Folk, Folk Music!

JANE: So, Alan, when we were talking about the music we listen to in our cars, you mentioned you like folk music.  I must admit, I’m not all that knowledgeable about folk music, so none of the groups you listed meant anything to me.

Sing!  Sing a Song!

Sing! Sing a Song!

ALAN: I wasn’t a complete folk music virgin when the folk boom happened. We’d always sung folk songs at school, and the fact that the songs often told a story appealed to me a lot.  Also, as I explored the world of folk music, I found that many of the songs involved the faerie folk, and this too rang bells with my inner Fantasy fan (“…for tonight is Halloween, and the fairy folk ride…”). And, an added bonus, many of the songs were quite bawdy (“…me ‘usband’s got no courage in ‘im…”). Folk music and I seemed to be made for each other.

JANE: The folk music boom was pretty much over by the time I was beginning to listen to music on my own.  Like you, we sang some folk music in school and I always enjoyed that.  The “Family Mass” at my church featured a folk group instead of the organ and choir.  I really enjoyed that, too.

However, even though my early tastes ran to what today would be called “soft” rock and/or “classic” rock (as well as whatever I heard on the radio), I never really got into folk.  Maybe if the songs I had encountered had been more about the Fey Folk, rather than “Puff the Magic Dragon,” I would have been won over.

Tell me about a group you particularly like.

ALAN: A group I go back to time and time again is Fairport Convention. They are a British group who reached the height of their popularity during the folk boom of the 1960s. They are still making records today. I bought one just a few months ago.

When I first came across them, their singer was a lady called Sandy Denny. Something about her voice just made my spine tingle. Her voice was a musical instrument in its own right and she used it beautifully. Probably the best album they ever made was the hugely influential (at the time) Leige and Lief. Every track on it was firmly based on traditional British and perhaps Celtic folk music and not only did it blow me away with the brilliance of its musicality, it also triggered a lifelong obsession with songs that derive from this tradition.

JANE: I love when voice becomes one of the instruments.  However, me and Celtic music…  I may be missing something in my genetic code or something but, although I’ve liked some, on the whole I want to run away.  This was a problem when I was in college because Fordham had a large Irish Catholic population and many of my friends were into groups like The Chieftains, Silly Wizard, and The Clancy Brothers.

Oddly, although I’m neutral toward most Celtic influenced music, one of my favorite Christmas albums is by The Clancy Brothers.  It’s not bawdy, but it has humor and some gorgeous lyrics that merge the pre-Christian traditions into the Christian with an ease few cultures outside of the Irish seem to manage.

ALAN: Oh, there’s a lot of humour in folk music. And a lot of drama and social comment as well.  All these elements have been present in the music for, quite literally, centuries. Modern artists continue to sing the old songs, of course, but the field is by no means static – new songs are constantly being written. A perfect example would be the music of Paul Simon (of Simon and Garfunkel fame). Not only is he a talented musician, he is an extraordinarily accomplished lyricist, and the sheer cleverness of the words of his songs (“…the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls…”) are magnificent.

JANE: I always liked Simon and Garfunkel.  In fact, one of the few live concerts I’ve seen (I don’t really like either crowds or loud noise) was the one they gave in Central Park in New York City.  That was memorable.  The place was packed, but a friend got there pre-dawn and staked out a location for our group.   He marked it with an Irish flag, so we could find it.

If anyone reading this has the album, you can see our flag in the huge crowd photo.  It’s near the middle, as I recall…

ALAN: Oooh! I’ve got the DVD of the concert. I’ll have to play it again and go looking for you.

JANE:  I had brown hair then…  All this silver is a more modern look.

So, tell me more about what draws you to folk music.

ALAN: I’ve always been in love with the written word and in my teens I spent a lot of time exploring Literature (with a capital LIT).  I very quickly became disillusioned with the formlessness and vagueness of contemporary poetry. It seemed to me that the discipline of the strict rhymes and rhythms imposed on the form by musical requirements produced much more valid poetry than that which restricted itself to the written word. I felt then, and I still feel now, that the true lyric poets of the time had actually abandoned the form, and turned to music instead.

JANE: Oh, I’m bouncing up and down in my chair!  You just brought me back in time to when a very serious English major, a junior in college, had just that discussion with her favorite professor – that lyric poetry, in particular, was alive and well in the realm of the better pop music lyrics.  I even brought along various bits so we could compare.

ALAN: Ah! So it’s not just me. That’s good to know.

JANE: We keep finding ways we’re alike, even in areas where you’d think we’d clash.

ALAN: I’m always very pleased when that happens. And it happens a lot!

I think the thing that really cemented the idea that song lyrics could also be poetry for me was a rather high-brow programme on BBC television. A panel of pundits would have fragments of poetry and prose read to them and they had to try and identify what they were listening to and then discuss it a bit. Points were awarded for correct identification. I vividly remember one programme where all the pundits utterly failed to identify a poem. Nevertheless they were hugely impressed by it. Such lyricism! Such emotion and depth of feeling! Such clever use of language!

