Never Lonesome When I Go There: Why the Amateurism of "Lost" Folk Music May Actually Be Desirable

To listen while you read: A brief playlist of “lost” contemporary folk

Vashti Bunyan just wanted to be a pop star. 

There’s something so human about that, being enticed by the promises of fame and fortune and then going ahead and acting on it. It’s a Hollywood script brought to life in the streets of London. It holds the twists and turns a movie would bring: the release of a first single to little success, followed by a trip around the countryside in a carriage to meet a more famous singer in his compound --- only for him to be gone when they arrive. Then Vashti returns to London to record the first album. The album isn’t a pop record at all, however; the producer turns it into something extremely folksy and much different than what she had originally wanted to play. The record flops. The singer vows to never return to recorded music again.

Then, the story reaches an unexpected resolution. The Internet arrives, and the singer is stunned to find that the record has exploded in reputation, only thirty years after the fact. Delighted, she makes another album to critical acclaim. Hollywood ending, right?

I find this story to be an incredibly lucky one. There are not many folk singers who can say they’ve garnered success of any sort, much less one that permits an aversion to the worst that this industry has to offer. It’s akin to being the last survivor to tell the tale at the end of a horror movie.

Not that the music industry is like a horror movie, mind you. Though, in many ways it can be horrific, especially for artists and especially before the Internet and digital downloads and audio workstations, etc. Vashti is the ‘smart one’ that never leaves the car, to complete the horror movie analogy. But in reality, she couldn’t have begun to know the perils that may have awaited her.

But again, for every Vashti Bunyan tale, there are plenty of other obscure ones, even when the view is narrowed to just folk music in its ‘Greenwich Village’ period. With so many singers for listeners to pick from, of course failure would be inevitable for some. (“Failure” here is defined by being able to at least somewhat financially support oneself based off of one’s music. There is no failure in the creation of art. There is lots of failure in trying to mold art into a product for buying and selling.)

Vashti Bunyan, 1968. Courtesy of the Vashti Bunyan website

Perhaps that is what is so interesting about these “lost” folk singers. In many cases, a singer releases just a couple of albums before their career in the limelight peters out and they fade away into obscurity. But is making a lengthy career in the music industry really the goal? Sometimes, the lost singer may even see their reputation potentially preserved by fading into obscurity and reappearing in some archival work from a more willing label, as if it were entering a freezer, waiting to be reopened.

One can’t ignore the pitfalls of a career either, because a job in the music industry has all of the same struggles that any creative job does. One has to ask themselves whether becoming a professional and eschewing creative freedom is worth the usually poor sums of money they would get in return. It may be quite noble to look beyond the temptations of a career in music and see the truths behind it, because otherwise, the money may come at the expense of true creativity.

Melanie, 1975. Courtesy of William Morris Agency

Take the artist known as Melanie, for instance. She is one of the few women to perform at Woodstock, has seen many high-charting singles, and at its height, found herself on a similar plane of popularity as Joan Baez. Yet, for all these accolades she is only really known nowadays for the Boogie Nights anthem “Brand New Key”, thanks to that song being the only one continuing to receive airplay in modern times. Surely a Woodstock performer has something worthy enough in the back catalog to not have some unintentionally-sexualized lyrics be at the forefront of what people know about her.

Sibylle Baier got it right. She has one album to her name. She had no intention of releasing it; it’s only available because her son distributed a few homemade cassettes 35 years after it was recorded. She does not do interviews or read up on the Internet or do anything about her work. She simply does not give one iota of consideration to what other people think. It’s really a relic of a mindset. Gone are the days in which a musician made works that couldn’t foresee any sort of public knowledge, simply because the only avenue to “get it out there” was through the narrow confines of record labels and radio. Instead, the work was created and distributed in tiny amounts via “private press” labels, or never distributed at all. (There are a lot of those “private press” works out there. Home recording has a reputation as though it was invented in the ‘90s. This is quite false and overlooks large amounts of material created in this manner!)

Sibylle Baier and her cat, Moses. Courtesy of the Sibylle Baier Website

I think of Stan Brakhage and his work “In Defense of Amateur” (an essay which you should definitely read after this one.) The pioneering filmmaker (and namesake of a Stereolab song) argues here that the amateur is “forever learning and growing” and works according to their own needs and thus pursues something “more personally meaningful than work only accomplished for money, fame, power, etc.” Baier does exactly this. She does not seek to be a “professional” in any sense. And yet, it is of the same “subjective value” as a larger folk release by someone like Joni Mitchell or Big Thief. If two works are within the same genre, and there are no other extenuating circumstances which would create bias within the listener such as a high/low Rateyourmusic or Pitchfork score, then the chances are equal as to whether one will be liked over the other. A Baier release or a Mitchell release, to the completely uninhibited listener, is a toss-up.

