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Folk Alliance Newsletter

Performers Column

by Joel Mabus

written December 2000



by Joel Mabus

In the last issue of this column I questioned the "brand name" value of folk music. Let's look at that brand once again. 

I recently was asked to address a gathering of singer songwriters on the topic of folk music. The session was called "Why Do They Keep Calling Me A Folksinger?" at Lamb's Retreat for Songwriters. There was much to discuss. First was how "folk" has been used over the years to describe a wide variety of music, and the legacy of all that: How Hank Williams' obituary in the New York Times called him a "folksinger." How Doc Watson laid down his old 50's Les Paul in the early sixties to make a living as a folksinger. How the folk boom of mid-century made possible the careers of Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon et al, who a decade later were suddenly "rock" stars. How the many small festivals and clubs that started up in the early 70's -- when the folk boom was all but dead -- took up the folk moniker like a fallen battle flag, and how it is now that (arguably) the number-one event for singer songwriters is called the Kerrville FOLK Festival, not the Kerrville Songwriter Festival. And how it is that the event so many aspiring singer songwriters go to be noticed is the annual FOLK Alliance Conference.

At one point I asked my group of songwriters (most of whom were guitar-playing baby boomers), "How many of you think of yourselves as 'folksingers?'" Out of about 50 people only two raised their hands. The rest saw no place in "folk music" for them. I found those margins disturbing. The "big tent" of folk music -- as I've heard it called - doesn't seem to be sheltering these people. At least not according to them. Is the schism between traditional and contemporary deeper than I thought? Sure, we all know a few curmudgeons who can be counted on to complain about the navel-gazing songwriters coming up. Likewise there are always a few strumming mumbling poets who gripe about the "folk nazis" who won't give them a chance. But I always thought the centrists ruled in the "folk big top" and that both new and old had a place in the tent. Am I wrong? I'm hearing more and more rumblings of disfranchisement from both ends of the spectrum. Is the folk music movement in North America dividing like some broken Electoral College over folk songs and who gets to call them that? 

Before we try to tackle that weighty question, maybe we should consider the bigger picture of contemporary music than our little circle of "folk." I recently read a cover story in USA Today [12/8/00] entitled "The Disappearing Popular Songwriter." Apparently when I wasn't paying attention, the solo songwriting artiste of popular music has been relegated to dinosaur status. According to the report, the Lillith Fair fad is all but ancient history, "alternative" is no longer an alternative, and the singer songwriters of yesteryear (their examples: Aimee Mann, Don Henley, Joni Mitchell, Joan Osborne, et al) are dropping like flies from commercial radio playlists in favor of the next big thing, which probably is a sexually-charged boy group or a sexually-charged dancing teenage girl or sexually-charged hip hop or so forth and so on.

There was much analysis in this article of what is wrong, what has changed, and what is inevitable in the music industry. There was no small amount of bemoaning the passing of the "good old days" by interviewed pop songwriters, remembering a time when a lyric meant something. (Referring to the late 1990's!) What caught my eye was a quote from Paul Simon, who said, "There's a tremendous underground swell of songwriters and players who have no interest in who or what the latest pop sensation is. The whole concept of stars is bogus, anyway. What's a star compared to a song that lasts 100 years? Nothing. Absolutely nothing."

Well said, Mr. Simon. Spoken like a true folkie, if I may say. He's right, as we all know. Every non-profit folk festival, every Unitarian church basement concert with folding chairs and bad lights, every showcase room at a pricey Folk Alliance hotel with beds and sleeping bags shoved against the wall to make a performance spot, and every song circle that meets at the women's bookstore on alternate Tuesdays is a testimony to the swell of songwriters and players who have no interest in the latest pop sensation.

But is it folk music? Are these songwriters folksingers? Does it matter and should we care? Let me offer an argument. I'm not out to define folk music in any academic way, but rather to offer an observation from my time spent on the front line. In my experience, there always seems to be one yardstick of authenticity held up to folk music: It's not so much about what a song sounds like, as it is about where the song comes from. It's got to be from real people "somewhere else." A song from the people of our own society that comes from another time, long ago - we generally accept as folk music. A song from people of a tradition or culture foreign to our own mainstream - we generally call folk music. It's the measure of distance between "here and now" and "there and then." And, generally speaking, the further the distance, the more "authentic" the music is deemed.

The value, of course, is that in hearing or singing a song outside of ourselves -- a song from another time or place, a song outside of our own skin -- we discover our connections to a wider realm of humanity. By appreciating the music "from somewhere else" we better understand our own place in the world. To this end, I think both the traditionalist and the singer songwriter would do well to open up to the possibilities of the other.

But consider another kind of song that comes from somewhere else - that comes from an individual with an "other" point of view. What about a song that comes from the wellspring of an individual's soul and creativity without regard for the "latest pop sensation?" Assuming the songwriter is not striving for an elitist "high art" status, I say there is a strong case for calling this folk music. It may not be a great temporal or cultural distance, but if a song comes from a real person somewhere else - in this case a working musician outside the cultural mainstream -- can't we generally accept it as folk music too? I think a lot of us do - especially if the singer is working with a palette of sounds that include elements that hearken to another time or place. 

We all have our sense of musical taste, of course. No one is asking that we enjoy everything that enters our eardrums. And thankfully there are no laws that tell us how to categorize our personal preferences. So feel free to define "folk" the way you want. But open minds hear better music. The next song that will make you weep or shout or dance with joy might come from an unexpected place. It might just be an African drummer, a New England fiddler, a cowgirl yodeler - or maybe even a "poet & a one-man band."

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