Theoretically Speaking S3 | E1: What Makes Folk, Folk ?

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Bill Bois’ Music Theory For Non-Musicians

…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.

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S3:E1 – What Makes Folk Folk ?

Welcome to Series Three! I had planned to start off with “What Makes Rock, Rock?” but I’d been trepidatious about it.

I mean, rock. It’s a big topic.

Clearly.

The basic, simple, watered down definition is:

Rock is rock & roll, without the roll. 

That seems silly, but you might remember me saying that rock & roll is an euphemism for sex. When it comes right down to it, any music you can dance to is about sex. Dancing is foreplay. (Remember that, guys, next time a woman says she wants to dance. Take her to the dance floor immediately.)

If we take the roll out of rock & roll, is it still about sex?

Apparently so. Rock is one of our more overtly sexual genres. It’s less subtle, less seductive, less romantic. It’s more overt, more basic, more hardcore.

But what does it mean, in musical terms, to have rock without roll?

Let’s remember that rock & roll is an amalgam of blues, swing, and country. All three, and rock & roll itself, are American genres. English musicians took rock & roll, cleaned it up a little, and sold it back to the U.S. in the British Invasion. 

It was still rock & roll for a little while, but then its swing element went away. Rather than playing slightly late or early, every note was played on the beat. It’s less subtle. More overt.

The 12 bar pattern from the blues also lost popularity. It didn’t go away entirely, but chord patterns took less traditional approaches. In some cases, it got downright experimental.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but when rock lost rock & roll’s swing and blues influences, it lost its blackness. Like it or not, race is a huge part of American history and American music.

Rock is what’s left of rock & roll with the African-American elements removed.

You might remember that I said that the name “R&B” is a code to say it’s “black people’s music.” The name rock is a code for white people’s music. Neither R&B nor rock is an individual genre. R&B contains soul, disco, hip hop, and more. Rock contains rock & roll, progressive rock, punk, grunge, etc.. As names, “R&B” and “rock” are just marketing terms.

All that to say that rock is too big a topic to cover by itself.

Instead, we’ll look at some individual genres under that huge rock umbrella.

Let’s start with folk, and while folk music is defined as any traditional music made by common people and passed down through generations, we’ll stick to what came to be the commercialized folk music scene of the 1950s and 60s and evolved into the Americana of today.

That story starts with the Great Depression – but not quite in the way you’d think.

John Lomax worked for a bank that failed early in the Depression, and found himself unemployed.

Desperate to support his family, and as a music fan, he published a book of cowboy songs, including lyrics and sheet music.

This detailed and somewhat scholarly book was one of the first times folk music was documented.

The book helped him get a grant from the Library of Congress in 1933 to travel the South, recording folk songs wherever he found them. Prior to this, these songs that existed in the memories of cowboys, hillbillies and former slaves hadn’t been put on tape.

Lomax took his 18-year-old son, Alan, along with him. Alan would continue doing these “field recordings” for years, amassing a total of 5,000 hours of music across the U.S. and Haiti.

The Lomaxes would often go to prisons, believing that if black people were kept in isolation, their songs wouldn’t be affected by the outside world. In other words, prisons were musical time capsules. 

In Angola, Louisiana, they went to the state prison and recorded a singer named Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. You’ll see it as “Leadbelly” but Ledbetter himself spelled it as two words.

The Lomaxes were taken by his voice and performances, and over several sessions had him record every song he knew.

That was a lot of songs, because Lead Belly had supported himself playing in St. Paul’s Bottoms, Shreveport’s red light district.

It was a rough part of town, hence his various prison sentences, and it demanded long hours of entertainment.

The Lomaxes brought a recording of Lead Belly to Louisiana’s governor. That started the myth that the governor released Lead Belly after hearing his music. In reality, Lead Belly had served his time but he became known as the man who sang his way out of prison. Neither he nor John Lomax did anything to bust that myth. A good story sells records and books.

Lomax brought Lead Belly to his lectures at northern colleges as a sort of audio/visual aid, and encouraged him to soften his sound for northern audiences.

In New York City, Lead Belly had several recording sessions with the American Record Company. Most of these songs weren’t released in his lifetime because the initial record didn’t sell well. However, that album was of his blues songs, not the traditional folk for which he would later be known.

Though Lomax and Lead Belly worked together for only eight months and split acrimoniously, their tour of the north introduced the idea that folk music was more than quaint campfire songs. It could be outlaw music. 

It could even be protest songs. Or maybe some people thought you were protesting by simply saying that real life is hard for poor people.

