Perfect Sound Forever

Freak Folk Origins

Harry Smith

by Peter Stampfel
(December 2009)

ED NOTE: An abbreviated versoin of this article appeared in Blue Navigator, 22 South Great Georges Street, Dublin 2, Ireland (who also graciously provided the photos here)

This is a sort of P.S. coming at the beginning instead of the end--when I started writing, I wasn't sure what point I was trying to make, and this stumbles and fumbles a lot. Generally speaking, it's about emerging musical and social trends that I see as hopefully growing, due the their being useful, fun, and helpful to the ongoing human condition, as we all venture forth towards the most interesting times ever. That's about as much of a thesis as I can figure out.

I first heard the phrase "freak folk" a couple of years ago. Then I heard that something similar in the UK was called "old weird," echoing Griel Marcus' phrase describing the very American music from the Harry Smith Anthology. Of course, the UK has old weird too. Old weird is everywhere. Always has been.

All the stuff I read about old weird/freak folk (hereafter referred to as OWFF) sounded interesting, but what annoyed me were the discussions of its origins. Only one author mentioned Michael Hurley, and no one mentioned the Holy Modal Rounders. The articles all said OWFF was started by a bunch of people who came along years after Hurley and the Rounders first recorded.

You can trace freak folk back directly to the first albums of the Holy Modal Rounders and Michael Hurley, recorded in 1963 and 1964 (or '65), respectively. Three songs stand out as landmarks to the genre: the Rounders' "Euphoria," which was written by Robin Remailly while he was chopping a tree, and two songs on Hurley's first album, "The Tea Song," and "Intersouler Blues," aka "Radar Blues," which was made up jointly by Hurley, Weber, and Remailly when they all took peyote and decided to go to Philadelphia to ride on the subway. When they got there, there was no train, so they sat down in the station and made up the song. The station had a great echo, they noted.

I'll bet.

But of course, Hurley and the Rounders didn't invent OWFF either, which brings us to: Who did? Let's call who did...

The Ancestors of OWFF

or "Ancestors," for short. They've gotta go back to Orpheus and Dionysius. Maybe Hermes too, because he's credited with inventing the flatpick. Naturally, any practitioner of OWFF can have any damn Ancestor they damn please. This is, after all, the Free World.

But for me and a lot of other people, I guess, when we think Ancestor, we think of all the musicians who played and sang on the Harry Smith Anthology--Charlie Patton, Charlie Poole, Uncle Dave Macon, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Clarence Ashley, and hundreds of other singers and musicians who played and sang on the 84 tracks that comprise The Anthology of American Folk Music that was released back in 1952. As far as I'm concerned, Spike Jones is an Ancestor, and so are Jimmie Rodgers, Bert Williams, and Emmett Miller. Hell, Jimmy Durante too. What's the cut-off age for Ancestors? Is simply being dead enough? What comes to mind is that there is a first wave of Ancestors, which goes from Dionysus to Jimmie Rodgers, and a second wave, which includes Hank Williams. I'm not sure when a cut-off birthday might be, except somewhere between Jimmy Rodgers' birthday (1897) and Hank Williams' birthday (1923). What about a third wave? A fourth? Maybe more waves aren't needed, but I'm curious what other people think.

Some Ancestors are absolutely weirder and freakier than others. Anthology standouts Hoyt Ming and his Pep-Steppers are way more weird and freaky than the Anthology's Carter Family, who were unweird enough to be slated for the cover of Life magazine (though they were pre-empted by the attack on Pearl Harbor). But then, Hoyt Ming and his Pep-Steppers are weirder and freakier than almost anything, ever.

But I think at a certain point of oldness, everything automatically becomes weird, something I hadn't noticed until my friend Rich Krueger said he thought Harry von Tilzer ("Take Me Out to the Ball Game," "Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nelly," "I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad") was an Ancestor. My first thought was, since he was probably the most popular songwriter in the U.S. a century ago, "He's too mainstream." Then I thought, "But Stephen Foster is surely an Ancestor--doo dah, doo dah--and he was mainstream as could be back in the day." Then I thought that after a certain amount of time passes, "old" automatically becomes "weird."

