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October 2022
Vol. 21, No. 13

Other Expressions

Why Is There no Grammy for Folk Music?

by Ross AltmanMay, 2013

Classical cellist Yo Yo Ma won the Grammy for “Folk” this year, for a recording released on Sony Classical.
Hello? Who were Ry Cooder and the Carolina Chocolate Drops competing with — perhaps the Berlin Chamber Ensemble, too? Banjoist Stephen Wade — who wrote his own liner notes for Banjo Diary — lost out to a jazz scholar who wrote the liner notes for Ray Charles complete ABC recordings.

Why not just eliminate the “Folk” category and be done with it. Woody Guthrie — safely dead and gone — would not stand a chance to win the Grammy for the boxed set that Smithsonian Folkways won were he still alive.

The National Academy for Recording Arts and Sciences should be ashamed of itself: they love to put halos around the heads of dead legends, but God forbid some living folk singer like Ry Cooder or Stephen Wade should dare to enter the competition.

There is an old anonymous (folk singers love Anonymous) poem about Homer: “Seven ancient cities vied for Homer dead, through which the living poet begged his bread.” The message is clear: there used to be two categories for Folk — Traditional and Contemporary — now there is only one, and for all practical purposes there is none.

The Grammy will either go to a rock star like Bruce Springsteen who is slumming in an acoustic season, because the E-Street Band is taking time off from the road, or now a new low — a classical cellist like Yo Yo Ma who decided he did not wish to compete with Kronos or (the late) Gregor Piatagorsky.

And so for another scandalous year America’s true folk singers, like the late Utah Phillips, Roy Bookbinder, and Spider John Koerner won’t even get nominated, let alone win, because the NARAS simply has no interest in folk music but won’t admit it.

Pete Seeger finally won for “At 89,” a shambles of a recording that could not stand up to any of his great recordings from the 1950s, ’60s, or ’70s, which contained all of his hit songs and historic interpretations of world songs — before World Music was even a thought in Mario Casetta’s mind. To give Pete his due at 89 was like giving Paul Newman his first Oscar for The Color of Money, a second-rate film based on the character he immortalized in his greatest movie, The Hustler, which of course was passed over in 1961.

It was like giving John Wayne his first and only Oscar for his charicatur  in True Grit, after the Academy Awards ignored his best work in The Searchers and Red River. It was like giving Bob Dylan his first Grammy for “You Gotta Serve Somebody” after ignoring “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Blowing in the Wind.” It was beneath contempt–then and now.

Let there be Folk!

Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups, and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at


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