Woody Guthrie specialized in these songs.

Desperate for work during the Dust Bowl years, he left his family in Oklahoma and hitchhiked or hopped freight trains to California to look for work. A lot of “Okies” did the same.

In 1937, Guthrie found a gig playing traditional songs on a Los Angeles radio station. He and his co-performer Maxine “Lefty Lou” Crissman developed a loyal audience among the Okies in the migrant camps.

Guthrie was endlessly restless and would never stay in one place for long, and his experiences with poverty followed by success and fame informed his left leaning politics. He famously had the words “This machine kills fascists” emblazoned on his guitar. 

He moved to New York in 1940. On the way, he heard Kate Smith’s God Bless America on the radio a lot. It struck him as nationalistic.

So he wrote This Land Is Your Land as a reaction.

He was making a statement against private property, saying everyone has the same rights to this land as everyone else. This Land Is Your Land is a protest song.

He arrived in New York shortly after the Lomax lectures. His songs, along with his Okie demeanor, made him the de facto leader of the new folk music scene. He and the folk movement, and their protest songs, became suspects of the far right in the Communist scare of the 1950s. That’s why the popularity of folk music is sometimes satirically called the “Great Folk Scare,” as if music is something to be scared of.

In 1941, Guthrie joined a group called The Almanac Singers, so named because poor people were likely to have only two books, the Bible and The Farmer’s Almanac.

The Almanac Singers were closely aligned with leftist causes, notably the Communist Party. It’s important to remember that before Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Communists were the only political group talking about the prospects of the working class. The Almanac Singers weren’t devotees of Karl Marx or Joseph Stalin, but were very interested in the welfare of poor people.

Regardless, that alliance made it difficult for them to grow their career into the mainstream and they broke up in 1942. However, Almanac members Pete Seeger and Lee Hays formed The Weavers. While the New York folk scene had developed a reputation of being scholarly recreations of actual folk singers, The Weavers performances were unaffected and authentic.

Their residency at the Village Vanguard earned them a steady audience and a record deal.

The Weavers intentionally chose non-political songs. Two of their biggest hits were songs they knew from Lead Belly’s performances, Kisses Sweeter Than Wine and Goodnight Irene.

There’s nothing Communist about Kisses Sweeter Than Wine, and people on the left called them sell outs, but they knew their past affiliations could come to haunt them.

And that’s what happened.

In a time when the country’s right wing insisted on people signing loyalty pledges, radio stations, clubs, and labels were under intense pressure to disassociate themselves from anyone even tangentially involved with the left.

The Weavers, despite selling millions of records, broke up in 1952.

Those sales figures, however, didn’t go unnoticed. Folk singers and groups sprouted like alfalfa. The Easy Riders had a hit with Marianne, The Highwaymen hit #1 with Michael, and The Kingston Trio became one of the most successful recording acts of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Tokens wrote new lyrics to The Weavers’ Wimoweh, which was itself an interpretation of Mbube by Solomon Linda, and had a #1 hit called The Lion Sleeps Tonight in 1961.

New York City, and particularly Greenwich Village, became a magnet for outsider singers from all over.

Musicians showed up with acoustic guitars, never in cases, and played in coffee shops. People would gather in Washington Square Park on Sunday afternoons and sing songs together. Some of these players became household names, including John Sebastian, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo.

The most important and influential was Bob Dylan.

New York, 1961

He arrived in New York in 1961 and immediately became a star of the scene. His rough-hewn, untrained voice was a love-it-or-hate-it sound, but it was authentic. And authenticity is paramount in folk.

Paradoxically, many folks singers of the 1960s  never led hardscrapple lives. They approached folk academically. Many were college students. Few had the authenticity of Lead Belly or Woody Guthrie.

Dylan visited Guthrie in the hospital as he gradually died of Huntington’s chorea. Dylan idolized Guthrie, and Guthrie liked Dylan and his songs. Their friendship was something of a passing of the torch.

But it was Dylan’s songwriting that made him a star. He had something to say and he said it well. From the anti-war pastoral Blowing In The Wind to the bitter but resigned break up song Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, he wrote relatable lyrics with memorable melodies.

He wrote incessantly and grew as a songwriter, leaving folk far behind before the genre had run its course.

By the time Peter, Paul & Mary hit #1 with Leaving On A Jet Plane, Dylan had already pissed off folk purists by using electric instruments released several rock & roll albums, and gone in a more country direction.

He’s continued evolving musically ever since.

