BROOKLYN, NY; August 18, 2016—I was 18 in 1970 when I started writing about music for the Village Voice, often covering what is now referred to as “Americana,” but was then just known as “folk music.” Much of what I wrote about was pretty rarefied: Blind Alfred Reed, Aunt Molly Jackson, Michael Cooney but also John Denver, Doc Watson, and then lots of rock and roll. Yes, I pretty much saw and listened to, and often reviewed, every musician and band out there between 1970 and 1990 when I stopped writing for newspapers.
But back in the early 1970s, when I went to interview Sandy and Caroline Paton, the founders of Folk-Legacy Records in Sharon, CT, they were taken aback at what I drove (a Camaro—they were expecting a VW bug) and my age (“You write as though you’ve been listening to this music for years!”) Similarly, it was two years after I first started writing for the Voice before I met my editor, Diane (Annie) Fisher (if you’re out there, thank you for getting me started!). I’d been putting my reviews and articles under the door at 80 University Place — the Voice’s home then — on Sunday afternoons, and buying the paper on Wednesdays to see if they’d run what I’d written.
I was in college, at Hunter, and didn’t even realize the Voice was going to pay me, but they did! When I finally mustered the courage to go meet the editor, her assistant wouldn’t announce me. “We assumed Ira Mayer was a pseudonym for one of the other writers here, and that those checks we were sending to Rockaway Beach were supporting some woman! Just go in and introduce yourself.”
What I was learning was the importance of writing authoritatively; that, and doing my best to write in proper English and to deliver on deadline, got me into The Sunday New York Times for several years back then, too and about a decade later as pop music reviewer and feature writer for the New York Post for about 13 years.
Yes, I listened widely, read a great deal, had been playing piano for at least 10 years by the time I started, and had taught myself guitar and banjo, and took some accordion lessons. But would any of that count for expertise in an era where anyone (even me) can blog? What’s anyone’s opinion worth, anyway? Or mine?
Here’s Tom Nicholls, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, on The Death of Expertise, as published in The Federalist: “I fear we are witnessing the ‘death of expertise’: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers — in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.” (Thanks Michelle Dollinger for the link to Nicholls.)