Straight from the horse’s mouth (well, almost)

I’ve had a quote in the Quote Server for years, attributed to Louis Armstrong: “All music is folk music. Horses don’t sing.” But recently someone on the folk music list questioned whether Big Bill Broonzy had said it first.

The post to the folk music list mentioned the book, Folk Music: More Than a Song (1976), by Kristine Baggelaar and Donald Milton, which uses the quote in the introduction and attributes it to Broonzy. The quote is also noted in in Charles Keil’s 1966 book Urban Blues, which attributes it to a 1962 article in Time Magazine. Off to the Brooklyn Public Library, where a spin through the microfilm finds a cover article on November 23, 1962, with Joan Baez on the cover.

“Anything called a hootenanny ought to be shot on sight,” it opens, giving you an idea of the condescending tone of the article. In the timeless Time style, it uses a (not entirely flattering) portrait of Joan Baez as the nut around which it builds a review of the “esoteric cult and light industry” of folk singing.

With swipes at both originators (“the shiftless geniuses who have shouted the songs of their forebears into tape recorders provided by the Library of Congress”) and commercializers (the Kingston Trio is “the most scorched threesome since Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego”; an unsourced quote calls Harry Belafonte “Harry Belaphony”), the article has kind words mainly for Jean Ritchie and Frank Proffitt, as well as “a promising young hobo named Bob Dylan” whose voice “has just the right clothespin-on-the-nose honesty.”

Broonzy is quoted on the last page, in a section discussing folk music’s forebears: Huddie Ledbetter (“a felonious Negro known as Leadbelly … a natural whooping primitive shouting in primary rhythms”), Woody Guthrie (“an Oklahoman who never held a job more than a week or so, always needed a shave, and sang for anybody who cared to listen”) and Broonzy:

Mainly a blues singer, he was the unwashed darling of purist fans, but he had short patience with all the folk curators who insist that a true folk song has to be of unknown authorship and come down through the oral tradition. “I guess all songs is folk songs,” he said. “I never heard no horse sing ’em.”

Broonzy, an insightful musician who spoke and wrote very eloquently about racism, died in 1958, and the quote is unattributed. So unless the reporter had heard this personally four years earlier, there’s a further attribution to be found. (Like its rival Newsweek, which a journalism prof of mine once called “the great cuisnart of journalism,” Time does not attribute its articles, which are usually reported by many people and written by committee.)

So if anyone can find the original source of that quote, it would be good to see, but for the moment, I’ve updated the Quote Server to reflect the original attribution, although I did keep Armstrong’s wording.

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