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Eclectics & Elegants. In the great miscellany of contemporary folk singers, there is something for everybody. Arty eclectics such as Theodore Bikel and Richard Dyer-Bennett sing anything from anywhere with a lofty and cosmopolitan distinction. Jean Redpath sings the songs of her own Scotland with plaintive elegance; Miriam Makeba. an extraordinarily popular nightclub performer in this country, conveys the passion of the African chants she learned as a girl in South Africa.
The great Odetta, born Odetta Felious in Birmingham, is currently under fire for doing a blues album that is closer to jazz than folk. But she remains one of the best folk singers going; her brawny female baritone can run through a wider variety of mood and matter than most singers would dare attempt. The best bluegrass (a polite synonym for hillbilly) is being done by Nashville's Lester Flatt. Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, cultural descendants of Tennessee's Carter Family, whose recordsmade in the '30sare still the standard canon of bluegrass. Scruggs is the world's most famous banjo picker, and his swift style is often imitated. "I'd like to be able to do it," admits North Carolina's Frank Proffitt in a reserved drawl, "and then not do it."
Parody & Power. There are. in fact, so many active professional folk singers that hootenannies often turn into games of king-of-the-mountain. as eager youth, male and female, storms the stage. In Greenwich Village's Folk City, dozens of album jackets hang from the ceiling like Christmas cards, and nearly all the names and faces they display are triumphantly obscure. Every other crow alive is a folk singer who has made at least one album. In response to that sort of popularity, a parody was inevitable.
High on Variety's bestseller chart last week was something called My Son the Folk Singer by Allan Sherman. The melodies are truish, and the words are Jewish. Greensleeves becomes Greenbaum. Matilda becomes My Zelda. who "took the money and ran with the tailor." Another fellow has lost his best salesman and his business is failing. It could be that there are other factors involved, but "Gimme Jack Cohn and I don't care, gimme Jack Cohn and I don't care . . ."
Folk singing may be a fad just now, but it will never roll off like the Hula Hoop. As its long history demonstrates, it has staying power. It is something that people who are constantly bathed in canned entertainment can do for themselves. At its best, it unpretentiously calls up a sense of history. It shines with language in which short words and images go long distances, upstream all the way against the main currents of polished grammar. And, un-pontifically. it dusts off the sturdier and simpler values of American lifesome of which are against the law:
You just lay there by the juniper, While the moon is bright, Watch them jugs a-filling In the pale moonlight.
* Harvard Professor Francis J. Child's five-volume The English and Scottish Popular Ballad's published between 1882 and 1898, is still the definitive anthology in its field. Folkupmanship absolutely requires that a ballad be referred to a Child 12, Child 200, or Child 209 rather than Lord Randal, Gypsy Laddic,