What the heck is "Folk Music" anymore?

Discussion in 'Music Corner' started by seed_drill, Nov 8, 2018.

  1. seed_drill

    seed_drill Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Tryon, NC, USA
    I mean given today's definition it seems to just apply to anything more acoustic than electric or something with socially conscious lyrics. It need not have both.

    I mean, originally, it was literally the music of a given people's, mostly in the public domain.

    Then it started to be a combination of traditional material combined with newly composed topical songs. In America this seems to have started during the Depression and continued until the McCarthy hearings got many of the preeminent folk acts of the day blacklisted in the early 1950's. During this era there wasn't a divide between "acoustic" and "electric" because amplified instrumentation hadn't become commonplace yet. There was an instrumental simplicity, certainly, when compared to the charts of the jazz based pop of the day.

    Then in the late 1950's you started getting commercially successful acts who, again, started out playing traditional material, but as the 60's began, you found more and more newly written songs being classified as folk. And many of these were of the "protest" variety that were, in actuality, quite out of step with the views of the lumpenproletariat that made up most "folk." Of course, WWII, the post WWII economic boom, the final stages of electrification and better roads, and, finally, TV, pretty much ended the rural isolation that was the original nurturing ground for traditional folk music.

    Then, of course, came the Folk Rock movement. But there was also a gradual shift from the topical to the personal. For me this, rather than strummed acoustic guitars, is what separates folk from "singer songwriter." But from a musical genrefication standpoint, it's admittedly a blurred line.

    After the 1970's I don't really know what was considered "folk" anymore, not counting some carryover artists. Heck, even Joan Baez had gone from "We Shall Overcome" to writing about her relationship with Dylan.

    In the late 80's we started seeing a few commercially successful artists once again labeled "folk." You had Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, David Wilcox, The Indigo Girls, and I guess they all fit into the "primarily acoustic" and "topical" category. Though the Indigo Girls were really part of the Athens college rock scene and got labeled "folkies" when their sexuality became common knowledge. You also had some guys like Dave Allin and Kelly Joe Phelps dipping back into the traditional well.

    But what about now? I mean much of what I see labeled as "Alt folk" doesn't really seem particularly folkie. It's more just some instrumentation and productions choices. Is there a difference between "alt folk" and "alt country"? I mean some I get, like Old Crow Medicine Show is definitely on the "folk" side of things. But for others it just seems a catchall for music with a stringed acoustic lead instrument.

    Anyway, I know this rambled. Thoughts?
  2. pig bodine

    pig bodine God’s Consolation Prize

    Syracuse, NY USA
    Well, there’s “freak folk” some of which I have to call shenanigans on.
    Randoms likes this.
  3. Stone Turntable

    Stone Turntable Dedicated Listener

    New Mexico USA
    The intro to the Wikipedia entry does a good implicit job of addressing the OP skepticism about how contemporary or revival or hybrid (and other blends and adaptations) folk music can still be considered folk:

    "Folk music includes traditional folk music and the genre that evolved from it during the 20th century folk revival. Some types of folk music may be called world music. Traditional folk music has been defined in several ways: as music transmitted orally, music with unknown composers, or music performed by custom over a long period of time. It has been contrasted with commercial and classical styles. The term originated in the 19th century, but folk music extends beyond that.

    "Starting in the mid-18th century, a new form of popular folk music evolved from traditional folk music. This process and period is called the (third) folk revival and reached a zenith in the 1960s. This form of music is sometimes called contemporary folk music or folk revival music to distinguish it from earlier folk forms. Smaller, similar revivals have occurred elsewhere in the world at other times, but the term folk music has typically not been applied to the new music created during those revivals."

