The Old-Time Herald Volume 6, Number 5

Issues in Old-Time Music- - The Art of the Critique

There has been ongoing comment/discussion/argument/concern over critical reviews in the Old-Time Herald. The OTH has always had a commitment to publish honest, critical reviews. We feel that our reviewers are knowledgeable; we know that everyone has biases but we try to channel "product" to reviewers who are generally friendly to certain styles, idioms, etc. Beyond that we do not try to control what the reviewer says.

With one or two exceptions all our reviewers are also musicians. Our musical world is something like a small town in that everyone knows everyone else, pretty much, and that includes the reviewers. We run into one another at festivals and fiddlers conventions, we play music with one another in jam sessions, and we are often out there performing and laying our music (and to some extent ourselves) on the line. It's easy to review critically (both positive and negative) a classic recording of musicians who are no longer with us, but it is much more problematic when it is a recording of a contemporary musician, possibly someone you know and like. We have had reviewers return recordings to us when they felt they could only review them negatively, and the musicians were friends. We respect that, and try to find other reviewers who may not be as connected.

So, we realize it's sometimes tricky and touchy, but we stand by our reviewers even though we might not always agree with a particular review. And we hope that the old-time music community will appreciate our commitment to critical reviews. If someone disagrees with a review that person is welcome to write us and we (at our discretion) will print the letter.

We asked four people to talk here about why they think it is important to have critical reviews. We invite your comments.-editor

I am always pleased to receive a new copy of the Old-Time Herald because I know I will read a lot of informative reviews of recent recordings in the field, whether they be on CD or cassette. I like to read record reviews and there aren't too many publications which would be likely to review a traditional or old-time record. I enjoy reading critical reviews. They're often more interesting that just "this is a great record" reviews. I rarely take offense if the reviewer is less than enthused about one of our albums. If the reviewer is knowledgeable and accurate, there certainly are differences in taste.

I'm sure there are some who subscribe to the notion that "if you can't say something good about a recording, don't say it." This may be particularly prevalent in this field of old-time music, since it is really such a small circle, constantly fighting off so many encroachments of one kind or another from the dominant culture. Not to mention dealing with some of the passionate disagreements within the field! I really value frank criticism and feel we all benefit from it.

There are times when we truly do learn from a reviewer's comments. I think everyone benefits in the end, when the critical comment is well-informed (and informative). The artist can learn, the record company can learn, and the overall community of friends of old-time music is better off for a candid, open appraisal of the recording in question.

It's probably difficult to keep as current as you would like to with all reviews, but important to us as a record company that you try. The way the business is now, most stores won't keep recordings in stock for more than three months without an "inventory turn"-a review which comes out more than three months or so after release is not as likely to help prompt a sale. Sure, there is mail order, and all purveyors of old-time music probably need to envision greater and greater reliance on mail-order sales, be it via Internet or more traditional means. To have old-time music represented in regular record retail stores, though, is good for the musicians and the companies who help record them.

Record reviews help sell recordings. Information about the kind of music, the way it is recorded and presented helps the potential record buyer. Someone who prefers solo classical banjo may be glad to learn that so-and-so's recent album actually has a full ensemble this time, thus passing on that one in favor of one more to her liking.

Even critical reviews help sell records. Slamming a record, of course, won't sell that record, but some records just are better than others, and a range of critical comment helps the consumer sort out the better ones. In the end, the consumer who buys a higher quality tape or CD will be more likely to buy another one further down the road than someone who is disappointed with the recording they bought. Reading some quite critical reviews stimulates thought, and perhaps as importantly gives the recorder some faith than the magazine's editorial policy is to help ensure that the wheat is separated from the chaff. A magazine such as the Old-Time Herald shouldn't play favorites, but there is great value in presenting thoughtful and discerning record reviews.
Bill Nowlin
Bill Nowlin was one of the three original "Rounder Founders" who began Rounder Records in 1970. A retired college professor of political science, Bill lives with his wife and 6-year-old son in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In addition to his work with Rounder, he is also co-author of the recent book Ted Williams: A Tribute and is currently at work on a book about the history of the Jimmy Fund, a 50-year-old grassroots fundraising organization fighting cancer in children.

