The fact that I also love lots of music not covered here should, I hope, be neither here nor there to most of our readers. I’ve always avoided the need to live by a pre-described set of rules about what a particular form of music should or needs to be. ALL types of music, no matter how steeped in tradition, are built organically by people who use their intelligence and creativity to develop new ways of doing things. Most of my very favorite musical artists – The Beatles, Thelonious Monk, The Bothy Band, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen – have spent their careers pushing limits, and in most cases being told by traditionalists that they were crossing a line. Great musical artists all, some even, by some definitions, folk artists. But not a “folkie” in the bunch.
If you’re sensing a touch of defensiveness here, correct again. Some may even have noticed the controversy I caused on the Folk Alliance West’s list serve recently when a mention of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, a very talented team of pop songwriters who were very successful in the 1960s, caused an immediate reaction of what I interpreted to be disdain and disgust. The defensiveness might have something to do with the fact that I very much like the Monkees, the group for which Boyce and Hart wrote their biggest hits. “Manufactured pop group” seemed to be the knee-jerk party line, however, despite the fact that among their members was one actual folk musician (Peter Tork) and one genius country-rocker (Mike Nesmith– whose post-Monkees records with his National Band I can’t recommended highly enough).
The result of my defense was not, with very few exceptions, a reiteration of the notion that a great song is a great song, but rather an attack on the Monkees’ music as “schlock.” As if, because they were a band formed for commercial gain, they obviously were not worthy of being taken seriously in a folkie context at all, regardless of what the actual music may or may not have to offer.
Point being, “pop” does not equal “bad,” nor does “folk music” equal “good.” I’ll take the Monkees doing The Porpoise Song, written by contract writers Goffin and King, over one by the thousands of mediocre singer/songwriters out there, some of whom are praised to the heavens because they never had the unmitigated gall to have any form of pop success.
If the people singing songs they learned at their grandpappy’s knee were thinking this was some kind of sacred thing they had to preserve exactly as is, the people who think of it as a set of rules that must be preserved at all costs might have a case. But the folk process that we all know and love is, and has always been, one of growth. It’s not a musical museum.
So, rather than tackle the tiresome issue of “what is folk music,” I’ll instead state what it is not. That, to me, is some insular thing that belongs to a specific clique of people. It is the music of a community, made to express a feeling of community rather than for commercial gain (though obviously it can have both). Rap and hip-hop, which I’ve described as “folk music” in these pages before, were originally developed for just that purpose, for the inner-city African-American community to express some truths about their lives and their community. The fact that it’s now become a commercial proposition – just like protest music in the 60s, just like country music, which wound its way from front porches to the Opry stage to its peak as the biggest selling music in the world at one point in the 90s – changes that not one iota.
When I learned to play acoustic guitar, I learned in an urban high school. What were the folk songs of that time, meaning what did we learn via the process of adapting performances we heard from other musicians? Stairway to Heaven, the beginning of Roundabout and a bunch of Beatles songs. Does this differ in any essential way from learning to frail banjo by being shown by the local musician on his front porch? Other than the fact that we had wider access to electronic recordings, I’d argue that it does not.
To me there have always been two kinds of music- good and bad. And while I might have gone a bit overboard accusing the entire Folk Alliance of snobbery (to which one person referred to me, rather hilariously, as an “anti-snob snob”), I always get my back up when I sense that people are saying that music that sells a lot of copies is automatically suspect, or that music that’s recorded in the Appalachians on a small hand-held microphone is automatically superior to music recorded in an expensive LA studio. One of the greatest songs ever written, Strange Fruit, has been a pop hit several times over, and had more in common with songs of the Tin Pan Alley of the time than anything Alan Lomax was collecting. I never tire of reminding people of that fact. Not to deny that the snobbery works both ways. Often much worthwhile music is dismissed for no other reason than “it’s not very ‘rock and roll.’” As you might guess, this bothers me every bit as much.
And I fully accept that there are people out there-including readers of this very column- who simply have a preference for music that represents specific cultures or ethnicity, or a taste for acoustic instruments over rock bands with drums or orchestras. But they need to not forget that that’s personal taste- not a set of rules that everybody needs to live by if they want to be taken seriously by the others in the community that they share.
Dave Soyars is a guitarist, electric bass player, a singer/songwriter, and a print journalist with over fifteen years experience. His column features happenings on the folk and traditional music scene both locally and internationally, with commentary on recordings, as well as live shows, and occasionally films and books. Please feel free to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org