SOME SERIOUS PLAYIN'
I love folk music. Celtic, English, Mountain, bluegrass: you name it, I like it. (Not, of course, that horrible ersatz called "Country.")
But let's face it, folks: Michael Cooney was right. Folk music tends to be "heavy on the fiddle, heavy on the harmonies, and light on the rehearsal time." (That's as opposed to Tom Lehrer's clever but fundamentally incorrect remark that "The problem with folk music is that it is written by the people, most of whom have no talent.") Worse, since a certain casualness in performance is taken as the hallmark of the folk style, folk performers tend to deliberately cultivate a little bit of imprecision: going a little sharp vocally, putting an unnecessary twang into violin music to make it genuine fiddle music, emphasizing the speed of a breakdown number by slurring the notes.
I once heard James Galway do a live concert with a violist and a harpist; the bulk of the program was Baroque, but the second encore was the Foggy Bottom Breakdown (perhaps in honor of the Kennedy Center venue) and you could hear every note distinctly. Instead of giving the impression of speed through sloppiness, they gave the impression of speed by playing faster than any human being ought to be able to play. Unforgettable! (And, alas, never recorded, as far as I can tell.)
Imagine how glorious it would be to have a whole concert in which classical standards of peformance were applied to the folk repertoire, or to new pieces in the various traditions. (Not Dvorak trying to make classical music on folk themes to bootstrap a musical high culture for America, or Ralph Vaughan Williams writing what Auden properly mocked as "sets of fugal variations on some folk-ballad," but composers with a real feel for the traditions themselves making their own music.)
Now that you're done with your visualization exercise, run right out and buy Heartland. Joshua Bell and Mark O'Conner on violin, Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Bela Fleck on banjo, Edgar Meyer on bass, Sam Bush on mandolin with vocals by Alison Krauss (sounding as sweet and pure singing Stephen Foster's "Slumber, My Darling" as she does singing "Down in the River to Pray" in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and James Taylor. Taylor, dropping the folky whine that disfigures his usual performance, turns out to have a marvellous voice, and "Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier" (a Mountain version of "Suil a ruin") is astonishingly moving.