I'd like to get input on who the Ancestors are (besides anyone you want), out of curiosity as to who would make the top 10, 25, and 100.


The OWFF thingie will eventually be called something else, or more likely, blend into somethings else, thank god, but whatever it's called, here are more of its characteristics.

It tends to be multi-generational. The young folks are into the old and middle-aged folks and often (not counting the dead folks) vice-versa. It's generationally inclusive, as opposed to that just-for-the-young or just-for-the-hip exclusivity common to other genres of pop and non-pop music.

Favored intoxicants seem to be pot, shrooms, alcohol, or none. Like in the early 60s that went to hell in a handcart by the summer of '67 (See Joe Boyd's book, White Bicycles for the exact date), when the combination of ex-con Manson types, hard drugs, runaway teenagers, idiot lefty politics, and media hype sent the counterculture right off the rails. Although to be more accurate, the early '60's intoxicants were pot, peyote, and alcohol. To be more accurate still, I would have to acknowledge that in the early '60's pot and hallucinogens were considered "good" drugs, while alcohol was considered a "bad" drug, along with speed, heroin, and cocaine.

Everybody into the Poole

Instrumental breaks tend towards everyone playing at once, like in old timey music, or soloing amidst ensemble improvisation (called tail-gateing in traditional New Orleans jazz) as opposed to bluegrass and jazz with their Everybody-take-turns-and-shows-off solo esthetic. With a larger number of musicians improvising together, there is an ever-increasing possibility of neat weird shit happening, and everybody loves that.

But many people playing together goes as far back as when music started with percussion and handcrafted flutes, which were probably first fashioned from bones. I've heard that the extended Bach family used to get together periodically and play music together, with hundreds of Bachs playing at once, often for hours on end. I've also heard that the Bolero was once a musical form that was played for extended periods of time, sometimes even days, and that mobs of musicians would even go from town to town, playing all the while, joined by more musicians and dancers as the music went on and on, without stopping.

Dance Dance Dance

OWFF favors free form goofy dance styles (again, like in the '60's, when the music inspired improvised cavorting and general wild carrying on that didn't necessitate a knowledge of steps or even a partner). The original Holy Modal Rounders, Steve Weber and I, had a gig playing a prom at the Stevens Institute, a technical college in Hoboken, New Jersey, in the winter of 1963-64. They were expecting some sort of hootenanny thing to happen when the dance band took a break and we came out. There we were, armed with a guitar and a fiddle, while everyone-- crewcut fratboys, their dates, and the faculty chaperones--were stretched out across the far walls of the room, with the vast and empty dance floor between us. A daunting venue. We played our first song and got the what-the-hell-is-that stare that usually occurred when people saw us for the first time back then. Very sparse and confused applause followed. They had anticipated something more like the Kingston Trio. Our second song had the same effect. We were bombing. For our third song, we played "Give the Fiddler a Dram," and we decided, what the hell, and stretched out the instrumental break. All of a sudden, about a half dozen fratboys got out on the floor and started this shambling, foot kicking, arms around each other's shoulders Zorba-the-Greek-but-much-sloppier dance. Relief! At least somebody liked it. Almost immediately, another bunch started a similar, lurching dance, then another bunch started dancing in a loose circle. Soon, over a hundred guys were dancing crazily, singly, in twos and threes, and fours and fives, and small circles, medium circles, and big circles.