Of course, the entertainment industries have changed significantly since the time of Brakhage. The artist, amateur or professional, has seen their gates opened ever further. The liberation of labels and cheap/free platforms to release music on is an amazing step towards creative freedom in the music industry. But with that comes a larger expectation towards the artist to release and to be successful upon release by way of the convenient statistics the digital platforms provide.

It strips away the mystique a bit, which I think helps make these “lost” singers so appealing. With many Bandcamp artists, the listener doesn’t get the mystique as often because the listener can infer some predispositions just by listening via Bandcamp. They can guess the artist is an “amateur” who makes very little income from his work, and because there is no label, the artist can put out whatever they want without having to worry about something like quality control. Of course, this doesn’t apply to many Bandcamp artists (and by no means did any Bandcamp artist create anything that is unworthy. Again, there is no failure in making those works. The only failure an artist can make is to not make anything at all.) 

But the vying for attention, at least the kind of attention given to “professional” works, looks almost foolish to the potential listener if it’s an amateur doing it. Brakhage calls it a “hypocritical kindness” that discourages any legitimate attention, because the listener is listening through the lens of “this amateur made this music all by themselves, what an accomplishment” instead of judging the work as an equal to the professionals.

That’s what gives an institution like a label the ability to perpetuate their influence. If I am forced to listen to one album, and I have the choice between an album that has been self-released and one that has been released on even a tiny label, and that is the only thing I know about these two particular records, then I will most likely choose the one released by the label. I think most would do the same. I make this decision thinking that someone at the label decided that a particular artist had enough of a “je ne sais quoi” quality to them that label money would be spent to promote their album. They are past this made-up stage of “unworthy amateur”, a stage which really only exists as an existential construct.

Karen Dalton, early in her career. Courtesy of Light in the Attic

It’s one of the ultimate hurdles of continued decentralization of the industry. The attitude of a listener is that there is no incentive to search out for self-released works because the label eases its access and discourages the idea that the playing field is actually even. This is no longer true to an extent, as it has become clear that said field really has flattened to where everyone can reach a potential audience. There is also an acknowledgement of this flattening with publications like Natural Music or Bandcamp Daily that aim to promote the best work regardless of where it comes from. 

But it also is true that labels are still the ones with the access to lots of critics and publications, and thus other listeners to give a consensus, and thus an inherent expectation that it’s going to be worth your time. And you don’t have all this time to search for yourself, do you?

At the same time, what makes us think that the labels have a better knowledge of our own tastes than we do? In fact, labels (especially the major ones) inevitably seek to appeal to as many as they can in order to make some sort of profit. Some labels may have an in-place niche or genre that alleviates this problem, but many do not. Yet, even our “lost” albums still have at least decent label backings to them. Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day was originally released on Philips, a major label which also had artists like Blue Cheer and Dusty Springfield on its roster at the time. Kim Jung Mi’s Now was released in South Korea via Fontana, a subsidiary of Philips (and then Polygram.) Judee Sill was signed to Asylum and Linda Perhacs was signed to Kapp, a subsidiary of MCA (which would later get consolidated into the Universal conglomerate.) 

Connie Converse. Courtesy of the Connie Converse Facebook page

The work of these artists is not objectively higher quality than Baier. It’s not of any higher status than someone like Connie Converse, who was attempting to find footing making folk music in New York as early as the late 1940s. But it’s only when they see a release on a label that any attention is garnered. (Unless of course an artist is established with connections and the like, but that’s another article.) Baier and Converse and Sainte-Marie and Dalton and all the others, have only reemerged because a label decided to reissue their music in the 21st century. Why do they have this “je ne sais quoi” aspect that makes them deserve to be heard now, instead of when they were just an amateur?

This roundabouts to the implied pressure of self-released artists today. “None of my work is picking up traction, what am I doing wrong?” There is no answer for that, because the artist is doing nothing wrong, at least from a creative standpoint. There is no gatekeeper for that. There is a gatekeeper for financial and critical success, only it is extremely dependent on circumstance. 

It’s a game with low chances of winning, and many who play it aren’t satisfied. Many of the artists mentioned above have described frustrating experiences working in the industry and of the inherent biases, nepotism and factors outside of one’s control that occur everywhere, especially in music.

Sibylle Baier didn’t play the game. Neither did Vashti Bunyan. Perhaps, then, it is a good reminder that the game is ultimately irrelevant in the creative process of music, and that maybe our reasons for releasing music are a bit misguided. The music world now has endless opportunity to release their work to the public. Finishing a work and putting it out there, with or without promotion, is the true accomplishment of a musician. After that, the work takes on its own life. Who knows where it may end up?

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