Recently there has been a flurry of discussion (and some complaints) about the reviewers who write for the Old-Time Herald. Here are my somewhat random thoughts on this subject. I write both as a reviewer and also as a musician who has had several albums reviewed over the last two decades.

An important thing to remember is that a review is only one person's opinion. No matter how fair and unbiased that reviewer tries to be, their review is bound to be colored by their experience and emotions. Music is such a subjective thing, it's not like you can go down a checklist and give people some kind of score; this is why fiddle contests are such a joke.

I also feel that, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. When a musician (or their label) sends a new CD out for review, they have to accept the fact that a reviewer may not think that everything about the CD is perfect. As a musician who has made various albums over the past 20 years, I know very well how it feels to have put your whole soul, and a lot of time, money, and effort into making an album, only to have some loutish know-it-all reviewer (who more often than not is a wannabe musician who can't really play worth a damn) publish their snide comments for all the world to read. But-as the ole Roadhog says-"it's all part of bein'‰ in show business." Believe me, I have shed my share of tears over bad reviews! Sometimes it does feel like the reviewer's main aim is to make the artist cry. But I don't believe that's true of the OTH reviewers. Even the Pankakes have mellowed considerably from their Little Sandy Review days.

The Old Time Herald's reviewers do not fall under the category of "wannabe musician." On the contrary, the OTH is extremely fortunate to have among its reviewers several who are not only excellent writers, knowledgeable and articulate, but who are also wonderful musicians. While I sometimes find the combination of great musicianship and strong opinions intimidating (particularly in a jam session), there is no question in my mind that reviewers like Jody Stecher or Molly Tenenbaum (to single out just two among many) add immeasurably to the stature of the Old Time Herald. I am proud to be associated with them and with all the other reviewers.

Is it possible that this reviewer controversy has a component of regional jingoism? West Coasters Jody Stecher, Kerry Blech, Molly Tenenbaum, and myself live in cities which are physically far removed from the hotbed of old-time music in the southeast. We don't live on farms, maybe our grandparents came from Poland and not from West Virginia. However, this doesn't mean that we are not knowledgeable about southern old-time music. I don't believe there's a single person who writes for the OTH who hasn't spent many, many years immersing themselves in old-time music, sometimes by visiting older musicians, at other times by intensive listening and absorbing of recorded sounds.

Speaking for myself, I have spent a little bit of time in the South (mostly in Louisiana) but at this point in my life, I hardly ever travel and usually have to review CDs without ever having had the chance to hear the musician in person. This can be both a strength and a weakness in writing reviews. It means that the music on the CD must stand alone. It means that my personal interaction with that musician won't enter into my review. It means that the energetic live performance I applauded won't color my review of a recording. It means that even if the fiddler was really, really charming I still might not praise his or her playing to the skies.

I'm constantly aware of the potential hurt feelings of the artist(s) as I write reviews. I try to figure out *something* encouraging to write, even if I hated the CD. With the kinds of albums that get submitted to the Old Time Herald, this is not that hard to do, since I can always at least praise the good intentions of the artists. And there are some CDs (usually but not always reissues) where it's wonderful to have certain music available because of its historical value, even if the music itself may not be the "creme de la creme." What is hard is to be honest when I don't like something, and still try to be kind without totally wimping out. However, I think it's ridiculous to only print positive reviews. Reviews are meaningless if they are only about feeling good.

Reviewing a reissue is much easier. When the musician is no longer walking this earth, I can be straightforward and simply write, "this playing sounds really bad to me." On the other hand, it takes a certain amount of nerve to say something like, "this music could use some work in certain areas" when I know that sooner or later I'm probably going to meet that musician, for whom I may have a lot of respect even though I may not have loved everything about their recording. I have in fact experienced this awkward situation and I ended up inviting the band to crash at my house (their place to stay had failed to materialize). They were excellent guests, by the way, and I loved getting to visit with them. Hopefully actually interacting with me helped dispel their vision of me as some sort of crusty West Coast snob.

