Long before Amazon.com and Rolling Stone began to turn the popular sense of folk music into a 24-year-old with an Ovation acoustic guitar, a henna tattoo and some songs about his girlfriend, there was "Yankee Doodle":
Yankee Doodle went to town,
riding on a pony
stuck a feather in his cap
and called it macaroni
What does it mean? It's nonsense, surely, but not quite. During the Revolutionary War, the American rebels were taunted with this song. Originally sung by the British redcoats, "Yankee Doodle" lampoons the chutzpah of the insurgents, the idea that they might stick feathers in their caps, or form an army or form a nation, and rename it, call it anything they liked, become anything they wanted, without regard to king or queen or the laws of grammar -- which is what America is, or at least always hoped to be. "Yankee Doodle," in other words, is about America's greatest promise and threat. As has happened over and again in the blues, country and even rock & roll, the meaning of the lyric was reversed and appropriated by the original target. After the Battle of Bunker Hill, the revolutionaries began to sing "Yankee Doodle" proudly, turning the tables, making it their own.
That's how folk music works: Not only is it passed around orally like influenza, it adopts and adapts and morphs as cultures kiss and mix. Folk-music history as cultural history is an academic's way of describing what goes on during "Folk Music in the Melting Pot," the Sheldon Concert Hall's series -- now in its second season -- devoted to the wheat and water, the core ingredients, of American musical macaroni. Four of St. Louis's finest folk musicians -- Blake Travis, who has played with Joe Bidewell and Dangerous Kitchen; Sandy Weltman, leader of the Sandroids; John Higgins and Charlie Pfeffer, formerly of the Geyer Street Sheiks and now half of the Flying Mules -- have built the show around a range of simple instruments: unplugged guitars, a mandolin, a Dobro, a jaw harp, a washtub bass, a banjo, dancing limberjack. Travis handles percussion, narrates the program and cracks wise. It's folk music, so they all sing.
Similar in concept to the "Jazz Story" series featuring Jeanne Trevor and CarolBeth True, "Folk Music in the Melting Pot" covers the "unfolding of American folk music," as Pfeffer, mandolinist and singer, says. Aimed both at kids in their teens and adults on their way to the office, the program lasts only 50 minutes, but as snapshots of American history and culture go, it covers a good chunk of ground. Because it does so through music and song, it draws on the humor, myth, craft and imagination that decidedly unfolky forms like high-school history books or the Web can't grasp. Beginning with the Revolutionary War and immigration from Europe, the program moves from "Doodle" to "Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier," to "The Cuckoo." ("The cuckoo, she's a pretty bird/And she warbles as she flies/And it never hollers coo-coo/Till the fourth day of July." Wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes, "We Americans are all cuckoos. We make our homes in the nests of other birds.") The show then delves deeply into the blues: a cappella work songs like "Another Man Done Gone" and "The Boll Weevil Holler," then "Corrina, Corrina" and "Stranger Blues" and spirituals like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "This Train (Is Bound for Glory)." Through "John Henry" and "The Wabash Cannonball" the performers cover transportation songs, then the migration to the west and the discovery of gold through a tune like "Sweet Betsy from Pike."
The timeline then hits its biggest speed bump, hopping to the folk revival and songs like "The Time's They Are A-Changin'" and concluding, archetypally, with "This Land Is Your Land." Definitive chronology is never possible. What "Folk Music in the Melting Pot" offers is a provocative chance to lend an ear to what has made America tick, to the percolations of melodies and images within us all, carried so deeply we sometimes forget their history and truth. "'Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier,'" explains Higgins, "is apparently an Irish tune from, at least, the 1700s, brought to America. We talk about how a third of the 3 million colonists were descendants of people who left Ireland because of hunger and oppression."
The instruments themselves tell a story, especially for a younger urban audience, for whom a song like "John Henry" has become as distant and strange as Sanskrit. Weltman will explain the origin and development of the harmonica and banjo, and Higgins will demonstrate the bluesy agility of the Dobro. "We focus on folk music and oral tradition," Higgins says, "how songs were saved and changed. We try to get the audience to understand how these weren't songs you learned from a book. For the kids in the audience, it's probably the first time they've been exposed to this kind of music. Sometimes they'll say to us, 'I've heard that song, but the words are different.' That's a good springboard to explain the oral tradition, how things get changed around the country. For a lot of the kids, to see four people standing onstage without any gizmos, no computer, no Nintendo, it gives them an idea of how, before the 1900s, people were left to their own devices for entertainment, as well as for passing history along. We try to get them to visualize no electricity, no radio, no TV -- what it would be like to be out there with nothing."
"The first North American folk song?" Pfeffer winces at the kind of question that a smart-ass high-schooler might ask, the kind of question for which we'd all love to have an answer but never will. That's the mystery of folk music. "'Happy Birthday,' maybe? It was probably some song kids sang, a song like 'Rockabye Baby.'"
The next "Folk Music in the Melting Pot" concert is presented at 10:30 a.m. April 11 and preceded by coffee and pastries. Cost is $10. Call 533-9900 for tickets or more information.