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Folk Songs and Pop Music

Baby boomers who remember "Tom Dooley" need to write their memoirs about what it was like to have an old murder ballad be the #1 song in the world. For the last decades, old folk songs have been so unpopular that it is hard to imagine that they ever could have been blaring out of radios in car repair shops and retail stores around the country. It begs the question as to whether they have been unpopular because they have not been given a chance to be popular and never get any serious airplay, or if they are inherently unpopular and not the kind of music people want to hear these days.

There is more than fashion at work here, and I find it a bit of a detective job to try to unravel the complex relationship between the worlds of public domain folk songs and popular music. In culture, like so many other things like politics, wars or murder, you often find money flowing underneath that turns out to be the driving force behind things that don't just seem on the surface to be about money. Some of you historians and legal scholars might nip me on a technicality or two, but this is a subject I have been very interested in for a long time, and I think that more light should be shed on this murky place.

I went through the pop charts for the last 75 years, and found that there have been at least 6 traditional public domain folk songs that have reached #1. Ownership of some of them is disputed, and definition of a #1 hit is also disputed in some eras when there was not an official Billboard chart (such as 1958) Three of them were 2 chord songs. I might have missed something else-- one's eyes tend to glaze over when scrolling through long pages of lists. If this list is complete, then it has been 43 years since a folk song was at the top of the charts. It is likely that the 1941 Glenn Miller hit was a result of the ASCAP boycott, when record companies released a lot of recordings of public domain songs as a protest against the monopolistic practices of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers)

"Song of the Volga Boatman" (Glenn Miller) 1941
"Yellow Rose of Texas" (Mitch Miller) Aug 1955
"He's Got the Whole World in his Hands" (Laurie London) April 1958 (on DJ list)
"Tom Dooley" (Kingston Trio) Nov 17 1958
"Stagger Lee" (Lloyd Price) Feb 1959
"House of the Rising Sun" (The Animals) 1964

The Weavers had a hit in 1951 with "On Top of Old Smoky" that was reportedly #2 on Billboard chart, #1 on Cashbox, and sold over a million copies. "The Banana Boat Song" reached #4 in 1957. (6 artists hit the U.S. charts with "The Banana Boat Song" in 1957: The Terriers version was the first at #4 (#15 in the UK), followed by Belafonte, The Fontane Sisters (#13), Steve Lawrence (#18), Sarah Vaughan (#19), and Stan Freberg, whose comedy version hit #25. "The Battle of New Orleans" was a mega-hit (6 weeks at #1) in June 1959 for Johnny Horton, the melody was an old fiddle tune, and words by Jimmie Driftwood. There was a long court battle over ownership and royalties of "Tom Dooley" and I have not looked into whether the others generated lawsuits also. The African song "Wimoweh" also known as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" has been in the news lately because it was a huge hit and was used by Disney, and it turns out to not be traditional after all, and the African man (Solomon Linda) who wrote it was never properly compensated. Long articles have been written (such as this one) about the path of the money and the legal disputes over it.

But as the music industry "grew up"and as the massive music sales of the baby boom generation rewrote the rules, it shifted from a world where artists chose and recorded songs they liked, to a world where record companies and song owners had a much stronger voice in choosing what songs were recorded, released and promoted. The biggest source of money has turned out not to be ticket sales or album sales, but royalties from ownership of the intellectual property of the songs. This continues to be the case, and shapes the landscape of the pop charts.

Which leads us to the issue of money. In the 50's when the "folk boom" hit, it was discovered that people would listen to and buy folk songs sung by all kinds of artists, and record companies found it convenient to not have to pay royalties to a song's owners. The idea of "arranging" and "publishing" folk songs and collecting money from that became pervasive, and things got messy with claims that people were violating each other's arrangements. It is my guess that the vagueness of origin and ownership, and the messy lawsuits that ensued following a number of folk songs led major labels to stop releasing them. It became part of the standard record contract that a songwriter who had a record deal would sign over the "publishing rights" of the songs (essentially 50% of the royalty money) as part of the game. For airplay of arrangments of public domain music ASCAP and BMI paid 10% and 20% respectively, of the money they paid to the owners of original music. So the way the money divided up, it was undoubtedly worth more to the record company to pay a small royalty to the artist as writer while collecting publisher money than it was to try to avoid paying by releasing folk songs.

What this has done is to dramatically limit the access of average people to folk music. This has helped to make traditional folk music seem to be "less cool" than the heavily-hyped pop music. Luckily the music seems to have a life beyond pop charts, and artists have continued to arrange and perform the old songs, and a few notable artists like Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn and Bruce Springsteen have made a point to record folk songs in recent years. Even artists like Natalie Merchant have been recording old ballads, and folk music now seems better positioned than it has been in decades to grow and spread and to reach newer generations, in spite of there being no PR machine in place to promote and sell it.



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