A Song at its Heart; The folk scene might have changed over the years, but as 'Sing Out!' nears its 50th anniversary of publishing, readers' love of its music and ideals has not


BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Open Sing Out!, the avatar of folk music magazines, and find an underground river of song. The river flows from primitive field recordings to do-it-yourself CD pressings, from isolated mountain hollows to New York City, from Madagascar in the 1920s to today's thrilling melange of world music.

With lively columns (Pete Seeger has written one called "Appleseeds" since 1954), instrument "teach ins," and reprints of traditional and new songs to try at home, Sing Out!, which turns 50 in 2000, remains redolent of its earliest years when musicians such as Seeger and Woody Guthrie were singing of common men and women, "hootenannies" were cool, and "red-baiting" was something of a national pastime.

Yet the same pages offer a discussion on "personal narrative" versus traditional story telling as well as a review of the Culture Vultures, a folk/bluegrass band whose lament, "I No Longer Think of Sherry as My Wife," concerns a man and his unfaithful, HIV-positive spouse.

That Sing Out! has lived to tell these tales makes it worthy of its own meandering ballad; one that would begin in the mid-1940s, brave the Red Scare of the McCarthy Era, revel in the folk revival of the '50s and '60s, accompany the Civil Rights Movement and mourn the Vietnam War -- only to nearly expire and be resuscitated by a quixotic believer named Mark D. Moss, and his partner, folk music genius Seeger.

For those who love traditional and contemporary folk music, it was a serendipitous alliance. Sing Out! is the "central nervous system for the folk community around the world," says Gene Shay, longtime Sunday night folk music host on WXPN, a Philadelphia-based public radio station that can be heard weekends on 104.5 FM in Baltimore. "There is no other publication that gets into traditional and contemporary folk music the way Sing Out! does."

The continuum from, say, the traditional high, lonesome music of early 20th century Appalachia to contemporary singer-songwriter Christine Lavin's witty angst is not such a stretch within Sing Out!'s 200-plus pages. For one, Sing Out! defines folk song as music, whether a pop standard or an ancient ballad, performed by and within a particular community, even if that community is a bunch of yuppies in a living room. For another, vital musical forms beget new ones, a constant metamorphosis that paves the way from old field hollers to Irish/rap fusion, from Old World klezmorim to Klezmer music with a "gay sensibility."

In Sing Out!'s Summer 1999 issue, for instance, a story about Wade and Julia Mainer, recently honored at the Old Time Music and Radio Conference in North Carolina, tailgates a piece about Snakefarm, a young duo that sets classics like "House of the Rising Sun" and "Streets of Laredo" to spine-tingling "folktronica" arrangements.

In his "Songfinder" column, Shelley Posen writes about discovering lyrics to the gospel hymn "He Will Set Your Fields On Fire" on a Japanese bluegrass Web site. Then there's a story about Tex-Mex group Los Super Seven, and one about singer-songwriter Cheryl Wheeler, who grew up in Timonium, whose "If It Were Up to Me" blames the gun lobby for the recent rash of school shootings.

On a muggy August afternoon, executive director Moss leads a tour of Sing Out!'s home, a newly restored three-story building on the slightly scruffy south side of Bethlehem, Pa. The bearded, talkative Moss speaks with the forthright manner of a union organizer and sprinkles the names of obscure folk musicians, be it old-time performer Aunt Molly Jackson or Finnish fiddle heroes JPP, into the conversation.

The Sing Out! office's barely-lived-in feel and high-tech electronics offset a framed questionnaire filled out by a young Woody Guthrie, dog-eared music books, smudged LP album covers and black-and-white photographs of legendary folk music figures. Moss has indexed Sing Out!'s trove, arranged it into a resource center and hopes one day to put all holdings online. On his wish list for the center as well are listening and video booths for on-site researchers.

Sing Out! also manages Legacy Books, a mail-order catalog of folklore-related works, and publishes its own books, including the classic "fake book" for musicians of all abilities, "Rise Up Singing." With well over 500,000 copies sold, earnings from the collection of 1,200 song lyrics and chords helps support the magazine.

Moss, who was introduced to Seeger's topical music at summer camp, was already a confirmed folk fan by the time he arrived at the 1970 Philadelphia Folk Festival anticipating contemporary troubadours like Phil Ochs and Arlo Guthrie.

Traditional artists

But Moss was stunned by the traditional artists performing as well. He heard a wealth of old-time music that he presumed had vanished long ago. The Lehigh Valley kid became a Sing Out! sermonizer, running a booth at summer folk festivals. Moss went on to study folklore and English at Penn State and, upon graduation, became an electrician. He had no way of knowing that one day he, along with hero Seeger and other stalwarts, would save Sing Out! from the whatnot of folk relics.

Sing Out!'s first incarnation was "People's Songs," a publication founded in 1946 by Seeger, Guthrie, performer Paul Robeson, Lee Hays of the Almanac Singers, song collector Alan Lomax and leftist cultural writer Irwin Silber. "It was still basically a politically oriented magazine at the beginning," Silber says from his home in Oakland, Calif. "From that point of view, we realized we shouldn't limit ourselves to any one form of music."

"People's Songs" failed in 1949. But in 1950 it was reborn as Sing Out!, a title Silber borrowed from "If I Had a Hammer," a Seeger and Hays song that one day would become a universal protest anthem.