There does seem to be a tendency to latch on to the one sentence in the whole review that was less than completely fawning, and blow it all out of proportion. I confess that I have done this myself, but tend to fall into that trap less and less as I grow older. However, I have only limited sympathy for those musicians who are so good, so hot, so high up in the old-time music hierarchy, that they may never have received anything less than a rave. Remember, guys and gals, that the reviewer is only offering their opinion, this is not a judgment from on high. Albums aren't forever, they're just a record of a certain period of time. Just keep on making music that you love, and you will have received the most important gift that old-time music has to offer.
Suzy Rothfield Thompson
Suzy Rothfield Thompson currently plays in two Cajun bands: the California Cajun Orchestra and the Aux Cajunals, and continues to perform from time to time with the Blue Flame Stringband. She grew up in the Northeast, and played classical violin as a child. In 1973, she moved to Berkeley, California, and became active in the folk music scene. In 1976, she helped form the Any Old Time Stringband, and appears on their Arhoolie recording (the CD reissue was reviewed in OTH ). She became enamored of Cajun music after hearing the Balfa Brothers in 1976. Several visits to Southwest Louisiana culminated in an NEA fellowship to study with master fiddler Dewey Balfa in 1981; other mentors include Canray Fontenot, Wallace ''Cheese'' Read and Dennis McGee. From 1978-1981, Suzy played fiddle in the Backwoods Band, and can be heard on their album. In 1981, she returned to California to form the Blue Flame Stringband, which recorded for Flying Fish. Blue Flame eventually evolved into the California Cajun Orchestra as the band began to play dances with accordionist Danny Poullard. The CCO has two albums on the Arhoolie label.
Suzy also appears as a sideperson on albums by the Klezmorim, Laurie Lewis, Rinde Eckert, Frankie Armstrong, Sukay, and the Savoy-Doucet Cajun band, among others. She appears briefly in the Les Blank film "J'ai Etais Au Bal" (shown on PBS as French Dance Tonight), playing with D.L. Menard and with Danny Poullard and Jermaine Jack. Since 1994 she has been a fiddle instructor at Augusta, teaching advanced Cajun fiddle for 3 years during Cajun-Creole Week, and blues fiddle during 1997 Old-Time Week. Suzy has also been an instructor at Port Townsend Fiddle Tunes Festival, Ashokan Southern Week, and Lark In the Morning. In 1994 she represented the United States on a Folk Violin tour of Scotland and England. She lives in Berkeley California with her husband Eric and two daughters, ChangChang the cat, and a continuous stream of house guests.

From time to time the issue of independent review of recordings and books rises up-usually, as it has recently, when a reviewer has stated an opinion distinctly different from that of the producer of the work. And so perhaps this is a good time to examine briefly the reasons we want reviews, both as consumers and musicians. I'll also make some suggestions which I hope will help reviewers in their work, no easy or well paid task.

I like to enjoy all the recorded old-time music that I can, but like everyone I have a limited life-span in which to listen to it and an even more limited pocket-book with which to purchase new recordings, which range in my case from the Lomax Collection and Ed Haley to John Hartford and the Hix. Of the great number of recordings being released now, I only buy a number that I have time to listen to. So I have to be selective.

A consumer/listener has only a few ways to keep up with the large amount of old-time music becoming available. One of the best ways is to listen to a radio program that features new releases, but they are rare now that most public radio stations have become gentrified and commercial stations have become formatted to an equally narrow audience. Talking with friends or keeping up with record catalogues can be helpful. Magazine reviews are available to all of us and include nearly all recordings released. A good review can help me figure out what records I might want to acquire and listen to, and also to keep up with what's happening in the field. Occasionally some reviewers even write well enough so that I read them for pleasure.

For me, the consumer, a review is only useful if it is truly independent of the artist's interests. A review that is a long string of fabulous, awesome superlatives and reads like a publicity release is worthless to me if I am trying make an informed decision to buy. I want clear information and observation, hopefully well-written. (Further along in this article are listed a few other things I like to see in a review.)

