The “Gotchas” Of Writing About Living People

This is a blog in the traditional sense – reflecting on recent events. In this case, reflecting on an article I wrote for which I could have reached out to a number of living people for input, verification, or corrections. But I didn’t, or at least I haven’t yet, and this blog explains why.

In case you just came to this site, I just published an article about the precursors, influences, and history of the Folk Revival. That was a mid-century movement in which millions of middle-class North American white youths became fascinated with the musical traditions of heretofore disregarded subcultures – prison gangs, Appalachian fiddlers, street Blues performers and many more. They helped elevate some of those musicians to prominence, and they started singing their songs and writing new ones in those styles. For a time “Folk music” (really Folk-inspired music) dominated the charts. Though the movement eventually lost its momentum, it affected many other subsequent genres and its influence is still felt.

My article about that is at https://creekdontrise.com/folk_songs/folk_rev/what_is_folk_rev.htm, in case you wondered.

Not only did I live through the Folk Revival, I’ve been a writer and researcher for a long time. In one job, writing history books, I used to fact-check my own fact-checkers, because I have seen the damage that enshrining urban legends that “everybody knows to be true” can cause. In fact, when I write about events I lived through, I try to get the input, if not the sign-off of other people whose names the average reader could either recognize or at least check out. I want to be certain the picture I present isn’t slanted or incomplete, even if I’m reporting based on personal experience.

So when I was getting the Folk Revival article ready to publish, I went down a mental list of people who were active in the movement that are A: Still living, and B: Reachable by me. I won’t say who they are because in some cases it would sound like name-dropping and in most cases I’d have to explain who they were and why I might consider them authorities at all. I considered contacting several of these people just as precaution and to be certain that I hadn’t got off track somewhere.

But I didn’t. The more I thought about it, the more I remembered previous experiences with a similar article, my “Brief History of Contemporary Christian Music.” Unlike the Folk Revival, most pioneers of “Jesus Music” are still alive. So it’s a lot easier to come up with a list of folks who had really “been there, done that.” And I had contacted a few, and incorporated their corrections and relevant comments.

But things got strange eventually. After all, I was trying to write a chronology that connected the dots between key people and events to provide a high-level view of a movement, not writing a 5000-page encyclopedia listing every one who ever planed a part.

Most of the criticisms were from fans and easy to put in context. I got many contacts from people offended that their favorite artist or group wasn’t listed, or if they were listed, I didn’t describe them as critical to the movement. “I wouldn’t have made it through the seventies without the music of so-and-so.” I believe them, but in most cases, there were at least sixty other artists who sold just as many records or performed at just as many festivals or whatever. In order to make the article even readable, I had to focus on people who affected the movement as a whole and leave out many of the others, including quite a few of my own favorites. So replying that I didn’t have room to include even my own favorites placated most of those folks.

But the strangest contacts were from people who were important in the industry, as producers, artists, songwriters, and more. I received one contact from an influential artist/songwriter/producer who wanted me to include an additional tidbit of information to demonstrate just how influential he was. In return, he’d be available to answer questions and otherwise assist my efforts.

That trade-off seemed worthwhile if I could continue to use the fellow as a resource when future questions came up. And having his e-mail address was even a little flattering, I confess.

So I added a couple sentences that seemed to please him without damaging the article’s integrity, balance, or flow. Then when a question came up that he was in a position to answer authoritatively, I contacted him, and got no response, period. Without actually improving the article or helping me in any other way, he had got what he wanted out of me, and from that point on I was irrelevant to him. No, I didn’t go back and reverse the change I made, but if he ever sees something else he wants changed to his advantage, I have a number of questions I’m going to ask him first.

Another person said I got a certain part that I was really sure about “wrong,” but couldn’t be bothered to tell me what was “wrong” and how to fix it.

And so on. One of the things I’ve realized is that, even if you discount the self-serving aspects, people who were in the heart of whatever was going still only see things from their own point of view. It’s understandable that they have a different perspective than I do. But a few have trouble believing that anything important happened while they weren’t in the room.

This isn’t limited to “Christian” circles, of course. On another forum, folks were discussing a certain pop singer whose band had a national top-40 hit in the sixties, but who seemed to have “fallen off the grid” soon after. I volunteered that she was active in music for many years later, but at a local level. In fact I had sung with her at least a couple of times. I thought I was doing a good thing, explaining that she wasn’t a “flash-in-the-pan” as the other forum participants were claiming. Little did I realize that she was trolling that same forum, just to see what people there were saying about her. But after being out of contact for about 40 years, she e-mailed me out of the blue to complain that I was telling lies about her career, and I had only sung with her once. As I write this blog, I could name both events, but that’s not the point.

The point is that even people who were in the room will forget things or remember things differently. And if I’m, say, 95% sure of my research, observations, and conclusions about a topic as broad as the America Folk Revival, it’s not necessarily going to benefit anybody to spend a lot of time contacting people who may have fuzzy memories or an ax to grind, or who just plain won’t consider the article worth reviewing until it’s already been seen by thousands of people and starts showing on the first page of most related Google searches.

If you were a working professional musician during either the Jesus movement or the Folk Revival, and you have information or observations that will make either article clearer or more accurate, please let me know. If you want to explain how you were important enough to get your own paragraph, that’s fine; I’d still love to hear from you. Agreeing to disagree agreeably is one of my strengths.

But if you are mostly interested in chastising me for publishing an article that mentions you without first giving you creative control over the whole article, I may not be as responsive as you may like.

By the way, the article that inspired this blog is not meant to replace any extensive histories of the Folk Revival or, say, biographies of its key influencers. It’s actually an introduction and definition of terms for musicians who are attracted to the music of that era and want to learn how to credibly perform it.

So the followups of the article will be about basic music skills that nearly all Folk Revival musicians shared, and which will help you participate more effectively in any Folk-style musical performance or jam session. If there is a lot of reader interest in some related topic, that might lead to another article or series of articles, but from this point on, the focus will be on learning and internalizing the conventions of Folk music, Folk Revival music, and related forms.

Have a great season, and make a joyful noise, however and whenever you can!

Paul

Paul

About Paul

Paul Race has been writing and playing all kinds of music since the 1960s, though he tends to favor acoustic and traditional songs. He has created resources like CreekDontRise.com, ClassicTrainSongs.com, and SchoolOfTheRock.com to help other musicians get a good start on their own journeys.

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