Digital Folklore

June 15, 2007

When I was starting out on the banjo the world was a complicated place. The Internet wasn’t happening for the general public just yet so we had to get our information from books, magazines, radio shows, recordings and from people we met.

It dosen’t sound too bad, but when we were reading books and magazines there was a real need to view everything we read with a bit of caution because anybody could sit down at at typewriter and make stuff up.

On the radio what we heard was dictated by disk jockeys and you always had to ask yourself if a song was being played because it was really good or because somebody was collecting on a favor.

Recordings were tricky because, back then, you couldn’t hear anything before you bought it and you couldn’t rely on record reviews because – once again – anybody can sit down at a typewriter and make something up.

Even the people we met at festivals and jams would occasionally spout out information that was just plain wrong.

Back in the 70’s and 80’s a banjo or guitar student had to carefully weigh each piece of information he or she came across – and that could be painful because information was extremely hard to come by. It’s hard to imagine today where information is so readily accessible and available that it’s almost annoying, but there were times back when I was learning when I had to walk for miles in freezing weather just for a chance to jam and hear what other musicians were up to. In a city as massive as Philadelphia I would sometimes go for weeks feeling like the only folk musician on the face of the earth. When you are that hungry for information it can be really hard to force yourself to step back and coldly decide if what you were hearing or reading was worth your time.

Shoot, just about every music book I read back then had to be bought from Pressers Music up the road from us in Ardmore, Pa – and every thing I bought was paid for by working extremely crappy jobs. There is nothing like busting your hump all weekend cleaning out an apartment once occupied by a cat lady just to pay for a guitar or banjo book only to find that the book in question has no usable information.

Things are different today in some ways. Information is literally on tap. A web site like has more music on a single page than I would have heard in a year when I was starting out. Dear Old Dad and I have put more instructional stuff out on the web than we ever had access to at one given time.

What hasn’t changed is the need to evaluate every bit of information you come across. The same issues we had with books, magazines, radio shows, recordings and people are still cause for concern on the Internet.

The simple fact is that people lie. I don’t know why they lie, they just do. For as long as there have been banjo players there have been people pretending to be banjo players. For as long as we’ve had blues guitar there have been people pretending to be blues guitar players. It’s just a fact of life – and I really think learning to spot the real thing in a sea of poseurs is an important part of the learning process.

Encyclopædia Britannica would have you think this is all new. The ink and paper monolith has launched a forum to discuss Web 2.0 (as if anybody on earth could tell you what Web 2.0 is outside of a sales pitch) and they are taking a pretty gloomy stance on how the Internet is changing the way we access information. Articles like The Sleep of Reason and Digital Maoism paint a picture of mindless hordes gobbling down bad information and making it fact by sheer force of will.

They make a few good points (and a lot of bad points). Wikipedia kinda sucks and web forums are full of sick wackos – but then again, everybody already knows and accepts that Wikipedia kinda sucks and web forums are a joke. The Internet is full of bad information and crazy people, but you could say the same thing about your local library. Anybody can write a book. Any group of people can get together long enough for a lie to make the jump to modern misconception. The truth has always been under attack and the truth has always prevailed in some way or another.

Just as things were back when Dear Old Dad and I were starting out, it’s up to modern music students to sort out the folklore from the fakelore. Instead if bemoaning that fact it would be cool if Encyclop√¶dia Britannica put more energy into being the change they want to see in the world.

In one article the writer describes bringing a structure like the publishing indistry into the web. I thought this was kind of funny because a few years ago we were talking to some industry bigshots about putting out a line of instructional books. I started talking about what I wanted to cover and how we could develop the learning process from book to book when somebody interrupted me by saying, “They don’t have to work. They don’t even have to be good. They just have to sell.”

Needless to say, we turned down the deal and kept doing things on our own.

So much for the publishing industry being a role model of good information.

In the end, the Interenet hasn’t really changed anything. Learning has never been a matter of accepting or absorbing information. Learning is a quest for understanding. A fight to discover some kind of truth. Don’t just sit in front of your computer trying to absorb information, get out and apply it. Application, actually trying to do it, is the only sure-fire way to evaluate a musical concept or technique. Writing about the banjo or thinking about the banjo will never equal the experience of just kicking back on the front porch and playing the banjo.

Some things just can’t be digitized.

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