    The traditional purity objections ("Judas!", anyone?) are something of a red herring considering how perrenial the "bastardized" elements of folk have been as a centuries-old essential part of the folk process.
    Last edited: Nov 8, 2018
    seed_drill likes this.
  4. chervokas

    chervokas Forum Resident

    It's really been that way since Dylan started doing original material in the '60s, and really even before, but especially with Dylan and after. Before that folk music mostly meant walk "folk" art has typically meant -- traditional material, passed down through an oral tradition, no known authorship or ownership, etc. Now "folk music" is a loosely defined catch-all name for a style and marketing category. But it's been like that for 50 or 60 years.
    Panama Hotel and gregorya like this.
  5. gregorya

    gregorya Forum Resident

    Then perhaps contemporary folk music should be termed "Potential Future Folk" music... ;)
    chervokas likes this.
  6. lazydawg58

    lazydawg58 Know enough to know how much I don't know

    Lillington NC
    Folk music is someone or a small group of someones using acoustic instruments to play for family, friends or community gatherings, performing songs from a shared catalog along with compositions of their own creation.

    When it deviates from that it becomes something else.
    Panama Hotel and Scooter59 like this.
  7. seed_drill

    seed_drill Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Tryon, NC, USA
    Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie were penning a lot of original material as well.
    Folknik likes this.
  8. chervokas

    chervokas Forum Resident

    Yeah, no doubt, as I said, even before (though also a fair amount of Guthrie's "original" material was sort of folk process "composition" -- new topical lyrics for old gospel tunes, etc....). But the recorded music and copyright exploitation part of the folk music "industry" really took off with the '60s folk revival, and Dylan's becoming an international pop superstar, and "folk" as a saleable style, not a word related to the study of folklore, really explodes with that (not coincidentally at the height of mid century mass media, which really helped turned all kinds of folk and folk process music -- like blues -- into industrial ones).
    seed_drill likes this.
  9. rocknsoul74

    rocknsoul74 Forum Resident

    Music with acoustic string instruments primarliy strummed or picked with lyrics that tell a story or have a message. Hows that?
    Rojo and HfxBob like this.
  10. tim_neely

    tim_neely Forum Hall Of Fame

    Central VA
    The definition of "folk" music has evolved over time. When Billboard introduced its forerunner of the country singles charts in 1944, it was called, in full:

    Most Played Juke Box Folk Records
    (Hillbillies, Spirituals, Cowboy Songs, Etc.)
  11. Scooter59

    Scooter59 Forum Resident

    Nailed it. For something current within this description, I would HIGHLY recommend The Unthanks.

  12. notesofachord

    notesofachord Where are the prawns?

    It's just a genre tag. Honestly, the best music borrows from many traditions and styles and yet comes up with something new, fresh, and original while borrowing from those sources. Old-school folk did this as does today's pop, country, or hip-hop. Genres are invented as a way to artificially categorize music by style and yet the best music, IMO, is not easily described by such a simple description.

    In other words, it doesn't really matter.
    Adam9, Andrew J and walrus like this.
  13. SquaRoots

    SquaRoots The North Star Grassman

    Laniakea Superba
    The music liked by most folks?

    Anyway, my first thought was:

    McLover and Man at C&A like this.
  14. seed_drill

    seed_drill Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Tryon, NC, USA
    Bizarrely, iTunes and Discogs still want to lump country, folk and world together. Obviously, back in the Carter Family days there was little difference. AP was probably slapping his name on a lot of traditional tunes. But by the time the country music industry set up shop in Nashville the genres started to diverge. Bluegrass is the one area of country that kept it's folk roots, IMO.
  15. Mr Bass

    Mr Bass Chevelle Ma Belle

    Mid Atlantic
    It is fair to say that folk music has a restricted harmonic development but it can be melodically or rhythmically quite complex. Most "original" folk music has been changed by the radio and recordings for a hundred years. The last real folk music collectors were active around 1880 to 1900. Each country or cultural group has their own folk music almost all of which is long gone or much changed.
  16. Malinky

    Malinky Forum Resident

    `Folk` music is music that comes from a shared traditional cultural ethos, whether this be stories about lords and ladies in high castles, or murder ballads based on actual people, the stories are passed around and eventually become `Folk Law`and finally are set to words and music. The `Unthanks` have already been mentioned with their songs of a disappeared world of shipyards, factories and terraced houses.
    But stories and legends of Pirates and smugglers and other villains fill the folk tradition.

