Thanks everyone for your help in gathering info for this article! This ran Friday, Jan. 20 in The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass. An expanded, more thorough version will soon run in Dirty Linen magazine, along with info on their upcoming web page.
By Stephen Ide
The Patriot Ledger
Fans of MTV have been getting unplugged for years. Now folk fans are plugging in. Call it cyberfolk. Call it low-tech meeting high-tech. But folk music has found a growing niche in cyberspace. The Internet, an expanding network of computers linked by telephone lines around the world, can connect music fans on everything from Beethoven to XTC. For folk music, a traditionally acoustic medium, the Internet has become a new way to keep the tradition alive.
``I appreciate the irony of sitting behind a modern computer which costs thousands of dollars, listening to recordings ... of songs that were written 500 years ago,'' says Christian Walters.
Walters runs ``The Old Ways'' discussion group, focusing on Canadian singer-songwriter Loreena McKennitt, a Juno-award-winning harpist who performs original music and interpretations of ancient songs.
The Internet makes it possible for fans, promoters, artists, disc jockeys, record companies and journalists to meet on-line. There's even music and folk videos -- a sort of cyberfolk MTV, if you will. You can find out who's performing at Cambridge's Kendall Cafe, for example, or what a concert-goer thought of the recent show by Irish folk-rocker Luka Bloom. Or you can delve into the significance of relationships in the lyrics of songs by Nanci Griffith.
Walters, a technical writer from Alabama, says the demand for folk music on-line is rising. He began his discussion group in March and now has more than 500 participants. Those people comment via electronic mail, with questions, reviews, or explorations of the meanings in McKennitt's lyrics. Walters runs a list server, a program that allows him to collect E-mail from participants, group the messages into one file and then E-mail a copy of the file back to subscribers on his mailing list. List servers differ from computer bulletin boards, or newsgroups, in which users post messages on a given topic at a specific location and interested people must seek out that site to read it. People with access to the software Mosaic, Netscape or MacWeb, for example, can also look at information about McKennitt and other artists on the so-called World-Wide Web.
Web sites, also called home pages, are a kind of hub in cyberspace where information is available on specific topics. Once you tap into one, you may find information there or branch off to seek it elsewhere, much like following the outwardly expanding threads of a spiderweb. McKennitt's web site, for example, ``includes pictures, lyrics, music samples and other assorted information about Loreena,'' Walters said. ``It also includes links to other artists which the owner of the site thought would be of interest to Loreena fans, such as Kate Bush, Tori Amos, and Sarah McLachlan.''
When a deejay recently wanted to air a tribute to the late civil rights songwriter Phil Ochs on what would have been Ochs' 54th birthday (Dec. 19), he posted a message to another list server run by Tina Hay, folk coordinator for WPSU-FM at Penn State University. Ochs fans responded with lists of the many songs recorded by other artists. Och's sister, Sonny, eventually sent in her own E-mail, containing a definitive, lengthy list. Hay, who has run the ``FolkDJ-L'' list for just more than a year, says folk music on-line is popular for many of the same reasons that the Internet has become popular.
``It gives people the chance to connect with like-minded people in the world,'' Hay said. ``We have a subscriber in Australia. Before the Internet came around I knew other stations had folk shows, but my knowledge of them was limited.''
About one quarter of her roughly 200 subscribers are deejays, many of whom post their playlists. In many ways, she said, this benefits new artists on small, independent record labels, who might have limited distribution and might not be heard in other parts of the country. Among the contributors to the FolkDJ-L list are Anne Saunders, who runs the popular Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in New York and Mark Moss, publisher of Sing Out! magazine. By monitoring or contributing to the list, they are able to find out who's hot and who's not.
The Maryland-based folk magazine Dirty Linen has received E-mail for years, and it makes its extensive listings of artist itineraries -- delivered with every issue of the bimonthly publication -- available on-line. It is also planning to create a World-Wide Web page for people to get a look at what's in the current magazine.
For information about contemporary singer-songwriters, one of the best discussion groups available is called Folk_Music and is run by Alan Rowoth of Syracuse, N.Y. Rowoth said the response to the group -- begun about three years ago -- was instantaneous.
``I made the decision at 2 p.m., sent out a message to the new list at 3 p.m. and had 75 subscribers by 5 p.m.,'' Rowoth said.
Subscriptions to the list have risen 300 percent since last year, he said, and now are well over 1,700. But the list is forwarded to many locations, including college campuses, electronic bulletin boards and corporations. This makes the actual readership impossible to know.
``It's exponential,'' Rowoth said. ``The more people we have on the list, the more people we have evangelizing the list and the better the quality of the information that we provide. We haven't reached terminal velocity yet.''
Rowoth, a musician who also heads the computer department at the Liverpool, N.Y., public library, is the list moderator. That means he reviews submissions and edits items that are redundant or inappropriate. When Rowoth can't administer the list, the job is handled by Walpole resident Kara Longo, he said. Having a moderator keeps the discussion informative and focused.
``We have real content,'' he says. ``This isn't just a bunch of foundationless conjecture, most of our postings are factual and derived directly from one of the principals. I've spent hours and a lot of money pursuing industry people: artists, agents, managers, venues, radio people, the whole community. The quality of the information is enhanced by its authority.''
Recent discussions on-line included debates on the potential effects of the Republican plan to cut spending to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides funding to public radio stations, stalwart providers of folk music nationwide. Another recent mailing had 22 topics including, for example, a review of a performance by Sarah McLachlan in New York, David Wilcox in Pontiac, Mich., a question about whatever happened to Tracy Chapman, information about The Roches Christmas radio broadcast, an announcement about a benefit concert for the World Folk Music Association in Washington, D.C. and discussion of Iris Dement's pre-emption from The Late Show with David Letterman.
Rowoth and Walters are convinced the lists are popular because the music is so good.
``It's been orphaned by traditional media, yet when people pick up a copy of `The Honesty Room' (by Dar Williams) and realize that it blows away any album on the top 100, they get the sense that there is an ocean of great music out there to be discovered,'' Rowoth said. ``I've gotten so much appreciative mail from people who've tapped into a lot of records when they had wrongly thought that there was nobody making music for them.''
Rowoth recently created a concert series called Internet Quartets, a traveling roadshow of folk musicians. Rowoth, in a newsletter about the concert series and his discussion group, noted the immediacy with which on-line participants hear about many of their favorites artists.
``If Christine Lavin burns the Paradise to the ground with a flaming baton, you'll hear about it before the ashes have cooled,'' he says. ``Susan Werner debuts a new song tonight in Portsmouth, N.H., and readers in L.A. get a review of it the next morning.''
If you can receive electronic mail or access Internet newsgroups, you can participate in group discussions about folk music. Many commercial on-line services, like CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy and GEnie, provide the ability to receive and send mail electronically and provide access to newsgroups either within their own service or through the Internet.
Accessing information on the World-Wide Web requires the use of a web browser program offered through Internet service providers such as World, Delphi or Netcom.
Usenet newsgroups offer other sites for discussions about folk music. In many of the commercial on-line services, folk music has become a subgroup under categories like world music, or under rock and country. Some newsgroups to try include rec.music.folk or for Celtic music: rec.music.celtic, alt.misc.enya or soc.culture.celtic.
To join a list server discussion group, send E-mail to subscribe to it. Be forewarned, the E-mail you will receive in return from some of these groups may be lengthy.
Following are some folk music discussion groups, their E-mail addresses (exclude ending periods) and the messages to include in your E-mail to subscribe:
A number of useful folk music-related sites are accessible on the World-Wide Web, including: