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Reflections on reviewing folk music
by David W. Johnson

Many musicians 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 Out!...
"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?"

Getting noticed

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 reviewer.

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.

Your CD

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 he got.

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 future work.

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.

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