By this time, the faculty members were becoming disturbed, and an angry group of them marched toward us, clearly intending to stop the music. A group of dancers, however, got to us before they did and proceeded to dance around us in a circle, keeping the faculty at bay. More dancers joined them, circling the first circle, but going the opposite direction. The faculty kept trying to break through, but a bigger circle encircled the second circle, and a still bigger one went around that. It was so deeply strange seeing all these mostly drunk smiling happy grinning faces going round and round and round us, all wearing tuxedos. It was one of those moments when I knew I was doing the right thing with my life

. But all good things must end. The faculty dance cops, being a bunch of engineers, eventually employed their expertise and pulled the plug on the sound system. We continued playing acoustically, but the diminished volume cut down the freak mojo we had unintentionally called forth. The faculty persisted, the dancers fell out in bits and pieces--we had been playing "Give the Fiddler a Dram" for about twenty minutes at this point--and the faculty told us in no uncertain terms that the show was over and gave us our hundred dollar check, which was a lot of money back when our rent on the Lower East Side was sixty dollars a month.

I've had a number of strange coincidences happen since I started writing this. One of the strangest was in reading a review of Barbara Ehrenreich's Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. Her thesis is that ecstatic dancing has been around as long as people have, and was even part of the Roman Catholic service until the 1200's, when the Inquisition was established, mainly to put a stop to it. But the old wildness had to go somewhere. When it was booted from the Church, it became Carnival. Carnival was slowly wiped out over the next few centuries, and had all but disappeared in Europe by about 1600. Simultaneously, as ecstatic dancing was wiped out, melancholy--"depression" in modern terms--became a powerful factor in Western culture. Meanwhile, Western explorers had been going all around the world, and everywhere they went natives were dancing in that pre-Inquisition manner Westerners now found sexual, intoxicated, out of control, and possibly devil-inspired. However, the natives were not depressed. We would soon fix that.

In so-called "primitive" cultures, there was no disconnect between "performer" and "audience." In many parts of Africa, there is still a single word for "speak," "sing" and "dance."

I certainly had not made the connection between freaky dancing and a sanity-promoting tradition hardwired into the human race, but this remarkable book spells it out in a way that has me convinced.

OWFF and Unseen Forces

As a lower middle class kid from Milwaukee, I grew up knowing nothing about folk music. Years later, when I examined my early years for any sign of it, all I could recall were the following lines, sung to a polka tune by my uncle in 1948: "Hey bartender why you holler? / Oh, I owe you fourteen dollar" and "Turn the water on the sink / Everybody have a drink."

But in 1949, American pop radio had three folkish hits. One, "Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly)" was an actual folk song that Burl Ives sang in Disney's So Dear to My Heart. The other two were new songs written with a folk "feel"--"Ghost Riders in the Sky" and "Mule Train," both of which went to number one on the pop charts. Curiously, in my fifth grade class in 1949, we were singing a number called "The Cossack Song," which was everyone's hands down favorite, and it had a melody almost identical to "Ghost Riders in the Sky."

The Weavers represented folk music's commie/lefty/academic aspect, and in 1950, they went to number one in Your Hit Parade (a weekly radio program sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes) with "Goodnight Irene," the old Leadbelly song, although in the Leadbelly version, he doesn't "see" her in his dreams, he "gets" her in his dreams. John Cohen just came across a 1936 LIFE magazine article with a photo story about Leadbelly titled (excuse me) "Bad Nigger, Good Minstrel." The Weavers also had a hit with "Tzena Tzena Tzena," which was the first time I ever heard a five-string banjo.

"Wanderin'," another folk song was successfully recorded by the Sammy Kaye Orchestra (of "Swing and Sway With Sammy Kaye") with a lead singer and chorus. And one of the biggest records of 1951 was "Cry of the Wild Goose, which went straight to number one on radio's Your Hit Parade. That year was a high water mark for pop/folk, with eleven folk or folk-inspired songs being hits: "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" and "On Top of Old Smokey" by the Weavers; "The Roving Kind," The Sound Off! marching song/chant popularized by its inclusion in From Here to Eternity, "Jezebel," one of my all-time favorites, and "Shrimp Boats Are Coming," "Gandy Dancer's Ball," "Rose, Rose, I Love You," "Beautiful Brown Eyes," "Truly Truly Fair" and "Belle, Belle, My Liberty Belle."

See Part II of Stampfel's freak folk article

Also see our interview with Stampfel
his article on 'Go' music
his tribute to Sam Shephard
our tribute to Steve Weber

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER