamentally incorrect remark that “The problem with folk music is that it is written by the people, most of whom have no talent.”) Worse, since a certain casualness in performance is taken as the hallmark of the folk style, folk performers tend to deliberately cultivate a little bit of imprecision: going a little sharp vocally, putting an unnecessary twang into violin music to make it genuine fiddle music, emphasizing the speed of a breakdown number by slurring the notes.
I once heard James Galway do a live concert with a violist and a harpist; the bulk of the program was Baroque, but the second encore was the Foggy Bottom Breakdown (perhaps in honor of the Kennedy Center venue) and you could hear every note distinctly. Instead of giving the impression of speed through sloppiness, they gave the impression of speed by playing faster than any human being ought to be able to play. Unforgettable! (And, alas, never recorded, as far as I can tell.)
Imagine how glorious it would be to have a whole concert in which classical standards of performance were applied to the folk repertoire, or to new pieces in the various traditions. (Not Dvorak trying to make classical music on folk themes to bootstrap a musical high culture for America, or Ralph Vaughan Williams writing what Auden properly mocked as “sets of fugal variations on some folk-ballad,” but composers with a real feel for the traditions themselves making their own music.)
Now that you’re done with your visualization exercise, run right out and buy Heartland. Joshua Bell and Mark O’Conner on violin, Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Bela Fleck on banjo, Edgar Meyer on bass, Sam Bush on mandolin with vocals by Alison Krauss (sounding as sweet and pure singing Stephen Foster’s “Slumber, My Darling” as she does singing “Down in the River to Pray” in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and James Taylor. Taylor, dropping the folky whine that disfigures his usual performance, turns out to have a marvelous voice, and “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier” (a Mountain version of “Suil a ruin”) is astonishingly moving.
The instrumental work is equally impressive. Ma, as is well known, must have sold his soul to the Devil to be able to make a cello sound like that, but the others are hardly outclassed. The very first cut, with Bell on violin, accompanied by Meyer, Bush, and Marshall, playing Meyer’s “Short Trip Home,” is just about perfect, and the piece itself, with its lovely original melody, is a contribution to the Mountain tradition, not merely a borrowing of it.
Meyer’s 1B, which starts out with a very catchy theme that sounds like a folk melody, fairly quickly segues into what is fairly obviously art-music rather than folk-music, but to my ear Meyer is more successful than Dvorak or Copland in making the combination work. O’Connor’s violin work is distinctly country fiddlin’, though of a very high order; Ma’s cello is just Ma’s cello, with not a hint of drawl, but somehow the two don’t clash at all. If Meyer decided to work in longer forms, he might yet give us the Bluegrass analogue to Gershwin’s symphonic jazz pieces.
[Heartland is a compilation drawn from several albums, all on the Sony Classical label: Appalachia Waltz and Appalachian Journey (Ma/Meyer/O’Connor), Liberty and Midnight on the Water (O’Connor), and Uncommon Ritual (Meyer/Fleck/Marshall).]