I guess what I’m trying to say about folk music is that it irks me. Not the older stuff of course, the “original” music, but the newer revival of it, the fashionable form.
Whether this is folk rock, indie folk, or another permutation, there’s something about it all that seems a bit put on, a trifle insincere.
Maybe it’s because I’m from a place where people often ask, “How are your folks?” by which they usually mean your parents, but may also mean your relatives in general. Pretty much everybody is related to the others in some way, either by blood or through marriage, which necessitates some safeguards: for example, checking your family tree to make sure you don’t end up marrying your cousin.
Thank God I live halfway across the world.
The upside of having “folks” is that I have a sense of a place and a people, an idea of the roots from which I come. This is where “folk” music comes from as well—a particular people in a particular time and place who shared history and life experience and expressed this through a shared musical form.
The depth and breadth of emotion and experience covered in these folk songs, the life of a whole community and group of people, is probably what is so appealing and life-giving in today’s world, and what accounts for its recent revival in popularity. Not merely the story of two lovers’ broken hearts, not just the disappointment and loneliness of one man, but stories of hundreds or thousands woven together and echoing in and out of one another’s lives. A tapestry, if you will (go Carole King!).
Part of what has rankled me about recent British folk is that it seemed like it was just stolen from American tradition in a last-ditch effort to scavenge some authenticity from existing musical forms. However, it turns out I am wrong, as historically-speaking a lot of what I thought was typically American folk music in fact stems from British origins, brought over by immigrants when they came from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales and settled in the hills of Appalachia and other areas. So while the quest may be the same in essence, at least it is seeking from an original source in their own history.
Yet the fact remains that we no longer live in these “communities” or groups of people. We move, we change, we meet new people and make new friends. Perhaps admirably, those who make folk music now are trying hold on to a sense of rootedness and connection, hoping to be bound together by the music that emerged from a time when things were really this way. The form of folk music itself cannot make up for this lack.
Too often the genuine feeling from the old songs and old music is skimmed off the top and manipulated into a new context, losing its meaning in the process. It almost becomes cliché.
Walker Percy, among others, talked about how an object in a sense loses its existence once it is discovered and publicized.* The remote hill tribe is altered inexorably once found by the anthropologist. The Grand Canyon is forever changed once it becomes a place for people to see, a tourist destination.
Maybe this is what has happened to folk. Once it was discovered, by Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie or maybe even earlier, it somehow lost its integrity. Everything after became an image of an image of the original until we ceased to know what they original really was. A simulacrum.
Of course I think its great that these musicians are trying to stir up a sense of the depth of life, of identity and belonging. But I’m seriously hoping for something more than banjos, waistcoats and lace-up boots. Let’s move beyond the pining melancholy and wallowing nostalgia and come up with something new.
*I know it’s a blog, can I still have a footnote?