You be the ethnomusicologist:
   Life in a virtual community of computer-mediated Folk

... a slightly edited and Web-embellished version of my notes prepared for presentation at the Weiss Symposium on (Music and) Urban Livability April 25, 1998, UNC-Chapel Hill. The conference met in lovely but computer-free Person Hall, so my actual talk was accompanied by overhead slides.

-- by Bob Stepno, doctoral candidate,
School of Journalism and Mass Communication,
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

I'd like to thank Prof. Carol Muller and everyone for letting me be part of your "community" here today, and I should explain what I'm doing on this part of campus.

I'm currently a doctoral candidate in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, but in a previous incarnation I received an M.A. in anthropology from Wesleyan University, taking about half of my courses with card-carrying ethnomusicologists. I've worked in the computer industry as well as working as a journalist, and I've spent part of my time "online" in one form or another for more than a dozen years, most recently as an editor at the Nando Times online newspaper.

I'm here today to talk about how computer networks and what researchers are calling "computer mediated communication" interact with other media and other forms of interpersonal communication in a community of musicians and listeners. I'm not presenting the results of formal research, more a combination of autobiography and show-and-tell. In effect, you get to be the ethnomusicologists in this presentation.

I wound up taking those ethnomusicology courses because "folk music" has been an important part of my life since high school, when I sat in my bedroom painstakingly picking out the song "Freight Train, Freight Train" from a Peter Paul & Mary songbook. Years later I was lucky enough to hear the woman who wrote that song, Elizabeth Cotten, whose music spread from right here in Chapel Hill to (I suspect) every college, YMCA and church basement coffeehouse in America and beyond. By then I had also read about her on some record album notes or in Sing Out! magazine, a publication that Pete Seeger and other "folk revivalists" had kept going since the early 1950s.

Later I heard a rumor that James Taylor was from this area, and every year or two a band from Chapel Hill called the Red Clay Ramblers would find its way to the Sounding Board Coffee House in West Hartford. I knew of Chapel Hill, and of North Carolina in general, as a source of great music with deep traditional roots.

In fact, I bought a banjo from a couple who run a folk music record company, Folk Legacy, in Connecticut. They had put out quite a few albums of singers from the Beech Mountain area, and the handmade banjo came from Sugar Grove, N.C. They also recorded Frank Proffitt, whose earlier recording of "Tom Dula" passed through a few hands and became a big hit for the Kingston Trio. I heard Doc Watson at a Newport Folk Festival. Later I heard an amazing fiddler, singer and guitar player steal the show at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. His name was Mike Cross and he was from Chapel Hill.

So for me music was the attraction of the place. Along with the fact that UNC has one of the nation's top journalism schools. I didn't even know they played basketball here!

Around the time I started seriously considering coming here as a graduate student, I read an article in Sing Out! that assured me the Triangle area still had a lively "folk" music scene.

If anyone is taking notes for a popular-culture or ethnomusicology paper, you'll notice that I've just given you a bunch of examples of the traditional way interest-groups, reference-groups or "taste cultures" function, through a network of unmediated and mediated contacts -- including word of mouth among individuals, gatherings for concerts and festivals, as well as broadcasting, records and published mass media.

And you can read between the lines that my experience may have been shared by a lot of Koom by-ah-singing teenagers from the '60s and '70s who for one reason or another stayed with this fringe area of folk-rooted commercial music when other pop trends squeezed it off the TV screen.

And that's where the computer comes into the story.

Back in 1979, when I first put my hands on a computer keyboard as a newspaper editor at the Hartford Courant, a graduate student here in Chapel Hill and a couple up the road at some college in Durham came up with a tricky way to pass electronic packets of public discussions back and forth between their UNIX computers. Of course they used this technology to talk about the things closest to them -- their computers! But other topics were added -- science fiction, Star Trek, eventually even Duke's lemurs became a topic. Today the Usenet discussion system, sometimes called "netnews" or simply "news," includes tens of thousands of discussion areas, any one of which can hold hundreds of messages.

Although I used other computer networks with their own versions of bulletin boards or conference systems, I didn't have a reliable connection to Usenet until the late 1980s. I was living in a small town without much of a music scene, so I enjoyed browsing in the folk music discussion area, which tended to be full of questions like "does anyone know the verses to this old song..." or "whatever happened to so-and-so who used to be on the Hootenanny TV show in the '60s."

I was able to tap into the "" newsgroup to look for an apartment all the way from Rhode Island. I browsed around the "" newsgroup to find out what the social scene was like. But my virtual music-community connection came about through a national, not regional, newsgroup, the one called "" (The "rec" indicates the more formal Usenet domain for recreational topics. There are also music discussions in the "alternative" domain, such as "" which you'll be hearing about later today.

Here is a list of some of the music discussion groups. I haven't counted them all, but there are easily over 100. You'll notice there are clusters of sub-categories of various kinds. [SLIDE] 

And here are some of the discussion topics currently on [SLIDE]

     1  + 2  What's your favorite baseball song? 
     2  +    Charlie on the M.T.A.               
     3  +    Odetta/Tom Paxton/Chicago               
     4  + 3  [Q] KT3 Jesse James (again!)              
     5  +    childrens album                          
     6  +    The Child Ballads                       
     7  + 2  Rosebud in June                          
     8  +    [Q] Please, Mr. Conductor                   
     9  +    Help- "Irish" Bar Repetoire                 
    10  +    Campaign songs. Was Charlie on the M.T.A.      
    11  +    OME Banjo Co. display at Merlefest           
    12  + 2  John Renbourne                             
    13  +    Copyrights, Public Domain, etc.          

