“FOLK TREE” from Iowa Public Radio

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Boil ‘dem cabbage down, boys!

Much of the human race is spoiled, and I include myself in this. To illustrate my point, let me give you a quick history lesson about the technological advancements we’ve experienced through the years. TV was a reality in its early crude form in the 1920s, and it was commercially available when I was born. Even so, it took some years before there was a TV in my house. But, oh man, we didn’t think it could get any better than having a moving picture glowing from a little box while sitting in our cozy living rooms with “tons” of programs available to us at the turn of a knob, all wrapped up in a tiny, fuzzy black and white flibberty jibbit screen. And things got really good if Mom handed us a bowl of Jolly Time popcorn while we watched our favorite programs!

But we didn’t have to put up with that unstable flibberty jibbit screen for long. We, as a society, were suddenly hungry for whatever science could give us, and big business became equally hungry for the money in our pockets. Technology took off like a rocket after those first TVs appeared. Soon came color TVs, bigger screens, transistor radios, cable television, widescreen movies playing in small town theaters wired with incredible sound that would shake the fillings out of your teeth, and the Sony Walkman—a portable cassette player that allowed us to take our music with us. And today it’s even better. Now many of us have computers in our pockets, all in the svelte shape of a smart phone. And we can watch high definition videos and full-length movies on the tiny screens of our magic phones, and we watch all of this in dazzling color with it-feels-like-we’re-there sound through our tiny ear-buds. The delicate phonograph with its needle that patiently made its way through a circular pathway on its one long plastic groove in order to generate sound is almost nonexistent now. Audiotape, the thin brown stuff that snarled like bailing wire and jammed up in its cheap cassette case like a stopped up toilet is gone. (Probably the only famous artist still using tape is Neil Young; Young loves analog, and tape can record that sound through an analog system.) The CD is hanging on for dear life, but it will soon go from our lives as well. Photographic film is almost extinct, as nearly all movie production companies have switched to digital imaging. (Even now the Smithsonian plans to preserve all its video and audio files as digital files, recopying them every three years or so, so they don’t deteriorate on their servers over time.)

It was Apple founder Steve Jobs who, in one masterful stroke, bypassed the acetate record, the audiotape cassette, and the CD when he made downloadable music, digital music, a reality with the introduction of iTunes in 1998. iTunes gave us music made up of the unseen particles of bits and bytes. We played iTunes tunes on our computers, and we also saved them to blank CDs in the early days of this technology. But with the introduction of iTunes came the iPod. The iPod, the first digital music player with really serious storage capacity, had a strange effect on the majority of music lovers. We all suddenly threw away our transistor radios and tape players and CD players and began listening to the kind of music we could buy cheaply from iTunes. And today the tunes we buy from iTunes, as well as from other digital music providers, are stored in the “cloud”, those big servers out there somewhere that can’t be physically located or seen by ordinary mortals: hence the term, “cloud”.

Why am I even telling you all this? I’m recounting all this to help us appreciate those more straightforward technologies that have real entertainment value, because we truly have been spoiled by the high tech wizardry that has given us more choices than we can comfortably enjoy. Through all these choices there is a technological delivery system that has somehow gotten lost in the shuffle, but it’s ready and waiting to entertain us with quality programming if we just stop to take a cleansing breath. That delivery system is the radio!

PlayFolkMusic.com, the site you are visiting right now, is a site for those of us who enjoy folk music. That’s why you’re here and reading this blog article. In order to enjoy folk music, it really doesn’t matter if we play folk instruments or not. We can enjoy this music by just listening to it. But how might we do this? To collect folk music and make it our own private collection is no easy task. Even if we collect this music in just the digital format where tunes take up no room on a shelf but sit sedately and unobtrusively on a hard drive, it can be an expensive and time consuming task. Fortunately there are other ways to access the music we love. I live in Iowa, and I raised my daughter with Iowa Public Radio. So it goes without saying that I might be a bit prejudiced when I tell you I love IPR/NPR. But I know my music, and IPR has a wonderful show on Sunday afternoons you would be wise to check out. It’s called “Folk Tree”, it’s hosted by Karen Impola, and it runs from 1:00 to 5:00, CST. And, of course, you can stream it, just like we stream our digital music purchases from the cloud and movies from Netflix. This means that if you have normal Internet access, you can stream the program from anywhere on the planet as it airs. (Advanced streaming technology has made the radio far more powerful than it was during its humble beginnings.) Impola’s tastes in folk music run far and wide, and that’s what makes this show worth listening to. She plays old stuff, but she also plays contemporary artists. Very old artists, artists like Leadbelly, who made recordings in the earliest days of the phonograph, are played. One would expect artists of the 1960s like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger to be played, and they show up now and again as well. But Impola also plays people like Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, two masters of the banjo, (who are also married to each other), contemporary folk artists in the truest sense, even though much of their original music is all over the map. “Folk Tree” is the perfect name for this program because it explores the many branches of this music both old and new, popular and obscure, as its artists recorded and are still recording the commentary and history of our times in song.

Impola has an effective style during the show’s presentation. She will play maybe four of five tracks, all from different artists, one after the other. (Did I mention that public radio stations don’t run commercials during any program?) Then she will give us the name of the artist, track, and album the tune came from, starting from the tune just played and working backwards to the first played. This makes it easy to keep “notes” if you hear something you might want to find later. On the Folk Tree page of the IowaPublicRadio.org website Impola also provides a running list of all the songs played on the last show. Each entry has an album cover image, or in some cases a placeholder image, and the name of the artist and title of track played. This listing can be very useful. But if you can’t find the track from the links, you might use the text information to search a website called Smithsonian Folkways. This site is a treasure trove of both old and contemporary folk music, and you can buy the music in several physical mediums, including downloads. Its site URL is rather arcane, but I give it to you in the actual URL below–

http://www.folkways.si.edu/folkways-recordings/smithsonian

If the links on the Folk Tree listing don’t yield results, take note of the album name and artist name and then try finding it on a site like Smithsonian Folkways. As Karen told me, some of these recordings are only available on acetate records, and those records might be long out of print. Case in point: I have a beautiful recording of some of Lightning (Sam) Hopkins’ best blues. These tunes are on a “budget” acetate (record) album I paid two dollars for in 1964. This album long ago went out of print, but I have preserved this record and it’s still in pristine condition, even though I’ve played the dickens out of it. I have since converted it to digital files on a blank CD, and eventually I moved those digital files, first to my 2nd gen iPod, and now to my 4th gen iPod.

Good music might go out of print, but with a radio program like Folk Tree the chances of you hearing some of this great music is very high. That’s why folk music radio is worth listening to. The people who run shows like this have their own collections to draw from, and serious searching on the Net can quickly turn up treasures not easily available elsewhere. In other words, presenters like Impola know what they’re doing. They have massive digital libraries we can sample weekly just by turning on our radios or going to their website to pick up their stream. And we hear their efforts on shows like “Folk Tree” from IowaPublicRadio.org Check it out when you have the time. It’s a rich source of very fine folk music.

I want to personally thank Karen Impola for being so helpful in the realization of this article. Thank you Karen!

Dick Claassen – folk music fanatic

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