“A Cloven Hoof Beating Time”



edited from liner notes to “American Primitive, Volume I” by John Fahey, August 1997

In our commentary to the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music (HFSM) collection we noted that in the history of American Folk scholarship, scholars and non-academic collectors as early as Cecil Sharp noted affinity, affection and syncretism between three ethnic groups: (1) people from the British Isles and Brittany, i.e. Celtic France, (2) Blacks, and (3) Acadian French descendents of the Huegnots—Protestants—who immigrated to Louisiana from Nova Scotia in the 18th century.

We should now like to note that the largest repository by far (99%) of recordings of American Folk Music (AFM)(1) has not been established by academic institutions or folk music associations, but by the combined efforts of the American commercial recording industry. This phenomenon is as evident today as it was in the past. What institutions have stuffed their vaults with bluegrass, rap and the other last gasps of the American volkselle? Commercial recording companies.

In the 1931 RCA-Victor numerical catalogue, recordings are listed for almost every single ethnic group resident in the USA. Recordings by Filipinos, Serbo-Croatians, Yiddish, Japanese, Swiss-German, Lithuanian and on and on. Having read the entire catalogue we find specifically religious “instructional” and/or preaching records only among these few groups: Jews, Negroes and American Whites of primarily British descent who speak English i.e., WASPS. There are no religious recordings of French or Acadian performers.

While I was a member of the UCLA Folklore and Mythology Dept. several of us participated in an exhaustive but abortive search for AFM recording artists who were Jewish. We only found two. One was Eck Robertson’s wife who played guitar in Eck’s band, along with Verd, his brother (banjo).

Jews, Orientals, Finno-Ugarics, the autochthonous of Easter Island, Italians etc., played no significant role in the development of AFM. They continued to play the same music which they played in “the old country.” Meanwhile, the members of the AFM Big Three—Cajuns, Negroes, and WASPs—looked for and found new concepts, new rhythms, new harmonies and new structures. Blacks learned 8-bar pentatonic reels of the people from the British Isles, and Whites learned the tripartite, call-and-response 12 bar blues from Blacks.

I submit that these recordings, along with others of Sanctified Singers, Sacred Harp, large Negro Churches with horns etc. demonstrate that we have here in the USA, both now and then, one very large side of a continuum of an ecstatic as opposed to contemplative religion, which calls itself “Christian.” There are other ecstatic religions in the world, or religions with the same continuum (Hinduism), but is Christianity really intrinsically ecstatic in this manner of hot enthusiasm? Are these tambourine players and guitar screamers inhabited by Christ? Do they know him?

I have to say that, Flannery O’Connor notwithstanding, underneath it all I hear pan pipes tooting and a cloven hoof beating time.


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