I also play music for my living, and well-written reviews are one of the most important ways of making people aware of my recordings. That is to say, it's necessary publicity. So I want what is most useful and appealing to the potential reader.

As a producer of about 70 recordings I've had a great range of reviews. I've experienced opposite opinions on the same recording. Many of the reviews, especially in the OTH, are written by friends and acquaintances. In my experience, when a friend/reviewer has disliked some aspect of my music, though it may smart a little, if the position is well taken and presented, I can accept it. And sometimes it's useful to me.

My thin skin aside, if the review is obviously impartial and well-written, the reader will be more inclined to trust it. So even as an artist, I want an independent review.

In summary, I believe that reviews should be critical, that is, discerning and illuminating discussions of both the positive and negative qualities of a "project." I believe that the needs of the community for honest information outweigh any need of performers for promotional publicity. The magazine and its writers bear a responsibility to serve the entire old-time music community.

Following are suggestions and requests for writers of reviews from both a listener's and a performer's view. General readers might also be interested.

Suggestions for reviewers from a listener and friend of old-time music:

I think it's best for the reviewer to know something about the field that they're writing about, at least in our specialized field. I believe that the field is best served by having a reviewer familiar with particular sub-genre (e.g. field recordings, written music, narrow specialties such as fiddle tunes, broader old-time music like the Lomax Collection, modern old-time music, etc.). So it's probably best for review writing to be channeled to the most knowledgeable writer in each area. Or at least someone who's not hostile to it. For instance, a review of an unaccompanied singer by someone who believes that old-time music is only played on fiddle and banjo may not be useful.

    Information in a review should include:

  1. The title and artists' names.

  2. The contents. If there are too many songs to list, then list at least 10 so as to give an idea of the repertoire. Then, in the bulk of the review:

  3. Outline of information about the performers. However, if you don't know much, don't create facts. Speculation can be shaky.

    4. Some information on the style that the music is in. If it is southern music, northern style, say so. If it's modern old-time music, or ragged but right, say so. If it is a mixture of Nashville session musicians and whatever, say so. Such information doesn't have to be negative or value-laden unless you want to offend the artist and some of your readers as well.

  4. Some idea of context for the musical style can be useful.

  5. Description and discussion of a few of the most interesting tracks including choice of repertoire, style, feeling, etc.

  6. Quality of recording, annotation, visuals etc.

  7. How successful the recording is in context of other work by the artist as well as other artists, other observations, etc.

All reviews benefit from clarity of expression, intelligence, and accuracy. As a reader, I'm put off by a review that starts out with "I didn't expect to like this. . . ." Such a review process is not off to a good start. If you feel that way, perhaps you should pass.

Bringing a review to an end is not always easy, but I really dislike the hackneyed "buy this recording." It's awkward salesmanship.
Requests from a producer of recordings

As a musician I want the same qualities that I do as a reader of reviews and listener plus:

I prefer broad, inclusive knowledge of the entire field. If knowledge is lacking, stay with what you know; don't create facts-they can be wrong and can discredit the other "facts." If you really want to know, call the artist or someone whom you can trust.

Positive criticism; don't say what it isn't, say what it is. If you can't figure out what it is, pass the job on to someone else.

If slamming something, be clear, specific, and if possible witty.

Some forgiveness. Most of us humans, musicians and reviewers alike, need it.

I've only occasionally gotten many of these in a review, and when I do I'm thankful. I hope to be thankful after my next recording is reviewed in OTH.
Mike Seeger
Mike Seeger has devoted his life to singing and playing southern traditional music and producing documentaries and concert presentations of traditional musicans, singers, and dancers. He sings and plays in a variety of traditional styles on banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, trump (jew's harp), harmonica, quills, lap dulcimer, autoharp, and a few other supporting instruments. He has toured North America and abroad since 1960 as a soloist or with the vanguard old-time music group, the New Lost City Ramblers. He has produced 27 documentary recordings, 43 recordings of his own music, and several compilations of earlier collections for Smithsonian Folkways, Rounder, Vanguard, Arhoolie, County, Homespun, Flower Films, and others. He has received four Grammy nominations as well as grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rex Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