    The folk tradition later crossed the sea to America where it mixed with the music of other immigrants from Europe, to become the music of the backwoods, and develop into a whole new traditional music.
    Let`s not forget that Bob Dylan `Borrowed` a lot of his music from the traditional Folk culture.
    Last edited: Nov 8, 2018
  17. Andrew J

    Andrew J Forum Resident

    South East England
    Folk is anything that evolves from a grass roots level, rather than coming from above. In the past this music was received orally through generations. Now, the gestation period before something gets co-opted by the mainstream or into a canon is very short, so there's little time for music to linger in the populace, before getting the sign of approval from the annointed and self-appointed arbiters of taste.

    Folk is not a style. Just because in the past certain music was played on fiddles and pipes, doesn't mean that the modern equivalent should be. Singing 'we shall overcome'or dressing up as a hillbilly when you can afford to live in Manhattan, is not necessarily a sign you are on a parallel with the Greenwich Village scene of the early '60s, and probably isn't going to challenge the status quo.

    Likewise, going electric a few years down the line is unlikely to ruffle any feathers. The folk music of today is probably something that would be reviled by most Bob Dylan fans. I hate to say it, but it might even feature autotune!
    Last edited: Nov 8, 2018
  18. dumangl

    dumangl Forum Resident

    “All music is folk music. I ain't never heard no horse sing a song.” - Louis Armstrong
    JoeF., delmonaco, Scope J and 7 others like this.
  19. Svetonio

    Svetonio Forum Resident

    A singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar.
    altaeria likes this.
  20. The Lone Cadaver

    The Lone Cadaver Forum Resident

    I'm not much of a fan of US folk music other than The Roches, The Four Bitchin' Babes and The Ocean Orchestra, but the UK produces a ton of great stuff. Particularly Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention, which are both are going strong after decades. They still combine traditional songs with their own material which makes a perfect blend. The Pentangle is another favorite of mine in the same category.
    qwerty likes this.
  21. qwerty

    qwerty A resident of the SH Forums.

    Musicologists lost their naming rights to record company marketing departments when they realised there was money to be made.
    The marketing departments became powerful and have dictated a lot of what happens in the music world (eg. mastering).
    We are stuck with it until the record companies become un-viable in the future.
    The tragedy is that many "legitimate" folk artists are lost as the newer public associates "folk" to music which can be argued is not folk.

    A parallel to country music was nicely articulated by pioneering country artist Slim Dusty on a 1980's album, where he describes the changing definition of country music:
    They're saying that it's country, how about that
    It's just rock and roll in a cowboy hat.
  22. Roger Thornhill

    Roger Thornhill Forum Resident

    Ilford, Essex, UK
    Quite a number of folk guitarists (Richard Thompson, Bert Jansch, John Tams, Alisdair Roberts etc) play acoustic and electric - so what happens when they strap on an electric guitar - do they suddenly play something other than folk music?

    And Alisdair Roberts new album with Amble Skuse and David McGuiness has electric guitar and electronics! But they are all without exception traditional songs - simply brought up to date.

    And excluding electric instruments means that one of the finest folk rock albums doesn't count as folk...

  23. JumpinJimF

    JumpinJimF Forum Resident

    E.Midlands UK
    Don't they automatically become Judas? I think we have case law on this from 1966.
    Svetonio, seed_drill, PIGGIES and 2 others like this.
  24. hammondjake

    hammondjake Forum Resident

    Not sure if BBC iPlayer is available in your region, but the weekly Folk Show with Mark Radcliffe on BBC Radio 2 airs weekly to the whole of the UK. You can view playlists (of current and older material) and catch up with previous broadcasts here: BBC Radio 2 - The Folk Show with Mark Radcliffe
  25. JozefK

    JozefK Forum Resident

    In September 1955, Country Music Roundup magazine published the first magazine article on Elvis Presley. The article's author described the artist as "a real folk music fireball".
    seed_drill likes this.

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