Mark Moss talks about Sing Out! before the 3/4/2000 airing of Folk Plus on WJFF, featuring the music reviewed in the current Winter 2000 issue of the magazine.
Angela: Good Morning
Mark: Good morning to you.
Angela: This is Mark Moss, editor of Sing Out! and thanks for joining us and kicking off this show. I'd love it if you could give a basic intro to the history of Sing Out! and perhaps slide into its current mission statement and plans for its 50th anniversary.
Mark: Sure. Well, Sing Out!'s story started actually a few years before Sing Out! did. In 1946 at the close of the Second World War, when a group of folks were coming back from serving in the various branches of the armed service (these included Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and that era of folkies) they wanted a way to keep in touch with each other when going their separate ways all across the country. So, they started an organization called "People's Songs", which was an arts cooperative along with Pete, Woody, Paul Robeson, Lena Horne, Carl Reiner and tons of people from all parts of the entertainment field. They also published a monthly newsletter called "People's Songs" which was a way of keeping in touch with each other and publishing traditional songs, political songs, labor songs, to share with the work they were doing. It evolved into a cooperatively run booking organization that if you needed a singer to come and be in a rally or something like that you'd call "People's Songs" and you'd get Pete, or Woody or Sonny Terry, or one of the hundreds of artists that participated in the group.
In 1949 "People's Songs", coming off the heals of work that they had done on the Wallace campaign in 1948 (Henry Wallace was the socialist candidate that year) and "People's Songs" had put a whole bunch of work into trying to help him get elected and were essentially bankrupt at the close of the election. By the time the next year rolled around, they were done. By December of 1949 they published the final issue of "People's Songs". But the membership that was somewhere between six hundred and a thousand people at that point said "Hey, wait a minute, we really want this magazine. This way to share songs, keep in touch and link/bridge for the community." So People's Artists, which is what the organization evolved into after the bankrupcy, May of 1950, published the first issue of a little magazine called Sing Out! which derived its name from the lyrics to a song by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, two members of the Weavers called "Hammer Song" which 10 or 12 years later became a big hit for Peter Paul and Mary as "If I Had a Hammer". So that's really where Sing Out! came from.
As the 50's involved into the 60's with the folk boom or folk scare however you want refer to it, took over. Sing Out! rode that crest along with it and grew to have a circulation/readership of pretty close to 20,000 in it hey day. By the late 70's the editor of the magazine since just about its inception, a fellow by the name of Irwine Silver, decided he wanted to move on and do other things and sold the magazine to a cooperative of folks which included Mose Ashe of Folkway Records. There have been a long standing symbiotic relationship between Folkways and Sing Out! Happy Traum, Harold Leventhal, Manny Soloman from Vangaard Records, a whole group of people who were involved in the late 60's folk era. That group of people then passed the ownership of the magazine on to itself. They saw it as buying out Irwin and giving a magazine a way to continue on its own.
All these years, right through, cause Sing Out! never stopped publishing during these transitions, they always published lots of songs, running the gammit. I mean I heard the distance sort of, the intro to your show, and like you say, the definition of what folk music is, is extremely broad. Along with Child Ballads and traditional Appalachian Mountain tunes, Cajun music, bluegrass and blues and a lot of stuff that's easier to put under the folk umbrella. They also printed music from all around the world before there was a way to explain traditional music from other cultures as World Music. Before that nomanclature was there, Sing Out! was including that under the umbrella of what folk music was. Starting in 1950 they had an "international music" section to the magazine. Ian Anderson, who is the editor of Folk Roots, one of our sister publications, published out of England, says that the first time he ever heard African Music was on a little flexible plastic record that was included in an issue of Sing Out! magazine in the 1970's. Ian was one of the folks who actually got together and created the "World Music" slot for marketing African and Middle Eastern Music into record stores in Great Britain. So, that has always been what our mission was.
By the late 1970's early 1980's Sing Out! was having another fiscal crisis, very similar to what had occured in 1949. This time, Pete was still involved in the magazine we had the benefit of him really having lived through the history of what had gone on before, Pete came to a group of us who were involved in the magazine and said "Look you can't just pack it in. We have to go to the readership of the magazine and say 'What do you wnat us to do' because maybe we can find a way to save this?" So for about 3 or 4 months, Pete and I co-edited a newsletter that went out to the approximately 2,000 members that were still readers subscribing to Sing Out! at that time.
Angela: What year was that?
Mark: That was 1982. We said "What would you like us to do? Is this important to you? Would you like us to keep it going?" Resoundingly, both with their voices and their wallets, they spoke and helped us pay off a sizeable back debt. We moved the operation to Pennsylvania, formed a non-profit tax-exempt corporation and started publishing in Pennsylvania in April of 1983. It has taken off since then. Today our readership is approaching the peak that Sing Out! had in the 1960's during the folk boom. We have a circulation of approaching 20,000 about a third of which are members of the organization and get every issue mailed to their house. Today we are quarterly. The magazine is a lot bigger than it used to be. Each issue is more than 200 pages. We have 6 feature articles in each issue. Columns from all kinds of folks, including Pete, who still writes a regular column for us, instrumental teach-ins.... I think the most important aspect of what Sing Out! does and what really sets us apart from other music magazines is that we publish 20 songs in each issue of the magazine with full lead sheets and lyrics for people to learn. I guess our fundamental 'raison d'etre" our mission statement for what we do as a non-profit is, that we want people to not just consume music but to make music. Have it be part of their daily lives. Sing a lullabye to your kid when you are putting him or her to sleep, get friends in together and make music in your kitchen or living room. Along with publishing Sing Out!, about 10 years ago we started a book publishing arm of the organization. The first book we put out was a book called "Rise up Singing" which was become enormously popular among group singing circles and people who like to make music in their homes. We sold nearly 3/4 of a million copies of that book.
Angela: Its a bible.
Mark: Yeah, a lot of people call it the blue bible. We also maintain a multi-media archive and resource centre of recordings and photos and newspaper clippings and books and magazines and anything related to the folk revival from the 1940's to the present in our offices here in Pennsylvania. We are working diligently to try to make more of it accessable through our website.
Angela: It is endless work. It's endless!
Mark: Yeah. But you know it beats digging ditches.
Angela: Well if people listening for the next two hours Mark, really have their interest peaked - never heard of Sing Out! before and don't get a copy, I was going to tell them the website.
Angela: Is there a toll free number also I believe.
Mark: There is, 888 SINGOUT. One of the new toll free exchanges. If you go to the website people will notice that there is a link right there to get a free sample issue of the magazine if they'd like to try it out.
Angela: The first one's free and then you are hooked.
Mark: That's the plan.
Angela: Thanks for giving us the intense history. I'd didn't know any of that. That is one of the few times I haven't interupted anybody. I hope it came out alright, you are coming through a bit faintly, but great information. I'll type it out and put it on the web and people can catch it at www.wjffradio.org Click on the programme guide, click on Folk Plus and then find today's date. I should have that up by tomorrow. Thanks so much Mark! We are going to go to the music and air as many as we can get in before 1 o'clock.
Mark: Terrific, thank you Angela.
Angela: Thank you for all your info and for your work. Bye
Mark: Take care.