Reflections on reviewing folk music
by David W. Johnson
and listeners have questions about the principles and practices,
not to mention motivations, of music reviewers. As one who has
labored in the rather circumscribed vineyard of folk and acoustic
music reviewing for the past decade, I thought I would try to
provide some answers - at least from one reviewer's perspective.
Let me begin with two quotes from writers and editors.
...from Seth Rogovoy, Berkshire Eagle...
"Editors (and writers) have a responsibility first and foremost
to READERS! not artists, not themselves."
...from Mark Moss, Sing
"An editor's responsibility is to the READERS first. That
said, scathing or insulting personal attacks against independent
releases masquerading as 'reviews' are nothing more than self-flagellation
for the reviewers in question. Why devote precious magazine space
to inform folks that the record they wouldn't have ever heard
of deserves none of their attention?"
Ditto from this quarter. I review and have reviewed for a
number of publications. I also write songs and perform the occasional
gig. I respect artists immensely, am one in many ways, and have
also had my unfortunate experiences with the business side of
the folk "industry" while continuing to do reviews.
In recent years I've cut back on the reviewing and do a rotating
folk show shift on radio, now once a month on Acoustic Blend
in north central Indiana. This gives me a chance to share and
enjoy the music without taking the shots that go with being a
Here and there, through my reviewing, I've been able to bring
artists and their music to wider attention fairly early in the
game. Some of these are Cosy Sheridan, Cormac McCarthy, the Nields,
Pete and Maura Kennedy, Buddy Mondlock, Slaid Cleaves, and Ina
May Wool. That's always the biggest pleasure.
What attracted me to all was the strength of their songs and
commitment to their craft. I happened to know Cosy and Cormac
from New Hampshire and Slaid a little bit from the same region,
yet it was the music, songs, and stage presence that did it for
me. It's very important for me, personally, to hear a performer
on stage if possible. The only exceptions here were the Kennedys,
whose first few seconds of the River of Fallen Stars album grabbed
my attention and held it. So I wrote about them first and heard
them a bit later.
Thus I think a new(er) artist benefits most by getting out
there and playing. I'm trying to carry on that philosophy with
my own songwriting and performing.
I want to like a new CD. Who doesn't? These days, numbers
can be intimidating. I request CDs when I have a particular interest,
but most (and it's not a lot) arrive unbidden. Even not a lot,
such as six from one company, can overwhelm me. I try to listen
to at least a few cuts from everything that comes to the P.O.
box. If the first cut grabs me, I listen to the second. And so
on. A case in point would be Kat Eggleston. Her first Waterbug
album grabbed me right away, so I paid more attention to her
second, which opens with a wonderfully strong cut, Go to the
Water. I believe Kat does exceptional work, so I reviewed it
and still play it on the radio.
Unfortunately, some of my reviewing venues have dried up.
Under Scott Alarik's editorship, New England Folk Almanac published
columns in which a reviewer could pay attention to five or six
albums. After a change in editorship, the Almanac cut back reviews
of individual artists. With the volume of recorded material coming
out almost daily, I think that's unfortunate. But then again,
I don't have to run the magazine.
Speaking of magazines: I wish artists, magazines, and reviewers
could ALL treat each other with respect. This is not always the
case. A magazine which no longer publishes me felt I was reviewing
my friends. Not so. Reviewing is no way to keep friends. While
talking to one of the magazine's editors to clarify things, the
conversation ended when a singer-songwriter pulled up at her
house to stay the night.
I believe Sing Out! and the British magazine fROOTS (formerly
Folk Roots) do a fine job in maintaining the integrity of reviews.
Dirty Linen deserves credit for the comprehensiveness of its
review section. People putting out these magazines work long
and hard for little financial reward because they love the music.
And yes, advertising does affect reviews. I see this as a
reader, not as a writer.
Quotes and publicists
Good quotes about your music never hurt. I've provided a quote
here and there. Lack of such quotes will not turn me away from
your music. What reviewer, or listener for that matter, doesn't
enjoy discovering someone new? Some of my favorite artists came
to me unaccompanied by quotes. I'm thinking of Marianne Chatterton
in Massachusetts, Bill Parsons in the DC area, Hugh Blumenfeld
in Connecticut, Wendy Beckerman in New York City, Joyce Woodson
in Nashville, and others.
None of these artists was introduced to me by a publicist.
I most appreciate publicists when they help open my ears, though
sometimes publicists lose perspective on their artists. It irked
me when a publicist told me I had disappointed her because I
did not like a young band ENOUGH. My review was favorable and
appeared in a column that included reviews of Solas and the House
Band. The Solas album went on to win an Indie. The young band
was traveling in fast company.
That said, I believe a publicist can help you if your work
is strong and ready to move up a step. Similarly, a label affiliation
can help if it's a label known for quality "product."
Yet I will always take a special interest in the independent
artist, such as New Hampshire's Peg Loughran, Maine's Harvey
Reid, and Pennsylvania's Simple Gifts, who create wonderful music
on their own labels.
And so on
It seems to me a reviewer's perspective is often misunderstood.
I suspect all of us love the music, some of us perform it, and
we most enjoy our work when we can help people. Occasionally,
in the interest of paying attention to an artist whose work is
not - in my opinion - first-rate all across the board, I may
include a negative sentence or two in a review. To my knowledge,
I've never trashed an artist and never will. I put too high a
value on self expression to do that. Yet any review less than
a total rave may disappoint the artist. An artist whom I called
a master songwriter said mine was the only "bad" review
To end where we began, I will continue to write for the readers.
They are the ones making the consumer decisions about devoting
time and money to an artist. For a general interest publication,
such as a daily newspaper, I will try to provide a reference
point. Mentioning Leon Rosselson's songwriting as similar to
the acerbic style of Ray Davies was a way to introduce readers
of the Boston Globe to Rosselson. In writing for a folk publication,
I will assume a more specific level of knowledge and focus most
on how the artist's new work relates to previous work, or possibly
hints at directions for future work. I will seek to review the
Joined to respect for the reader is respect for the artist.
My copy of Rise Up Singing arrived courtesy of Sing Out! when
I wrote to defend Joan Baez against what I thought was an unwarranted
attack masquerading as a review in that magazine.
So we reviewers will never be the life of the party. We shouldn't
be. The artists are the life of the party. Over time, a reviewer
may succeed in helping to introduce artists to a wider circle
of potential listeners. That's about it. Both before and after,
it's up to the artist and the audience.
Comments? E-mail the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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