Still, some genres are more insular than others, and Dave Van Ronk lampoons the idea beautifully in his book, "The Mayor of MacDougal Street," in a discussion of the "moldy fig wars." He's writing about the divide between traditional jazz and bebop, a boundary that was staked and defended in 1940s Greenwich Village, though there's a lesson in here for all of us. "A duel to the death was proclaimed," writes Van Ronk, "and critics solemnly lined up: you were either a progressive, hailing the innovations of the boppers, or a warrior in the defense of traditional New Orleans style jazz -- a 'mouldy fig.' In hindsight ... both [sides] took their positions to ridiculous extremes."
Of course, this kind of thing happens today, too, though not always with the same level of enthusiasm. It happens more in some genres than others, such as bluegrass, where it's easy to get traditionalists' hackles up. It's especially true in the world of old-time music, where the whole project often seems to retain the tradition: preservation through the production of music true to its roots.
Which is why the music of Betse Ellis is so refreshing. She is a stellar old-time fiddler in the Ozark style, and she knows the tradition upside-down and backwards. Her fiddle work is, in a word, stunning, and the more you know about what she is doing the more you can appreciate what she is doing.
But, she's also a person, one who has an interest in a very wide swath of traditional and popular music, and one who isn't afraid to mix things up a bit. By also being a very accomplished singer-songwriter, she shows that you don't have to take sides. And, even when she isn't mixing influences in a piece, her more progressive material shines a light on the traditional material, creating lots of room for her audience to think about and appreciate what she is doing. Any way you cut it, she's no moldy fig.
All photos by Joe O'Toole.