Monday, October 06, 2014

Folk Instrument

I read a Spengler column about a month ago in which he declared tangentially that the American folk instrument is not the guitar, but the piano. It was unexpected enough that it has stuck with me.  It seemed ridiculous.  Yet I think he is right.

One might make a case for the violin/fiddle, used in many types of music and highly portable, as we automatically expect a folk instrument to be. Yet I don't think it reaches the threshold of commonality necessary.  Not every extended family has a violinist or fiddler.  Not every church or school has one.

The other nominations which might occur to us, the banjo because it is American or the harmonica because of its extreme portability, provide a clue where we went wrong in thinking it is the guitar in the first place. Both are commonly associated with poor people's music, and we think of those as "the folk."  I can see why in international terms one would learn to automatically exclude the music of the wealthy and elite from any consideration of "folk" music, preferring the music of the countryside and the peasants, who greatly outnumbered them.  But in America, that was not so.

The guitar was not especially a poor person's instrument in America anyway.  It was a Spanish instrument, which made it popular in Mexico and the southwest, where cowboys and ex-slaves in those areas picked it up. After that happened, the guitar backfilled to the east in bluegrass and country music, breaking north south at the Appalachians. (Guitars were not always present in early bluegrass.)  Among black musicians, the backfill hit the Mississippi River and went north-south there instead. By 1900, one could find a lot of African-Americans along the New Orleans-Chicago route who played guitar, and it worked its way into Eastern cities over the next few decades.  But guitar isn't a big jazz instrument even now, and it certainly wasn't before the 60's.

There was some German and English use of the guitar which had made its way into America, but they were largely in more classical circles. No, the guitar a century ago was cowboys, hillbillies, and streetcorner singers.  And these were exactly the people who academic song-collectors trained in eastern universities thought were "the folk," and thus, the source of Real Folk Music. The guitar was rather an accident in that.  Song collectors also checked in on sailors and prisoners; unaccompanied singers were not neglected, nor were fiddlers - though the latter were at a disadvantage because instrumental music runs along different streams in folk music. There was no pro-guitar conspiracy among the academics, and they might not have identified it as America's folk instrument themselves.  But the groups that they defined as "the folk" - and there was a lot of politics in their framing - just happened to include the few groups that also had guitars.

By the 1950's, and certainly the 60's, the reach of guitar as the everyday peoples' instrument swept back the other way. Not only did rockers and hootenanny make it their central instrument, but its place grew even stronger in country & western music at exactly the time that genre became wealthier and more mainstream. Classical guitarists got a boost, because now that there were so many other people playing it, many of those became interested in others who could play it really well.

The piano's history in America doesn't look at first to be very folksy.  First, it's not very portable.  As a person who has moved several pianos I can assure you they aren't very portable.  Relatedly, they are more complicated and expensive than the more portable instruments, which one would think would put them out of the reach of po' folk.  You can't strap a pianner on yer back and ride the rails. We think of Irish harps or Scots bagpipes, or Greeks with that whole bouzouki/lyre/mandolin spectrum, all portable.

But wherever you rode those rails, there were likely lots of pianos wherever you got off.  They made up for portability with ubiquity.  (I have claimed that the largest number in the known universe is the number of times two girls have sat down at a church piano and played "Heart and Soul."  That was true for two generations anyway, though it has faded now.)

Even small churches had a piano, or a pipe or pedal organ.  Schools had them, and even in a mill city in the 1950's in a lower-middle-class district, it was one per classroom.  Quality poor, but piano present.  Bars and movie theaters had them; town halls, mess halls, dance halls, and dining halls. During slavery, not many African-Americans could get their hands on one, but by 1900, it wasn't just blues guitars along the Mississippi. There was an enormous variety of instruments, and pianos strong among them.  Many, many families had them. Because it was a sign of wealth and refinement in the 1700s (especially back in the old countries), it became a middle-class aspiration in the 1800's and by the 20th C, even poor kids took lessons. Starting in 1900, there were 200,000 - 300,000 brand new pianos sold every year, and the instruments tend to last. That has fallen off since about 1980, and guitars have risen to well over that.  That's a more recent phenomenon. One might make an argument that the guitar has become the preferred instrument of "the folk" since 1975, when everyone started moving to a new city every decade or so and moved away from heavier instruments.  Recent.

