I have just finished writing a folk song.
That sentence came out rather too easily. But it doesn’t really mean anything. You are probably familiar with the wonderful Louis Armstrong quote “All music is folk music, I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song” – I regularly fling that line at people who use the word “folk” as a limiting factor when labeling the Debt Records artist roster. I do so deplore a lazy critic.
What I meant to say was that I’ve just finished writing a grizzly little number in the key of A-minor featuring a few cheeky hammer-ons and the occasional nod towards tuberculous hankie stains. There, now we are in familiar territory.
No matter how rock or jazz the song may turn out in its ultimate incarnation I rarely stray too far from traditional folk forms/themes during the blueprint stage. I was first introduced to live music when attending cèilidhs as a boy on the Isle Of Skye (you can’t get much folkier than that) and though I am now the leader of a dirt-swing band I keep one foot firmly in that celtic folk tradition – as drenched in riddles as it is in rain.
Of those riddles the trickiest to unravel is whether or not Folk can actually be called a genre at all. As Satchmo signaled above, the word Folk (from the German Volk – of Volkswagen fame) just means people. Like its hilariously named pen-pal World Music, Folk is perceived to be something of a minority taste despite representing all of humankind: it is a genre to be found in the basement sections of record shops – at least until the periodic revival comes along and confuses the window display. How one genre can be subject to such regular “revivals” I do not know. It’s almost as if it never goes away at all (…wait a minute).
The relatively newfangled trend of using the term as a cultural signpost began in the mid-nineteenth century with the invention of the word folklore which, in turn, birthed a considerable litter of compound formations such as folk-art, folk-story and (my personal favourite) folk-song.
The unfortunate side-effect of this particular Victorian categorization is that we are now compelled to slap the word folk onto anything that features a fiddle or an accordion merely because these instruments were popularized in the nineteenth century – had they possessed synths and samplers in those days then they too would have no doubt been similarly branded (and the folk genre would be even more unhelpfully vast). Traditionally the word folk is attached to both oral storytelling and social gathering. Basically that means it covers every song ever created – not just the ones written by people with beards.
In my view, one of the key ideas behind folk music (indeed all music) is that it reflects and responds to the moods and experiences of the people (or at least the people who are doing anything). It therefore manifests itself not as some force of nostalgia or novelty but rather a social compass where the magnet points to the Modern (do I hear the sound of traditionalists sharpening their cutlasses?). If folk is supposed to spring organically out of (or in spite of) new movements (be they artistic, political or intellectual) then one could argue that the current “folk music revival” is not represented by the likes of po-faced chart-toppers Mumford & Sons but rather by contributors to the likes of Dub-Step and other underground dance phenomena.
But now I’m letting my head do too much of the talking when Folk Music has so much to do with the heart.
This subject really is too big for one blog post alone so I’ll continue this particular talking-marathon another day. In fact I intend to revisit the issue regularly and welcome any and all feedback.
In temporary conclusion, I think that Folk (be it music, lore or whatever) should be primarily concerned with communication – not merely passing on information but actively entering into dialogues (both between people and their contexts). Also, whilst I enjoy traditional roots music in almost all its flavours, I believe it needs to be flexible in order to remain relevant. I am not one of those purists in a hat and waistcoat who thinks that folk music should have been frozen in a block of solid art at the time of the great gold rush.
I just happen to look like one.
FIRST PUBLISHED DECEMBER 2010