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.

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