FOLK MUSIC AND MY NEW PROJECT, WHAT MAKES US ONE

daniel botkin folk“I grew up around folk music and folk musicians.  My father, Benjamin A. Botkin, was one of the leading folklorists of the 20th century, known as the Dean of American Folklore.  One of his books, A Treasuring of American Folklore, was listed in 2012 by the Library of Congress as one of the 100 books that shaped America.  Many famous folk singers were close family friends. Quite a variety of folk musicians would visit us and my father would record them on one of the reel-to-reel tape recorders. (See the photograph of Woody Guthrie who visited our home in Croton-on-Hudson, NY when I was 8 years old and played Mumblety-peg, a game with a pocket knife, with me and my 11 year old sister.)

When I was 6-and-1/2-years old, my father was the head of the Library of Congress’s Folklore Archives (Now the American Folklife Center), he took me to the Archives recording studio and had a professional 78 RPM record made of my singing folk songs. That was in one of the classic recording studios that you see in old movies —- a recording booth with a large glass window that looked out onto where the record was being made and the technicians could signal us when to start and stop. It all would have worked fine except that I had picked out 6 songs to sing, but in the middle of the recording I decided I didn’t want to do one of them, and my father and I got into an argument, which was also recorded. We had a copy of the final recording at home, which my parents loved to play for my high school friends to embarrass me.  Fortunately, all copies of that record are now broken.

In college and graduate school during the 1950s and 1960s, I played for money in coffee houses,  a fashionable thing during those times.  I always carried my guitar when I hitch-hiked through Europe on a Junior Year abroad and sang American folk songs in many countries from Spain to Sweden. During my travels, I joined with a Scottish jazz musician, Johnny Winters, whom I taught to sing this kind of music, to play and sing with me.

At that time, with my growing up around folk music and folklore, I maintained an interest in those subjects throughout my life. I served on the board of the American Folklife Center for six years. Then in 2015, I made a CD with a professional musical/video producer named Sergio Cavalieri, who had sold 2 million albums in his native Brazil, before moving to the U.S.A. I not only sang folksongs, but introduced each, talking about the song’s origin and history as well as the role of folk music in American society. Sergio liked what I sang, played, and spoke. He suggested that we should create a formal project based on what I had started. We found that when a group of musicians were in a recording studio, sitting in the lobby waiting for their turn to record, all our conversations were peaceful and friendly. It was such a contrast with the divisiveness going on at that time throughout our nation. Sergio and I decided that we should create our project around the idea that folk music brings people together and promotes peaceful interactions. We also decided our project should help bring back folk music to the foreground, having been a big focus in the 1950s and 1960s yet it had very much disappeared from the mainstream. We titled our project “What Makes Us One,” formed it into an LLC, and created an introductory kit.

This kit includes a 50 minute DVD, a 50 page 4″ by 6″ colored booklet, and two music CDs.  Another goal was to bring folk music to the new generation. We brought young musicians not trained in or especially familiar with folk songs. For example, one was trained to be an opera singer, another was a blues musician. We played each a tradition version of a folk song and said, “Do it your way, however you want.” We were delighted with the results. These young people could take a song played fast with a lot of loud instruments and turn it into something charming and beautiful. Our DVD highlights them and tells the story about how folk music brings peace to people. We remind the audience that, in times in the past with a lot of discord in American society, there would arise protest songs (think We Shall Overcome). But today, with great discord in America, there are no new protest songs.

A professional marketing expert, Jeser Pires, a Brazilian colleague of Sergio’s, loved what we were doing and has volunteered to be our marketing expert. He did the cover designs and packaging for our kit and is now one of the three of us leading the project.

Folk music has always played a strong role in my life, but when I pursued a career as an environmental scientist, that took full time focus. However, in this new century, what used to be a science about the environment has decayed heavily into a dominance by politicians, pundits, and ideologues, becoming a set of non-scientific ideologies. Yes, environmental research does continue, but the big issues like climate change and the protection of forests and wildlife have become political issues, denied their once strong scientific basis. There is a truth in music that isn’t in science, although we live in an age, actually several centuries now, when science was a strong method of seeking understanding and truth. 

But this has changed.  In music, you can either sing on key or you can’t; you can either sing harmony or you can’t. You can’t fake it. That’s a kind of truth that is within music. But with the decline of environmental sciences, it is possible to fake science. So I have decided to turn the emphasis of my career to folk music.

You can see more about What Makes Us One on our FACEBOOK page, https://www.facebook.com/danbotkin/ and view and listen to an introduction to our What Makes Us One kit by viewing our ‘hotsite” http://jeserpires.wix.com/what-makes-us-one.”

– Dan Botkin

folk music
Woody Guthrie (second from left) the famous folk singer and creator of many folk songs and political protest songs; my 11 year-old sister, Dorothy (in the middle facing out), and myself (second from right) and several friends now unidentified. We were playing Mumblety-peg, an old-fashioned game, with a pocket knife.
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