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Monday, March 28, 2011

Focusing on 'The Never-Ending Revival'

Scully examines the role of Rounder Records

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The revival of traditional music in America by young, urban singer/scholars began in the postwar years and peaked in the early to mid-'60s. Even as we have come to another revival, in the form of "Americana" and "alt country," the original and most influential folk revival had received little scholarly investigation until recently, aside from some misguided questions among academicians regarding authenticity. The aspect of this movement that has received the most comment was the impact of when Bob Dylan "went electric," merging rock 'n' roll with folk traditions and a literary narrative.

Michael F. Scully's The Never-Ending Revival: Rounder Records and the Folk Alliance (University of Illinois Press) cannot avoid Dylan's revolutionary moment. But unlike many other accounts, the focus is in proper perspective. As he puts it, "the electric stars of the late sixties attained an iconic status far greater than anything experienced by the stars of the folk boom, with the exception of the wayward Dylan."

It was in the aftermath of all this that Rounder Records emerged. Bill Nowlin, one of Rounder's founders and still in the main office today, explains its genesis to Scully. "By 1970, with the great [folk] boom a thing of the past, there were relatively few outlets for original recordings of the rural string band sounds that [Rounder] favored. Records that we were collecting ourselves became unavailable," he said. Folkways Records became noticeably less productive and other labels moved on to more profitable styles. Rounder filled the gap.

Scully illuminates how Rounder differs from other labels associated with folk music and distinguishes his book from so many others that are finally coming out now that we have come to another revival crossroad: "Despite decades of conscious reformulation, both the academy and the popular revival continue to wrestle with the meaning and importance of tradition and authenticity... many present-day revivalists throw up their hands when confronted with the definitional fray," he writes. "My own effort to find an appropriate terminology has centered on the concept of vernacularity." The Never-Ending Revival is one of the most viable books to date on American music with a vernacular content—that it is a never-ending process owes a huge debt to Rounder Records for keeping it cataloged and current as a recognizable folk alliance.

With his nuanced definitions of vernacular music and the complete history of perhaps the one record label that never abandoned the music, Scully has composed a vital history of a music that has not been well understood.

Full disclosure: I was signed to Flying Fish, established by early Rounder producer Bruce Kaplan, and made an easy transition to Rounder, which continued to respect individuality within the vernacular music tradition.