"It was a dreadful period. Very few institutions of the left survived the 1950s," Silber says. In a back-handed way, then-widespread hysteria about suspected Communists in public life and the entertainment industry helped Sing Out! Based in New York City, the magazine was buoyed in part by Silber and Moe Asch's other concerns: Folkways Records, Oak Publishing and People's Artists, a collective that found employment for blacklisted performers like Zero Mostel and Seeger himself.

In turn, Sing Out! subscribers were the first to have access to the words and lyrics of such Promethean works as "Rock Island Line," "Pretty Boy Floyd" and "This Land is Your Land," along with a heavy dose of progressive politics that Silber slipped gracefully into the copy.

Sing Out! also satirized the commercial success of entertainers such as Peter, Paul & Mary and the Kingston Trio, who were considered ersatz folkies. But again, the magazine indirectly profited; this time from riding the coattails of the folk revival.

When Bob Dylan plugged in at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Silber wrote of the singer's betrayal of the folk community. The magazine stayed true to its roots, watching, Moss says, "as the rug was pulled out from underneath its potential audience, as rock 'n' roll supplanted folk music."

By 1968, Silber was weary of the endeavor. He sold Sing Out! to a cooperative. "I have to confess that after many years that became kind of frustrating to me, filtering everything through music to make my statement. I'd done my share. I wanted to do other things with my life," he said. Silber, who with his musician wife compiled "The Vietnam Songbook," went on to become executive editor of the Guardian, a left-wing national weekly. (Now retired, he continues to write, including a recent piece on Robeson for Sing Out!)

Hard times

After Silber left, Moss says, Sing Out! "got too lefty." The staff didn't "know the difference between being savvy politically and being dopey." The 1971 introduction of an expensive flexi-disc in every other issue was an overly optimistic financial misstep that added to the magazine's woes.

By 1982, Sing Out! was teetering. The skeleton staff was demoralized and underpaid. Moss rented a truck and carted three file cabinets and several hundred albums to a friend's bike shop for storage. Then, he and Seeger began to raise money, holding benefits and soliciting contributions from hundreds of readers.

Seeger also licensed the use of "The Hammer Song" to an English tea company for radio commercials, a move that supported several smaller, interim issues of Sing Out! By way of these bulletins, Moss and Seeger canvassed the dwindling ranks of subscribers for their preferences in music and content.

The first Sing Out! issue produced under Moss' supervision in Spring 1983 did not please Seeger. "Pete was embarrassed by it," Moss says. Seeger felt that Moss should throw the Sing Out! operation on a truck bed, drive it cross-country and leave it to the American people to produce the magazine, one issue, one location at a time.

Impossible, Moss said. Sing Out! board members agreed. Seeger stormed out, but returned, as he would do frequently over the years. He's "quit half a dozen times, sometimes more bitterly than others," Moss says of Seeger. "Pete has been both Sing Out!'s most ardent supporter and its harshest critic."

Through word of mouth, Sing Out!'s subscriber base gradually grew. It stands at 13,700 today, and the staff of the tax-exempt foundation that owns the magazine has grown to 11. While updating and enlarging Sing Out!, Moss stuck stubbornly to what he viewed as the magazine's foremost mission: "To make music, not idolize the people who make music [and expect you to] consume it."

Moss' benign, if subversive, view is not such an antiquated notion. "There's a really deep-seated interest in this country in people making their own music," says Nancy Groce, an ethnomusicologist and president of Sing Out!'s board of directors.

Sing Out!'s emphasis on home-grown music has worked for Baltimore folk musician Sue Ribaudo, a 10-year subscriber who has often relied on Sing Out!'s song reprints for teaching. "That is part of my draw to the music that Sing Out! talks about," Ribaudo says. "It's the people's music, as opposed to music by an artist you put up on a pedestal."

It would be easy -- and facile -- to assume Sing Out! is a quaint throwback to a time when old men in overalls played fiddles on the front porch. But none other than Seeger himself understands that if anything, folk music, and thus Sing Out!, thrives on these breathless changes.

"My father [the late ethnomusicologist Charles Louis Seeger] said, 'Don't argue whether it's folk music or not. The folk process has been around for thousands of years. As long as the human race is here it probably will continue.'"

With computers and satellites, "the process is speeded up," says Seeger from his home above the Hudson River. "It once took a century for a song to work its way around a country. Now such a thing can happen within weeks."

Seeger, 80, remains as peppery and political as ever in his Sing Out! column. The most recent "Appleseeds" includes commentary on folk music's role in stopping the Vietnam War. He also revels in the current songwriting fervor: "I'm happy to see thousands of people writing songs now."

In the same breath, however, the prolific composer and crusader also threatens to discontinue his column: "Memory going. Eyesight, other things." The problem with stopping, he says, is there are always things he wants to say. "And people send me things which Sing Out! won't print unless there is a place to put them."

Moss lets Seeger's barb go by. He has other stuff to think about: The redesign of Sing Out!'s Web site. Benefits to plan around the country. The magazine's 50th anniversary issue. The sheer riches of folk music.

No matter how much he crams into the magazine, Moss knows he is still scratching the surface of what's out there -- and of getting people to enjoy the sound of their own voices. But it is what he has chosen for his life: "If I wasn't as interested as I am in tilting at windmills, I'd become a lawyer."

Pub Date: 9/06/99

In a Today section article Monday about Sing Out! magazine, the frequency for radio station WXPN-FM in Worton was incorrectly listed. The frequency is 90.5 FM. The Sun regrets the error.
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