All styles of music are played on keyboard.  But hymns and church music were the staple early on and persisted even when the keyboards popped up in brothels and barrelhouses. Immigrants from everywhere sat down at them. 


Texan99 said...

A folksy aspect of the piano certainly is that it tends to sit out in a public place and be implicitly available for anyone to come along, sit down, and start playing. You wouldn't normally leave your guitar lying around, and someone might well hesitate to pick it up and start playing it, for fear of intruding or giving offense--especially if it were in its case.

There's something to be said for a tin whistle, or similar instruments that non-industrial people can easily whip up at home, but they're not made for singing along.

I've spent some time with the Sacred Harp community, which is very strict about barring musical instruments from the church, or any venue for a Sacred Harp gathering, and in fact is a little cool toward instruments generally. For them it's all about joining voices.

Donna B. said...

I think that, overall, you are correct. But this sentence struck me as out of tune:

"Schools had them, and even in a mill city in the 1950's in a lower-middle-class district, it was one per classroom."

In a certain region, certain type of mill... . In the area west of the Mississippi and east of California, no.

It's a huge country, and that region is the only one I can speak of with any (though not much) authority.

One thing I think you overlooked is the ease of playing a piano for beginners. There's no learning curve to being in tune (if the instrument is) and hitting the right note uses vision as much as the ear.

You touch on the ease by noting "Heart and Soul".

Sam L. said...

There's also the octave range, and the volume. My sister and I had piano lessons, though I think our much younger brother didn't; and my children had piano lessons (don't know about hers), My sister and daughter played violin in school, I the bass viol, my son a trumpet. My brother took up bass guitar.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Donna B - quite possibly so. In New England the piano may have been more automatic

David Foster said...

I was surprised to learn that the perennial country-music favorite Wildwood Flower derives from an 1860 "parlor song"...parlor song apparently meaning it was to be

Texan99 said...

Technically, an ethnomusicologist wouldn't consider something a "folksong" if it had an identifiable composer, but the popular use of the term includes anything that works its way in the general culture broadly enough that no one thinks of its having been created deliberately, at a particular time, by a particular person.

Once a song has been "cut loose" in this way, it undergoes a predictable process that includes the development of a number of versions. The tune gets polished down so that it can be sung by most people of ordinary ability. The lyrics settle into an easily memorable form, often with generous use of repetitive motifs. A song that originally was inspired by a historical event often becomes universalized, like a fairy tale.

This kind of thing happened more easily when almost all songs were transmitted orally. Written and recorded music (to say nothing of copyright protections) tend to freeze songs.

james said...

And along with the piano came sheet music--with identifiable composers. Or hymnbooks.

Andrea Ostrov Letania said...

"Even small churches had a piano, or a pipe or pedal organ. Schools had them, and even in a mill city in the 1950's in a lower-middle-class district, it was one per classroom. Quality poor, but piano present."

But churches and schools are institutions, and so their music wasn't exactly 'folk'.

It's like military music isn't 'folk' either.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Andrea - I say that's exactly what's wrong with the definition. I don't think Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger should get to define who are the real "folk." Consider: are union miners "folk?" Are square dance or wedding ensembles "folk?" Merchant marines? Schoolchildren? Camp meetings? Frontier evangelists? One-room schools? Odd Fellows and Masons?

In America, the "folk" don't necessarily fit old Marxist categories.

Steve Sailer said...

The LA Times rock critic Robert Hilburn used to say that it was up in the air whether rock and roll was going to be primarily guitar or piano music up through the mid 1950s. The two most electrifying performers of the early rock era, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, were piano players. And we know now that Chuck Berry's classics were largely composed musically by his piano player.