Then the chairman revealed the source of the poem. It was a Beatles lyric – actually She’s Leaving Home, from the Sergeant Pepper album. Not surprisingly, the pundits changed their attitude when they found out what it was. Crude construction! Invalid rhythms! Pop music!

But I felt vindicated. Music really was more than just a catchy tune. It was the words that made the song stand out. Lyrics could indeed be poetry in every sense of the word.

JANE: As I said, I’m with you all the way…  And, darn it, I qualify as one of those literary experts, I have the letters after my name and everything.  (I even know the secret handshake.)

I’d like to return to folk music itself more specifically.  One thing I do know is that there are many, many forms, so that talking about “folk music” is a little like talking about “SF.”  Maybe we could take a look at some of the different flavors next time.

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8 Responses to “Folk, Folk Music!”

  1. JM6 Says:

    You raise an interesting point with the idea of lyric poets becoming songwriters, something I had considered from time to time but never really pursued because I was never a huge fan of poems. I’m a story fan at heart. I wonder, now, if the short story as a form is being replaced by the short video or if the short video is simply a way for those who write short stories to differentiate themselves from the crowd. It seems *everyone* writes short stories (especially flash fiction) in the same way it seems everyone writes poems, but the short stories that get noticed the most are the video-forms in the same way the poems that get noticed are the songs.

    Side note: for Celtic-influenced music, I prefer Loreena McKennitt, whose idea of “Celtic” spans continents.

  2. Sally Says:

    Alan, you had me singing “Oh, dear, o!” straight off.

    My early exposure to folk music was an album of choir renditions of “Songs of the British Isles” and (as with others) singing in school. Well, that and the songs kids pass on one to the next, like “On top of spaghetti, All covered with cheese” (and if that’s not folk music of a sort I don’t know what is). Somewhat in spite of this, folk music caught my interest. Some of this was certainly the notion that songs could tell great stories. I recall researching ballads in high school, trying to figure out why the tales they told were so gripping, in the hope that maybe I could use that in my own writing. (Unfortunately for me, ballads are poetry, and get to use all those nifty tools like rhyme and repetition which don’t work as well in prose.)

    It also didn’t hurt that the folk revival was in full swing. Jean Ritchie and later Jean Redpath (along with a healthy dose of Joan Baez) were major influences for me.

    But what really captured me about folk music, both as a listener and a singer, is (I think) the combination of unadorned voice and raw emotion with stories that go beyond the broken hearts/true love theme that pop music tends to get stuck in. The subject of folk music is all of life and death.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Your last paragraph says it all. I don’t think I’ve ever phrased it like that to myself, but now that you’ve said it I have to say that you are absolutely right.


      -Alan

  3. Paul Dellinger Says:

    My folk music listening goes back to the Peter, Paul & Mary days, but I do enjoy Celtic music (Enya in particular), and some filk music (the SF equivalent of folk music; Leslie Fish in particular).

  4. Chad Merkley Says:

    Linguistically, “folk” music and “popular” music mean exactly the same thing. But the current meanings imply drastically different ideas.

    What makes folk music is hard to pin down. For me, it’s one of those “I know it when I hear it” situations. But there are a few commonalities, especially in the songs (A song has words, and is sung. The melody of a song, played instrumentally is an air. A melody without words, such as a dance piece is a tune. There are places on the internet where you’ll get lynched for calling a tune a song).

    But, anyway, what makes a folk song: They’re narrative–they tell or imply a story. Sometimes, they’re the some of the best, most compact, concise stories around. They can be extremely detailed, or almost minimalist.

    Also, they are almost always highly strophic–the same melody repeats again and again, or perhaps a pair of melodies alternating. This may include a refrain or chorus.

    Traditionally, they are also an oral tradition, passed on by word of mouth. This can result in alternate versions of words, melodies, and so on.

    When they are performed, it’s done with a relatively informal accompaniment. The musicians don’t have a detailed score in front of them. The performance has some level of improvisation and spontaneity to it. But this can still result in a coherent performance. One of my favorite parts of music festivals is what’s called a band scramble. Basically, names are drawn out of hat to form small ensembles of musicians. You then have an hour to go off with your group and put together a piece to perform. It’s a blast.

    In addition to the improvisational nature of a performance, there are also stereotypical or formulaic elements. These may vary from culture to culture, but they are there.

    So there’s my discourse on what goes into folk music. Some of these elements are shared with other genres (jazz often has that same mix of formula and improvisation; pop music shares the strophic structures, etc), but I think most musicians would accept these criteria as being definitive without being overly restrictive.

    Some of my favorite modern folk and folk-style musicians and performers are Kate Rusby, Heidi Muller, Crooked Still, and the Wailin’ Jennys. For instrumental stuff, I really like the Swedish group Vasen (put umlauts over that “a” please), Alisdair Fraser, John Doyle, Martin Hayes, and Liz Carroll.

  5. janelindskold Says:

    I agree that the ballad is most commonly found in “folk” music and is a big part of it’s appeal…

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