A Song at its Heart

The folk scene might have changed over the years, but as 'Sing Out!' nears its 50th anniversary of publishing, readers' love of its music and ideals has not

September 06, 1999|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Open Sing Out!, the avatar of folk music magazines, and find an underground river of song. The river flows from primitive field recordings to do-it-yourself CD pressings, from isolated mountain hollows to New York City, from Madagascar in the 1920s to today's thrilling melange of world music.

With lively columns (Pete Seeger has written one called "Appleseeds" since 1954), instrument "teach ins," and reprints of traditional and new songs to try at home, Sing Out!, which turns 50 in 2000, remains redolent of its earliest years when musicians such as Seeger and Woody Guthrie were singing of common men and women, "hootenannies" were cool, and "red-baiting" was something of a national pastime.

Yet the same pages offer a discussion on "personal narrative" versus traditional story telling as well as a review of the Culture Vultures, a folk/bluegrass band whose lament, "I No Longer Think of Sherry as My Wife," concerns a man and his unfaithful, HIV-positive spouse.

FOR THE RECORD - In a Today section article Monday about Sing Out! magazine, the frequency for radio station WXPN-FM in Worton was incorrectly listed. The frequency is 90.5 FM. The Sun regrets the error.

That Sing Out! has lived to tell these tales makes it worthy of its own meandering ballad; one that would begin in the mid-1940s, brave the Red Scare of the McCarthy Era, revel in the folk revival of the '50s and '60s, accompany the Civil Rights Movement and mourn the Vietnam War -- only to nearly expire and be resuscitated by a quixotic believer named Mark D. Moss, and his partner, folk music genius Seeger.

For those who love traditional and contemporary folk music, it was a serendipitous alliance. Sing Out! is the "central nervous system for the folk community around the world," says Gene Shay, longtime Sunday night folk music host on WXPN, a Philadelphia-based public radio station that can be heard weekends on 104.5 FM in Baltimore. "There is no other publication that gets into traditional and contemporary folk music the way Sing Out! does."

The continuum from, say, the traditional high, lonesome music of early 20th century Appalachia to contemporary singer-songwriter Christine Lavin's witty angst is not such a stretch within Sing Out!'s 200-plus pages. For one, Sing Out! defines folk song as music, whether a pop standard or an ancient ballad, performed by and within a particular community, even if that community is a bunch of yuppies in a living room. For another, vital musical forms beget new ones, a constant metamorphosis that paves the way from old field hollers to Irish/rap fusion, from Old World klezmorim to Klezmer music with a "gay sensibility."

In Sing Out!'s Summer 1999 issue, for instance, a story about Wade and Julia Mainer, recently honored at the Old Time Music and Radio Conference in North Carolina, tailgates a piece about Snakefarm, a young duo that sets classics like "House of the Rising Sun" and "Streets of Laredo" to spine-tingling "folktronica" arrangements.

In his "Songfinder" column, Shelley Posen writes about discovering lyrics to the gospel hymn "He Will Set Your Fields On Fire" on a Japanese bluegrass Web site. Then there's a story about Tex-Mex group Los Super Seven, and one about singer-songwriter Cheryl Wheeler, who grew up in Timonium, whose "If It Were Up to Me" blames the gun lobby for the recent rash of school shootings.

On a muggy August afternoon, executive director Moss leads a tour of Sing Out!'s home, a newly restored three-story building on the slightly scruffy south side of Bethlehem, Pa. The bearded, talkative Moss speaks with the forthright manner of a union organizer and sprinkles the names of obscure folk musicians, be it old-time performer Aunt Molly Jackson or Finnish fiddle heroes JPP, into the conversation.

The Sing Out! office's barely-lived-in feel and high-tech electronics offset a framed questionnaire filled out by a young Woody Guthrie, dog-eared music books, smudged LP album covers and black-and-white photographs of legendary folk music figures. Moss has indexed Sing Out!'s trove, arranged it into a resource center and hopes one day to put all holdings online. On his wish list for the center as well are listening and video booths for on-site researchers.

Sing Out! also manages Legacy Books, a mail-order catalog of folklore-related works, and publishes its own books, including the classic "fake book" for musicians of all abilities, "Rise Up Singing." With well over 500,000 copies sold, earnings from the collection of 1,200 song lyrics and chords helps support the magazine.

Moss, who was introduced to Seeger's topical music at summer camp, was already a confirmed folk fan by the time he arrived at the 1970 Philadelphia Folk Festival anticipating contemporary troubadours like Phil Ochs and Arlo Guthrie.

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