One thread of conversation I've noticed is about the Merlefest bluegrass and folk music festival, going on this weekend a few hours west of here. I hear they had 20 or 30,000 people last year.

So back to my story... I did move to Chapel Hill, and I kept reading Usenet news thanks to my new UNC computer account. One evening a couple of months after I arrived someone posted the question "What ever happened to Patrick Sky?"

Now Pat Sky had been one of my favorite singers in the 1960s, and I had followed an interesting twist his career took from topical singer-songwriter to instrumentalist interested in Irish music. I wrote back, truthfully, that when I lived in Connecticut a friend of mine used to drive to Rhode Island to take Uillean bagpipe lessons from Pat Sky, and that when I moved to Rhode Island I asked some musicians whether he was still around, and they said he had moved to Chapel Hill!

I finished my message with the ironic line, "And now I've been here for a few months, but I haven't seen him anywhere."

The next day I checked my mail. A moderately well-known musician from Woodstock, NY, had written back to me to say yes, Patrick was somewhere around Chapel Hill and was rumored to have finished a folklore master's degree here. Someone else wrote that they thought he was through with school and teaching in Virginia. Finally, an employee at the medical school wrote to say that Patrick and his wife Kathy did still live here, and that if I was patient I'd run into them playing somewhere. She finished her message with the fairly obvious question, "so who are you, anyway?"

That email conversation ended with an invitation to a meeting with a group of about a dozen people, a few of them musicians, others involved with folk music radio shows, who were trying to bring more out-of-town folk music performers to Chapel Hill and Durham, without competing with the Pinecone organization that organizes concerts and other events, mostly in Raleigh. That was the beginning of the Triangle Folk Music Society.

Since almost all of this group had email accounts, either through the universities or RTP companies, we conducted a lot of our between-meeting organizing by email, as well as getting the word out to other musicians and people we met at concerts or dances.

The group is now three years old and has put on about a dozen concerts, school programs or special events a year. We announce them in the local papers and with flyers posted all over the Triangle.

[SLIDE] Donna Cornick from Davis Library, who was involved in two other music-related web pages, helped us get an account with RTPnet, a non-profit community access computer system, and I've been its primary editor for the past two years.

The Web page is a combination newsletter, billboard, scrapbook and collection of folk music resources. I've been overwhelmed by the "wired" state of folk music performers, either on their own or through their agents or record companies.

[SLIDE] You might expect an up-and-coming songwriter like Greg Greenway to have his own website, but he even has his own internet domain name, What took me by surprise was the domain, full of Peggy Seeger's songs, books and life story... Possibly created in conjunction with her book and record publishers.

We don't keep any statistics on who visits the web site, but we have had people appear at concerts and say that's where they heard about the show. And our booking committee has had agents and performers come to them through the email link on the page.

People who have been to our concerts presumably use it to explore the background of the performers they haven't heard before. Increasingly, the performers or national CD mail order sites will have digitized samples of their music online for visitors with multimedia computers.

Roger McGuinn, lead guitarist of the folk-rock band The Byrds back in the '60s and '70s, has decided to carry the old "hootenanny" spirit onto the Internet, posting a new "traditional" song each month, with chords, lyrics and a full-length recording. The host for this service is, coincidentally, UNC's Sunsite web server.

One of my "pages" within the Triangle Folk Music Society "web" is a catchall that I call the "folk resources" page, and I've printed out some copies for you. You'll see on it that most of those traditional means of group-support communication I've mentioned now have their online counterparts.

Clubs like TFMS and Pinecone are online.

[SLIDE] Jane Peppler, a local musician and teacher, has a site for folk musicians looking for someone to play music with, and another page listing local jam sessions.

[SLIDE] National organizations like CDSS and the Folk Alliance and the new have extensive sites.

[SLIDE]The New England Folk Festival Association includes more than 1900 links on its site.

Individual folk song collectors have posted "fan" pages; one has even put online a collection of thousands of songs, annotated with their recorded sources, indexed into genres, and searchable with a free-text search engine. The result is called the Digital Tradition.

[SLIDE] Record companies, musicians' agents, and publications like Sing Out, FolkRoots in England, and Dirty Linen are all treating the Web as a serious place to inform and do business with members of their audiences, along with a new online magazine called Rootsworld.

The print versions of these publications, incidentally, now seem to have a web page address with almost every ad!

As a final note, I'd like to say that the "virtual community" of music gets most of its virtue and community from the fact that people DO see each other in the three-dimensional world, not just online. The TFMS board meets in person after its email discussions. The performers come to town and pick real guitars and banjos. And the audiences applaud in person.

Howard Rheingold, who literally wrote the book on "The Virtual Community" several years ago, notes on his latest web page that while "virtual communities" are not "really" communities, the same can be said of "most apartment buildings, many neighborhoods, and all large cities."

He goes on:

"The question of what to do about increasing human alienation within the increasingly larger-and faster-than-human environment is a serious one. People who communicate via computer networks definitely should be instructed about the danger of mistaking messages on computer screens for fully authentic human relationships.
"And we definitely need to be skeptical of claims that online discourse can effectively substitute for or revitalize the public sphere that was enclosed and fragmented by mass-media technology and public relations techniques." -- (read full text)

I like to think that the "public sphere" is in better shape when people are gathering together to make and listen to music. What the Internet offers is a group of techniques of communication -- more like a traditional club's newsletter, telephone list of members, or committee meetings -- techniques that are not "mass-media" or "public relations" (or marketing, sales and the "commodification" we've heard about at this conference) that can help support real groups of people in their lives as music communities across time and space.

....created April 29, 1998 by Bob Stepno at UNC-CH