Folk music mostly required a voice, an acoustic guitar, and a message, but the times, they were a-changing. Dylan’s song Mr. Tambourine Man hit #1 in a jangly, somewhat psychedelic version by The Byrds in 1965. 

Six months later, Simon and Garfunkel hit #1 with Simon’s song The Sound Of Silence. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were childhood friends who performed under various names. They broke up and reunited many times. They thought they had broken up for good after their first album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., didn’t sell. 

Simon was touring as a solo act somewhere in Denmark when he picked up a copy of Billboard magazine and saw The Sound Of Silence on the Hot 100.

Not believing it, he found a copy of Cashbox. And it was there, too.

It turned out that WBZ in Boston had added “The Sound Of Silence” to its late night playlist.

The college kids there loved it.

Word got back to the label, and producer Tom Wilson hired session musicians to add electric guitars and drums to Simon & Garfunkel’s all acoustic version. With a touch of reverb, this new version sounded a lot like The Byrds and, of course, it went to #1.

If folk music is acoustic, adding an electric rhythm section makes it folk rock.

And it was a very successful genre for many artists: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (individually and collectively), Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, America, James Taylor, Leonard Cohen, and many more. 

The influence continues with Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, The Lumineers, Father John Misty and what we’re now calling Americana.

Some are more country, some are more soft rock.

But they all owe gratitude to Lead Belly, the Lomaxes, The Weavers, and Bob Dylan.


Suggested Listening

Goodnight Irene
Lead Belly (1935)

Which Side Are You On
The Almanac Singers (1941)

This Land Is Your Land
Woody Guthrie (1944)

Marianne
The Easy Riders (1957)

Kisses Sweeter Than Wine
The Weavers (1951)

M.T.A.
The Kingston Trio (1959)

Donna, Donna
Joan Baez (1960)

Blowing In The Wind
Bob Dylan (1962)

Mr. Tambourine Man
The Byrds (1965)

The Sound Of Silence
Simon & Garfunkel (1965)

Creeque Alley
The Mamas And The Papas (1966)

Both Sides Now
Joni Mitchell (1969)

Leaving On A Jet Plane
Peter, Paul & Mary (1969)

Ventura Highway
America (1972)

Polaroids
Shawn Colvin (1992)

Pass You By
Gillian Welch (1996)

Hold You In My Arms
Ray LaMontagne (2004)

Salina
The Avett Brothers (2007)

Stories Up High
Laney Jones (2022)


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Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/138BvuV84ZH7ugcwR1HVtH6HmOHiZIDAGMIegPPAXc-I/edit#gid=0

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cstolliver
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November 18, 2022 5:34 am

At essence, I know you’re right on these descriptors. I always get a little skittish about the bluntness of “black people’s music” and “white people’s music” because its directness leaves little room for the nuance of a Jimi Hendrix on one side or a Hall and Oates on the other. And yet, I can’t deny that there clearly are sides, and the descriptors you’re using are the most clear ways of delineating them. There’s always room for the asterisks, and I know you always dive into that space. Great start to season three.

Phylum of Alexandria
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November 18, 2022 7:22 am
Reply to  cstolliver

I think Bill is talking about the original creation of the “rhythm and blues” category, which literally was a catch-all term that replaced “race music” in the early 50s.

Nowadays when we hear the term R&B, we think of music that’s predominantly black, but not exclusively so. That’s some measure of the progress that’s taken place, as is our current skittishness toward the older way!

thegue
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November 18, 2022 10:49 am
Reply to  Virgindog

Great read to along with the race discussion of music (fast forward to Wesley Morris’ essay):

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html

LinkCrawford
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November 18, 2022 12:25 pm
Reply to  thegue

Darned paywall.

dutchg8r
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November 18, 2022 6:09 pm
Reply to  cstolliver

I HATE when some people describe soulful white artists as “blue-eyed soul”. I understand why the term came about, but it’s sad it’s still used to this day. That’s like describing Living Colour as something as short-sighted and tasteless as a ‘Jheri-curl Rock band’. Just aggrevates me to no end.

Phylum of Alexandria
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November 18, 2022 7:18 am

Yay, another season of TS begins! Folk yeah!

As you indicate, the general notion of “folk” is so broad that almost anything can be considered folk (the anthropological perspective). Then there’s the idea that folk music is the music of the common people as opposed to the elites (folk as musical populism), which would still include a ton of stuff around the world and across regions.

