Friday, January 23, 2009

An introduction to American folk music

What is folk music?

Sometimes people ask, "What is folk music?" I think there is some confusion because there are really two (at least) different meanings of the term.

  1. Traditional folk music: Folk music is music made by the folks, that is, by ordinary people rather than by professional musicians. In the past, people would sing as they worked. Also, when they relaxed in the evening, they had no TV or computer, so they made their own entertainment by singing, playing musical instruments, and telling stories. We don't do that much any more, but we do still sing in some situations, such as with children, around campfires, and at church. When we do this, we are continuing our culture's folk music.
  2. Folk music as a genre: There is a musical genre we now call folk music because it grew out of traditional folk music. I take a cultural view of this genre, defining it as having a particular history, representing a particular community, and expressing particular values. While musical styles within folk are somewhat varied, for the most part the folk genre uses acoustic instruments. In this article, I'll tell you more about folk music as a genre.

A brief history of folk music

The development of folk music as a genre in the United States included the following highlights during the first half of the 20th century. (This is just a nutshell version, and doesn't really do it justice.)

  • A band called the Carter Family performed and recorded many folk songs. Many later folk musicians learned songs from the recordings of the Carter Family.
  • Folklorists, including John and Alan Lomax, traveled around the U.S. recording people performing traditional music, in order to preserve the culture.
  • Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly or Leadbelly, was an African American musician. The Lomaxes found him when they were collecting songs in prisons, helped him get released, and took him north to share his music.
  • Woody Guthrie, profoundly influenced by the struggles of the Depression, traveled around the country hopping freight trains, and wrote and performed songs. One of his best known songs is "This Land is Your Land."
  • A group called the Weavers helped popularize folk songs, including songs they learned from the Carter Family, Lead Belly, and Woody Guthrie. They had some hits, including "Good Night Irene," which they learned from Lead Belly, but their success was cut short when they were blacklisted as suspected communists. Their most famous member, Pete Seeger, has been a major force in folk music for decades, and sang Woody Guthrie's song "This Land is Your Land" at Barack Obama's inaugural concert.

The 1960's brought the folk revival. Many musicians drew on the influences of those listed above. The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Janis Ian, Donovan, the Byrds, and others became household names. WRPI is honored to have Sonny Ochs, sister of 60's musician Phil Ochs, as one of our DJs.

As time marched on, folk music as a genre went one direction, while popular music went a different direction. The folk music genre is still very much alive, but it is no longer widely known.

The culture and values of today's folk music community

The genre of American folk music has evolved within a certain community which holds particular values. Growing out of its origins in traditional music, the folk genre emphasizes a grassroots perspective. At concerts, audience members are often encouraged to sing along. Folk musicians dress in ordinary clothes, go by ordinary names, and often chat with audience members during intermissions. Songs often talk about family, rural living, and nature. The folk community is predominantly liberal, using music as a tool for social change is a major theme in the folk community. Many songs address topics such as war, peace, poverty, labor unions, racial equality, and the environment. As with most genres, there are some songs about love or heartbreak, but these songs do not predominate, and love songs are often about long-lasting love rather than new love. There are also many songs on a wide range of other topics, including trains, sailing, pirates, cats, frogs, coffee, potatoes, avocados, garlic, the internet, duct tape, Jack and Jill, and Ampere's law.

Varieties of folk music

The stereotype of a folk musician today is a singer-songwriter who plays the guitar. Others know folk music through O Brother Where Art Thou or Nickel Creek. Folk music is all these things and more. Folk includes bluegrass, Celtic, and French Canadian music. Some songs have influences from jazz, blues, gospel, swing, country, or rock. In addition to a guitar, you may hear a banjo, mandolin, dobro, ukelele, cello, bodhran, pennywhistle, drum, bagpipe, organ, piano, glockenspiel, or concertina. I even have one album which credits someone for creating sound using a sewing machine. There are young bands such as the Mammals, the Duhks, Crooked Still, Ollabelle, the Wailin' Jennies, and Uncle Earl who bring their modern youthful energy to traditional music. Musicians such as the Indigo Girls, Lucy Kaplansky, Dar Williams, Rufus Wainwright, and Teddy Thompson are closer to rock or indie music. You can hear songs of rural mountain life from Christopher Shaw and Bridget Ball, Peggy Lynn, Dan Duggan, and Dan Berggren. Humorous songs are performed by Christine Lavin, Camille West, Lou and Peter Berryman, and the Arrogant Worms. These musicians are just the tip of the iceberg. Tune into the Mostly Folk Show on Sundays 6-8pm and the Bluegrass Show on Saturdays 7-10am to hear more.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Mostly Folk Playlist, 1/18/09

