It began a couple weeks back, when Eliza Gilkyson asked me, "Where does folk music fit within the Americana genre?" She asked it somewhat rhetorically, somewhat quizzically, since she has always regarded herself as a folksinger. I have ruminated on it ever since. Then, as if to drive the point home, this past Wednesday David Rawlings enthusiastically took stock of their performance that evening by stating, "I think we are having a folk music concert here tonight." Coincidentally, I was thinking the same.
So, what is the current status of folk music?
Before there was Americana, there was, of course, folk music. Folk has its own traditions and constraints, and has included many performers who are revered by artists of all styles: Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Peter La Farge, Malvina Reynolds, and Pete Seeger, as well as musicians who some may feel fit better in the blues, like Sonny Terry and Lead Belly. And many more, some still known, some obscure, and others just plain lost. The ones who have been forgotten became so because at its core folk music is local, despite the fact that its better known exponents traveled a great deal and had record deals, albeit mostly small ones.
The themes of folk music included songs hard times, labor strife, war, the land, family, child and murder ballads, social issues, and even love. Folk music has also gone through several revivals, the first one in the 1950s, which elicited this often repeated quote (paraphrased) from Big Bill Broonzy: "It's all folk music. I've never seen any chickens or cows playing music." A bit later, it somewhat homogenized into the American Idol of the pre-Beatles 1960s, via Hootenanny. Yes, some significant figures of the day were on that show, but I revisited the show again some years ago by watching a DVD compilation. What was quickly evident was twofold:
1) The huge numbers of clean-cut college students attending the tapings, some in football stadiums(!); and
2) How clean-cut, sexless, crew cut, and coiffed nearly all of its performers were. It was as if they were telling the country, "Your sons and daughters are not beyond your command. The Kingston Trio is acceptable folk music."
But the real action in folk music began in the late '50s as a sort of extension of the Beats, and is what we remember most today: the New York Greenwich Village days of Tom Paxton, Fred Neil, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Eric Anderson, Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez in Cambridge, up from the south Hazel Dickens and Doc Watson, and two of the ultimates -- Utah Phillips and Rosalie Sorrels. Plus many more, including folk music from other countries. Then, with the advent of folk rock and country rock, it became more urbanized and we saw the rise of the singer-songwriters. Again, folk music morphed.
So now, nearly 50 years later, where are we? Was it mere nostalgia that made Inside Llewyn Davis such a well-regarded film in certain circles? Was it, like folk music itself, a bit too true and obscure to be a commercial hit?
Where I come down is this: folk music is alive and doing pretty well, even if we don't call it by that name. Willie Watson's first solo effort is adroitly titled Folk Singer, Vol. 1 and is patterned after those original Folkways LPs that, to several generations, was the home of real folk music. Folk music is alive at music festivals and smaller venues, practiced by many folks across the country who will likely never become known outside their local communities. It has never gone away. It's played on street corners, pubs, and informal, smaller venues, including neighborhood restaurants.
Folk music is certainly a style that draws upon traditions decades and even centuries old, and perhaps can be better known when we hear it more so than can be defined. It's more a sensibility or state of mind. Or, as is often said about the blues: It's not the way you feel, it's the way you live each day.
This week we feature photos of some current, known folksingers: Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Seasick Steve, the late Hazel Dickens, Laura Marling, Iris Dement, Willie Watson, Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, and Martha Scanlan. Tell us what you think. Add a few names, post a few photos. Follow this column if you like it.