We need a better name for the 60’s San Fran/Greenwich Village stuff and their descendants. I think Neo-Folk works, because it seemed to be a self-conscious attempt to generate some sort of comprehensive folk sound rather than simply carry down musical traditions of a region. But, it’s too late for a new term to take off, and so “folk” will remain a confusing descriptor. Ah well.

I know that authenticity is often cited as vital for folk music, but as a theater kid, I have always been drawn to the more theatrical elements of folk.

Perhaps for that reason, my number one folk revivalist is Odetta. She initially aspired to become an opera singer, but that was not possible for black performers at the time. She switched to singing folk traditionals, but she kept her dramatic, commanding delivery, and sometimes took on various personas in his songs. Apparently it was her solo debut LP Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues that first convinced the young Bob Dylan to pursue acoustic folk instead of rock ‘n’ roll, so she probably taught him a thing or two about theatrics!

Going any further back in time, and the theatrical aspects tend to relate to minstrel show music, which I avoid for obvious reasons. But there are some exceptions, like John Jacob Niles, who did dramatic falsetto impersonations of his characters. Even Lead Belly had some theatrical trappings, such as his wearing a prison uniform for performances, even after being released.

Be it Odetta, Dylan, or Joe Strummer, I think it’s more about the artistic channeling of an authentic persona in music rather than about literally living the life sung in the songs. And if that’s the case, then it’s basically still theater—though more like subtle character acting than the exaggerated pantomime of old.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_eZj7kYnZ8&list=OLAK5uy_kPf1OTPybotaXvS_7NXTjHxWmv9N-Pwec

cappiethedog
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November 18, 2022 4:35 pm

I love Odetta. I first saw her on a Nanci Griffith special. RIP Nanci Griffith. She joined Griffith and the other guests on a rousing rendition of “If I Had a Hammer”. Odetta had her Tammy Wynette/KLF moment by guest-starring on a Stephin Merritt(The 6ths) album.

It’s hard to mess up “Masters of War”. Even Cher’s version is good. I like Odetta’s take best.

dutchg8r
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November 18, 2022 6:10 pm

Nu-folk. 🙃

thegue
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November 18, 2022 10:26 am

Growing up, kids snickered at Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and declared it their favorite Dylan song.

Dylan’s voice takes a LOT of getting used to, but I was working with my dad’s construction company and “Positively 4th Street” came on, and I was f***ing blown away. I’m not good (generally) at recognizing lyrics, but he cuts thru all the shit in that song. Still love it to this day, even while I’ll turn off most of his other stuff.

I also can’t believe it hit the Top 10.

thegue
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November 18, 2022 10:28 am

P.S. Bill, where does Billy Bragg fit in? I was introduced to him in college and fell in love with a couple of his CDs.

It was definitely “college rock” when I was in school, but I struggle to call it ‘alt rock’.

mt58
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November 18, 2022 10:40 am
Reply to  Virgindog

Nice Peter, Paul, and Mary shoutout. I believed every word of Leaving On A Jet Plane. John Denver wrote a good one, there.

Last edited 16 days ago by mt58
cappiethedog
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November 18, 2022 4:25 pm
Reply to  mt58

Going through the entire John Denver catalog has been very rewarding. The artists who contribute to his tribute albums are singer-songwriters I’m well-versed in. My highlight: J. Mascis dueting with Sharon van Etten. (Actually, it’s pre-sketchy Mark Kozelek. So disappointed in him.) I guess that started my deep-dive. Find out what the original “Prisoners” sounded like. With all the records he sold, it’s possible that John Denver is underrated.

lovethisconcept
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November 21, 2022 3:55 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

History has been unkind to him. Maybe it’s time to revisit him with an open mind.

cappiethedog
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November 18, 2022 1:29 pm
Reply to  thegue

Billy Bragg was on fire before Nirvana exploded onto the music scene. I was obsessed with “The Short Answer” from Workers’ Playtime. Killed my cassette in that Chevy Malibu tape deck. I love seeing Kirsty MacColl in the video for “Sexuality”. She looks so vibrant and happy. MacColl’s passing is the worst and most depressing musician death I can think of. She’s the only major artist who covered my reclamation project, Dublin’s A House. “I look like Robert DeNiro/I drive a Mitsubishi Zero” is a TMBG-worthy couplet. Don’t Try This at Home continues the hot streak. I know his earlier albums are better-received, but Workers’ Playtime was my starting point.

LinkCrawford
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November 18, 2022 11:55 am

I have a problem with folk. I’ll admit, part of it is my natural tendency to be complacent and lazy when hearing the complaining lyrics. I’m listening to music to ESCAPE…not to get a lesson on how bad things are and what I’m doing wrong. That’s not the right attitude, I know.