In my 38 years of writing reviews I have written some of the most negative reviews of folk music albums ever published. In them, I jeered the credibility of the performers, mocked their intentions, parodied their efforts, and questioned their integrity. What brought forth these torrents of bile? Two things: pretentiousness and ripoffs. In the days of The Little Sandy Review and the Great Folk Scare there was plenty of both in the market for recorded folk music, afloat as it was in major-label money and hustlers from every seedy corner of show business crowding onto the folk stage and snatching for their share of the loot.

I have never had the occasion to write such a review for the Old-Time Herald. In our sheltered little world of old-time music (however you might define that) pretentiousness seldom rears its ugly head and there is damn little money for anyone to rip off. Mike Seeger has estimated that there are fewer than a dozen performers who can even support themselves playing old-time music professionally, much less cash in on huge major-label royalties and TV appearances. Old-time music recordings are most often vanity or small-label productions generating a spit in the ocean of income for those who produce them -- no incentive for industry pirates to raid the music and manipulate it for their own profit. The Spice Girls ripping off an adulterated megahit version of "I've Endured" without crediting Ola Belle Reed? Not likely.

There is no lack of pretentiousness in old-time music. The most sickening example I've ever had the misfortune to behold was at a Smithsonian Festival banjo workshop at which Buell Kazee was followed onstage by the citybilly moderator, who picked up his own banjo and proceeded to demonstrate what Kazee was doing incorrectly and how Kazee should have played his piece if he had really understood banjo picking! Fortunately, little of this sort of ego madness finds its way onto old-time music recordings.

Old-time music itself is so sane that it lends itself to pretentiousness only with great difficulty. John Cohen was once asked to assemble a program of authentic hard-times songs to accompany a network TV documentary about the depression. After listening to the songs, a network executive rejected Cohen's tape, commenting that the songs were too funny and failed to sound the solemn and pious note of suffering that the network was after.

The old-time recordings that come across my desk are generally the well-intentioned efforts of performers and producers who genuinely appreciate the music and who are not out to use it to Make A Big Important Statement or to cash in on a lucrative market. Some old-time recordings are dull; some are brilliant and emotionally compelling. Some are the "same old-same old" rehashed yet again; others open exciting new approaches to the music which will take me years to absorb. Some are cranky and individually eccentric; some are formulaic and derivative. Some are as trivial as any other pop ephemera; some are cultural documents of great and lasting value. None are pretentious or moneygrubbing enough to deserve the lash that The Limeliters used to beg for.

Still, one must make distinctions, whether as a reviewer or as a consumer. Can you afford to buy all the product currently pouring forth from Rounder, Yazoo, Smithsonian-Folkways, County, Marimac, Bear Family, Document, and countless other presses? Neither can I. If I as a consumer must make a choice between the newest release from the Alan Lomax archives and the newest release from the most current sincere-but-boring reincarnation of the Highwoods sound, I'll carefully consider where my money will go. And, as a reviewer, I'll continue to try to get you to think about where your money might best go. Thumbs up or thumbs down. After all, my opinion and a dollar will still get you a ride downtown on the bus.
Jon Pankake
Jon Pankake is of pre-war vintage (b. 1938) and became interested in folk music as an enthusiastic participant in the popular revival of the music in the late 1950s and 1960s. As college students at the University of Minnesota, he and Paul Nelson published The Little Sandy Review (1960-1964), a fanzine which championed field recordings and traditionally-oriented performers over the flood of brothers and bards then being promoted as "folk" by the popular music industry. He has written program notes for numerous albums and concerts and received a Grammy in 1998 for his contribution to the notes for the CD re-release of The Anthology of American Folk Music, itself the Grammy "Best Historical Album" of 1998. A musically challenged amateur, he plays fiddle, banjo, and guitar, and has recorded with Uncle Willie and the Brandy Snifters on Elektra and Marimac.

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