TT: Folk? Rock?

JANE: So, Alan, for the last couple of weeks, we’ve been discussing folk music.

ALAN: I’m sorry, perhaps I let my enthusiasm run away with me.

JANE: Not at all.   It’s been fun and I learned a lot – including that I like a lot more folk music than I realized!  One thing I found myself thinking about is how folk music has had quite an influence on modern rock. Do you agree?

A Little Bit Folkie, A Little Bit Rock n Roll

A Little Bit Folkie, A Little Bit Rock n Roll

ALAN: Oh, indeed. Traditional folk music often made contemporary social and political comment and that’s a trend that overlaps with much modern rock music. My favourite example is perhaps Jethro Tull who sang one of my favourite songs in “Aqualung” (…sitting on a park bench, eyeing little girls with bad intent…).

That song goes on to extoll the virtues of a cup of tea, so it isn’t all bad! The band leader Ian Anderson was hugely influenced by the folk tradition (Jethro Tull  played several gigs with Fairport Convention). Just listen to Heavy Horses, and Songs from the Wood. Any song on those albums could happily have been played in a smoky bar on the folk club circuit, and often was.

JANE: Ooh…  You’ve punched a button here.  I hate the song “Aqualung.”   Positively.  Passionately.  The image you quote is simply too creepy.  Jim’s had trouble getting me to listen to any Jethro Tull because of that, even though I love the inclusion of flute.

ALAN: Oh it’s a creepy image, no doubt about that, but what the song is actually about is homelessness, not paedophilia. The whole album (which is also called Aqualung) can be regarded as a concept album whose theme is the distinction between religion and God. In many ways it’s an extraordinarily cerebral album. Nevertheless it was one of Jethro Tull’s bestselling works…

Ian Anderson (the singer and flautist) always denied that it was a concept album and as a direct reaction to the idea, he wrote and performed the concept album to end all concept albums Thick As A Brick which had only one song on it which meandered all over both sides of the record and which had a huge number of time and theme changes. I love its pretentiousness and it remains my favourite Tull album.

JANE: I guess I could give it a try…  I wonder why he didn’t call it “Thick as Two Short Planks.”  Never mind, it’s sort of obvious.

What’s interesting to me is that, if I had been asked to classify them, I would have said Jethro Tull was a rock band, not a folk group.  The truth is, there are a lot of groups – both American and British – that wobbled back and forth across that line.

ALAN: Exactly! I think we’re facing the same categorical problem that we struggled with when we tried to define science fiction and fantasy. While the mainstream examples of a genre are quite obvious, it’s on the borders where all sorts of disparate influences can be brought to bear, that the most interesting art takes place. Jethro Tull is perhaps the perfect example. Calling them a rock band is a valid label to hang on them, but it is by no means the whole story.

JANE: Based on what you’ve said – and the flute – I’d agree.

ALAN: One of the reasons that I find the music of my youth so exciting, pretentious though much of it was, is because of that genre crossover.

JANE: What’s interesting is how many groups that would come to be known as “rock” bands came out of folk.  Jim and I recently watched a DVD about Jefferson Airplane that led to us both reading what might be called a biography of the group.

Most of the musicians in the group were originally “folkies.”  Lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen was already an accomplished enough musician that he was teaching guitar.  He claimed that his audition with Jefferson Airplane was his first encounter with electric guitar and a desire to pursue that – rather than any actual interest in joining a band – was why he eventually signed up.

Airplane bassist, Jack Cassidy commented that when they first encountered The Who, whose stage antics included destroying guitars, they were shocked because, I paraphrase, “We came out of the folk  and jazz traditions, where your guitar was sacred, like the altar of your art.”

ALAN: You’re quite right when you say that Jefferson Airplane wasn’t the only group with that kind of background. You can see it, for example, in the music of both The Byrds and The Mamas and the Papas. By the way, do you remember how I mentioned that the British folk groups all knew each other and freely exchanged personnel?

JANE: You bet!

ALAN: Well, I always found it amusing that, to an extent, The Mamas and the Papas and The Byrds had a similar relationship. If you listen to the lyrics of “Creeque Alley”, it documents some of the backwards and forwards movements as they combined and recombined in a search for their musical identity.

JANE: I hadn’t known that.  Janis Joplin eventually became the prototype of the screeching female rocker, sobbing out her pain to the world, but she also started out with a strong folk influence.  I’ve seen a DVD clip of one of the music festivals where Janis Joplin is up on stage wailing out her heart and Mama Cass in in the audience, awe writ large on her face.

ALAN: Oh! I’ve seen that clip. The look on her face is absolutely ecstatic!

There’s another band that I think fits perfectly into this discussion, but I’m afraid you’ll shout at me if I start talking about them…

JANE: I promise I won’t but, sadly, I need to go off and actually do some work.  Can you save it for next time?

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2 Responses to “TT: Folk? Rock?”

  1. Chad Merkley Says:

    My feeling is that those terms were invented or appropriated by record companies for marketing purposes, rather than accurately describing the music itself. It’s an economics-based label, rather than an artistic or philosophical one. What the songwriter/performer wants or envisions may be overwhelmed by the producer’s decisions, the marketing hooks, the studio musicians available, the artist’s existing fan base….

    Of course, virtually all art (whether based on a philosophical system or not) has as at least some degree of economic self-interest inherent in it. Jane, as a professional writer, certainly understands that. I think artists in all media have the problem of being original, but not too original. They have to be stylistically consistent enough to maintain an existing following, but they also have to be inventive and original enough to be interesting and to stand out, somehow. It’s economic decisions versus artistic decisions.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      Hi Chad,

      Absolutely agree with you… Marketing categories can be a blessing for retailers and shoppers, because it tells buyers where to go to find something. However, when reviewers start reviewing based on whether or not something fits into a set category or is new enough…

      Then we have a problem in that shopping expectations begin to mess with creativity.

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