Buell Kazee

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Buell Kazee.  I first met Rev Kazee when I was an undergraduate and sponsored several of his concerts out in the Pacific Northwest (through the proceeds of a film club I then ran).  Kazee was celebrated for the estimable 78's he had recorded for Brunswick in the late 1920s and he had later made a record for Folkways that he did not like.  He was unusual in that he had obtained a fair degree of formal vocal training while in college and, in fact, was running a vocal studio in Ashland at the time of his 78 recordings.  Later he worked as a Baptist minster, first in the coal fields and then in Winchester and Lexington (for an excellent biography, see Loyal Jones' notes to JA 0009).

As the natural processes of modernization were unfolding, a simultaneous campaign urged Kentuckians to take pride in their older forms of music.  In fact, the well springs of this movement had begun long before, in the guise of the local color pieces appearing in the late nineteenth century editions of Scribner's Magazine and the like, which often featured snatches of folk song prominently.  Sentimental novels like The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come of 1910 inspired musical ‘pageants’ designed to draw tourists into Appalachia and college courses on ‘ballad literature’ encouraged Kentuckians to take pride in the fact they had retained a large degree of British folk culture through oral tradition.  Nowadays these representations are often mocked for their inaccuracies but we should never forget that such infusions of ‘local pride’ once meant a good deal to a young country boy like Buell Kazee, who had advanced, through a dedicated schedule of self-education, from humble circumstances to a comfortable position as a Baptist minister in upscale Winchester.  Rev Kazee retained the fondest memories of his Magoffin County upbringing but he was also proud that he had matured into an adult of considerable talent and accomplishment.

Indeed, one of the several factors that later troubled Rev Kazee about the ‘folk revival’ of the 1960s is that, through its infusion of politically charged content, he felt that his beloved ‘folk songs’ were being stripped of their dignity-conferring value.  And I think we fail to understand Appalachia's struggles properly if we do not see some justice in that complaint.  However absurd some of those early characterizations of ‘folk song’ were, we should not discount their positive utility in allowing rural Kentuckians a measure of self respect that was otherwise often denied them.

Part of the booklet notes, written by Mark Wilson, to the Musical Traditions Records 4-CD set Meeting's a Pleasure (MTCD341-4)