Host: Howard Jack

Beaucoup Blue, "C.C. Rider," Out of the Woodwork
Bill Staines, "Music to Me," Tracks and Trails
Dan Berggren, "Whistleblower," Fresh Territory
Taj Mahal, "Slavedriver," Mo' Roots
The Kim & Reggie Harris Group, "Heaven Is Less Than Fair," Music & the
Underground Railroad

Bob Dylan, "No More Auction Block," The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1 - 3
(Rare and Unreleased)

Sweet Honey in the Rock, "Wade in the Water," Live at Carnegie Hall
Joe & Eddie, "The Drinking Gourd," There's a Meetin' Here Tonight - The
Best of Joe & Eddie

Woody Guthrie, "Harriet Tubman's Ballad," Long Ways to Travel
Corey Harris, "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning," Between Midnight
and Day

Sparky and Rhonda Rucker, "Titanic Epic," Treasures and Tears
Jack Landron, "Father's Grave," Freedom Is a Constant Struggle
Mimi & Richard Farina, "Michael, Andrew & James," Mimi & Richard Farina -
The Complete Vanguard Recordings

Si Kahn, "I Have Seen Freedom," I Have Seen Freedom
The Fairfield Four, "My God Called Me This Morning," Standing in the Safety

The Pointer Sisters, "Yes, We Can Can," The Pointer Sisters
James Taylor, "Shed a Little Light," New Moon Shine
The Neville Brothers,"Amazing Grace," Live on Planet Earth
Bob Marley, "Redemption Song," Legend: The Best of Bob Marley & the

The Refugees, "Fishin' in the Dark," Unbound
Coco & Lafe, "Cambridge Underground," Cafe Loco
Harry Manx & Friends, "Take This Hammer," Live at the Glenn Gould Studio
Paul Reddick, "Climbing Up the Hill," Sugar Bird
Notorious, "Sarah Jane," Elkins

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Mostly Folk playlist, January 4, 2009

Host: Sonny Ochs

Artist/ CD/ Title
Terri Hendrix
/ I Found the Lions/ The Ring
Billy Jonas/ This We Know/ Get Real
Wishing Chair/ Family Man/ The Ghost of Will Harbut
Harry Manx/ Taking It To the Streets/ Jubilee
The Rowan Brothers/ I'll Be There/ Now & Then
Penny Lang/ I Have Been Living With the Blues/ Penny Land & Friends Live
Joel Mabus/ Spoon River & You/ Golden Willow Tree
Christine Lavin/ Wind Chimes/ Sometimes Mother Really Knows Best
Ken Whiteley/ That's When I Need a Song/ One World Dance
David Francey/ Red Winged Blackbird/ Torn Screen Door
Treasa Levasseau/ Low Fidelity/ Low Fidelity
Les Barker/ The Phoenix/ Up the Creek Without a Poodle
The Weavers/ Goodnight Irene/ Troubadours of Folk Era Vol. Three
Josh White Jr/ My Grandmother's House/ Delicate Balance
Diana Jones/ Cold Grey Ground/ My Remembrance of You
Magpie/ Wash Our Spirits Clean/ In This World
Lowen & Navarro/ Writing on the Wall/ Folk Scene Collection
Harmonious Wail/ Dark Eyes/ Gypsy Swing
Pat Wictor/ That's the Way It's Gonna Be/ Sunset Waltz
Kim & Reggie Harris/ All My Relations/ In the Heat of the Summer
Laura Bird/ When It Comes My Time/ The Water In Between
Greg Greenway/ Standing on the Side of Love/ Standing on the Side of Love
John Forster
/ In the Closet/ Helium
Cosy Sheridan/ Happiness Is Waiting/ Eros
Tanglefoot/ Secord's Warning/ The Music in the Wood

Reflection on war segment - so powerful to listen to!!!

Grit Laskin/ The End of a Pointed Gun/ Unabashedly Folk
Tom Pacheco/ Memorial Day/ Best of Tom Pacheco Vol. 1
Eric Andersen/ White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land/ The Street Was Always There
Faith Petric/ Grandma's Battle Cry/ Faith's Favorites
John Flynn
/ No More War/ Two Wolves

Mavis Staples/ Eyes on the Prize/ We'll Never Turn Back
David Roth/ Streets of London/ More Pearls
Susan Werner/ Our Father/ The Gospel Truth
Camille West/ Getting Raptured/ Diva's Day Off
Magpie & Kim & Reggie Harris/ How Long/ Freedom Is a Constant Struggle
Nickel Creek/ Sweet Afton/ Nickel Creek
Pat Humphries/ Hands/ What's That I Hear
Jon Vezner/ Who Am I Gonna Be/ We Remember
Bob Gibson/ How Could You Do This To Me/ Stops Along the Way
Kathy Mattea/ Coal Tattoo/ Coal
Tom Rush/ Circle Game/ Troubadours of Folk Era Vol %2o
Magpie & Kim & Reggie Harris/ How Long/ Freedoms Is a Constant Struggle