A Request to Public Television: Stuff the Magic Dragon


Dear Maryland Public Television,

I'd be more pleased that you returned our call about scheduling if it hadn't been for the answer you gave.

We had asked when a show called "Troubadours of Folk Music," advertised in our subscriber programs, was actually going to be broadcast. The employee who called us back told me that it wasn't on the schedule through the first half of this month, but I could always watch Peter, Paul and Mary.

Oh, thanks. Thanks a lot.

Year in, year out, you give us Peter, Paul and Mary out our ears. We've amused ourselves and our children with the holiday concerts, the anniversary concerts and (Gad, what a title!) "Peter, Paul and Mommy, Too," but in this case too much of a good thing isn't as wonderful as Mae West said it was.

Do you have to try to turn everything you do into a tepid bath of nostalgia for aging baby boomers like me? (You could give the obvious answer, but an institution with public television's cultural pretensions doesn't look good arguing, "Why not? Everyone else does.") I could make the same complaint about your giving us the likes of Roger Whitaker, Barry Manilow and the Rolling Stones, but it's PP&M; who make the needles on my discomfort meter jump.

The more PP&M; you give us, the more I chafe at the attitudes they tacitly -- or sometimes openly -- ask us to share. It's impossible to listen to PP&M; without thinking you're being asked to return to the good old days when we could rebuild society at will in the light of justice . . . or what we thought was justice . . . or when we could reduce the issue of the Vietnam War to the act of putting a flower in the muzzle of a National Guardsman's rifle. (The hard leftists who believed in communism, and judged the use of violence by whether it helped the Revolution, were, I now believe, deeply despicable, but they understood means and ends, acts and consequences, better than we Give-Peace-A-Chance types did.)

After the flight of the boat people from Vietnam, the mass murders in Cambodia, the collapse of civility at home, that Sixties idealism looks more and more like false naivete and a deliberate refusal to learn from experience. What to make of the fact that almost all the toys licensed by the Children's Television Workshop, upholder of all that's good and decent, protector of the young and vulnerable, are made in post-Tiananmen China, I leave you to imagine.

And beyond politics, there is the inherent irony of the folk revival, as the English writer John Wain saw it when he was professor of poetry at Oxford in the 1970s:

"The interest in folk art is in itself sympathetic, possibly even fruitful," he wrote. "Except that underneath it one scents a fallacy, a sentimental impulse to pretend. . . . The crowds at folk concerts, the crowds at cozy, slangy-poetry readings, are indulging in nostalgia -- which isn't, in itself, a sin; it only becomes hampering when it obscures a clear-sighted view of the situation. And the situation is that the folk idiom is dead. As soon as there is a popular press, let alone radio, film and television, then folk art lies with a dagger in its heart. And if we try to imitate a folk idiom, to put flesh and skin on those dead bones by an act of will, we are condemning ourselves to an art without roots."

Perhaps Mr. Wain was too tough on 20th-century folk music in general, but his point becomes clear if we compare contemporary folk songs to what he considered the real thing.

The old songs, from the 18th-century collection called the Childe Ballads down perhaps into the early 20th century, are full of jealous lovers, treacherous spouses, tyrannical parents, bandits, shipwrecks, inexorable fate waiting at every turn in a world crueler than most graying PP&M; fans could, or would like to, imagine.

(In his novel "A Bend in the River," V. S. Naipaul makes a similar point about the audience for a better artist, Joan Baez: "You couldn't listen to sweet songs about injustice unless you expected justice and received it much of the time. You couldn't sing songs about the end of the world unless . . . you felt that the world was going on and you were safe in it.")

And yet those old songs don't descend into self-pity or mawkishness. Their bitterest laments carry the weight of catharsis, and when their spirits rise they make you feel that the joy they express has been earned, often against very long odds.

Besides the old songs themselves, where can you find this toughness, this moral weight? The blues are one obvious candidate, and country is a possible contender too. (Fernanda Eberstadt has a character in her novel "Isaac and His Demons" graduate from rock 'n' roll to country because country is about grown-up problems like layoffs and infidelity instead of being stood up for the prom. It's a nice line, but it belongs more to the 1950s than to the 1970s and '80s, when the novel takes place.) And many contemporary folk singers are doing interesting work; that was why we asked about the "Troubadours" program in the first place.

But PP&M;? The biggest purveyors of whimsy this side of Dorothy L. Sayers? The trio that makes Rodgers and Hammerstein sound as astringent as Rodgers and Hart? That faint murmur in the background is the ghost of Dorothy Parker saying, "At this point, Tonstant Viewer fwowed up."

Jeffrey Landaw is a seasonally bilious makeup editor with The Sun.

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