But my main complaint with folk is always that it sacrifices interesting music by focusing its attention on message. The music is overly simple. WAY too often it is minor key strumming of guitars. That really turns me off. (I have mentioned before how much I despise both REM’s “Losing My Religion” and John Mellencamp’s “Human Wheels”.)

But over the years, I’ve found that I have to take folk on a case-by-case basis.
“Marianne”? I love it!
“Sound of Silence”. meh. “Scarborough Fair”? Gorgeous!
“Goodnight Irene”? ugh, no. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”? It’s grown on me over the years!
“Blowing in the Wind”? boooooooring. “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”? Love it!

I’m probably unfair to folk in my mind, but it definitely has a negative connotation for me. And yet, there is good stuff. If “Ventura Highway” or “Sundown” are folk, I’m in.

mt58
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November 18, 2022 1:05 pm

The mind is a funny thing. Bill mentions the influence of folk protest songs, and it conjures up this.

Viva La Danny and The Demonstrators.

JJ Live At Leeds
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November 18, 2022 3:06 pm

My perception and experience of folk is quite different. For me its born from tradition so the British version and lineage varies from the American while still having common themes. Folk music goes way back with images of jesters, lutes and hey nonny nonny lyrics.

It became the music of the people telling stories to be passed down with emphasis on personal and local experience. Although I’m familar with Dylan’s early work and the folk rock of the likes of The Byrds they aren’t what I consider as folk. Not because I have anything against them, Mr Tambourine Man is a great record, more because folk is about what has more personal resonance and local flavour.

Whereas when rock and roll came along a lot of British performers mimicked what they heard from America, in folk its more about singing in your own accent. The aforementioned Billy Bragg being a perfect example – though with his strong Essex accent he didn’t have much choice but he made it work for him.

Having survived rock, pop, rap and all manner of other genres there has been a folk renaissance over here in the last 20 years. There’s a lot of wonderful stuff that exists outside the mainstream radio formats but has its own audience. Notable recommendations for The Unthanks who are sisters (Unthank is their actual surname) from Northumberland and sing in geordie accents, they started out interpreting traditional local songs from the past couple of centuries but have now branched out into a mix of that and creating their own modern take on folk while still retaining the regional feel.

Richard Dawson is another who creates a more experimental and at times darker folk sound which can be a difficult listen but again singing in his own geordie accent. He started out as a big metal fan but got into people like Sun Ra, Kenyan folk guitarist Henry Makobi and Qawwali music all of which are brought into his sound.

All in all, I think your version of folk is going to differ depending on where you’re from. A fascinating read as ever Bill!

dutchg8r
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November 18, 2022 5:59 pm

As always, your explanation is spot on VDog, in a way I could never articulate before, ever, in my entire life…. Nom-nom-nom

Folk music had always been typecast by me as ‘that hippie music that was the lifeblood of my hippie parents that I detested as a kid cause it was so plodding and boring to my ears’. More or less. 😁

I’ve come around to appreciate folk’s place in the overall musical spectrum, but it’s pretty far down my preference list.

cstolliver
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November 19, 2022 9:23 am
Reply to  Virgindog

Now, *that’s* a tease!

mt58
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November 19, 2022 11:33 am
Reply to  cstolliver

Hmm. Hippie music.

OK, I’m calling it now:

1125p.png
Aaron3000
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November 20, 2022 5:11 pm
Reply to  mt58

I would give thanks to see that. 😂

Pauly Steyreen
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November 18, 2022 8:17 pm

Or we could all just watch the film A Mighty Wind to know the true essence of folk music!

I watch the trailer and it gives me goosebumps:

https://youtu.be/ujUehfDYkfU

dutchg8r
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November 19, 2022 8:52 am
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

The world is long overdue for another Christopher Guest mockumentary…….

Well hey, looky here!

https://www.google.com/amp/s/variety.com/2022/film/news/this-is-spinal-tap-sequel-rob-reiner-michael-mckean-1235265523/amp/

Pauly Steyreen
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November 19, 2022 10:42 am
Reply to  dutchg8r

Hi diddley ho! I did not know that… Frigging awesome!!!

For my money, A Mighty Wind is my 3rd favorite after Best in Show and the original This Is Spinal Tap!

cappiethedog
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November 19, 2022 9:09 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

“On the bass, Derek Smalls, he wrote this.”

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[…] talked about folk music in a previous episode, and it took on psychedelic tinges through this same time […]

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