July-August 2008

What's Folk, Anyway?

By Barry Smiler

Hi, and thanks for reading. Steve and Leda have asked me to write an opinion column for FolkWorks, and I'm happy to oblige. FolkWorks is a great resource and I'm pleased to be able to help out in this small way. I hope you enjoy the column. As I understand it, there will be a new one every few months. Mmmmm, fresh electrons for your reading pleasure.

So who am I, anyway? I've produced hundreds of concerts, arranged tours for musicians from all over the world, and was a performing musician myself for a while. I also have experience in technology, business management (for-profit and nonprofit), and marketing. I've traveled some, read some, and talked to a few people along the way. Throughout all this I've tried to pay attention as best I can, and in the course of all this I've formed a few opinions, which I'm happy to share both in this column and in reviews elsewhere in FolkWorks.

But first, a word about words. Everything in print, whether here in FolkWorks or anywhere else, is just one person's opinion, from the smallest zine to the front page of the L. A. Times. It might be presented as if it's Gospel Truth, but it's just one person's perception. And we all know that perception can be a slippery critter. So whenever you read anything, here or elsewhere, you can't go too far wrong in asking yourself, "Do I agree with this? Has the writer convinced me this is actually how it is? Does the writer or the publisher have an agenda? What might they gain by persuading me this is true?" Because sadly, far too often in this transactional commercial world, words in print are just another disguised pitch, for your money or your time or your allegiance. You know what I mean?

Bottom line: grain of salt. Your mileage may vary, and that's fine. I welcome your comments on this column, on the reviews, or on anything else, because your perception is just as good as mine, and probably better. My email is at the bottom of this. Feel free to use it.

Anyway, here we are in FolkWorks. It's interesting, "FolkWorks" - what is that? The "work" part is easy. Work is doing something, like putting together an event calendar or a concert or a magazine. Or a house, or a "work" of art. Work is making something that wasn't there before. So "FolkWorks" is making something, or writing about something, that's "folk."

But what's "folk"? Lots of people have tried to answer that one. Is it something that's "ethnic" (whatever that means)? Acoustic? Unpopular? (Only half kidding here.) What is "folk" anyway? Let's look at some cases.

Bob Dylan is folk? Okay, how about Bob Marley? Libba Cotten is folk? How about James Cotton? James Brown? James Taylor? Rick James? Rick Astley?

It's a worldwide question, not just American music. For example, if you knew that virtually all of their repertoire was written and scored note-for-note by their conductor Philip Koutev in the 1950s, and all their members were paid professionals, would you consider the Bulgarian State Female Vocal Choir to be folk music? If those people are, how about Ladysmith Black Mambazo, for whom founder Joseph Shabalala did the same thing? True, they were inspired by older music from the areas where they lived. But so was the indigenous-inspired music of Bedřich Smetana, Antonín Dvořák, and Leoš Janáček (to name just a few), which is usually described as "classical." Were those composers really "folk" ? And if the choral groups I listed above are "folk," why isn't the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Or is it?

Do you like Hawaiian music? I do. Gabby Pahinui was a paid professional performer for his entire adult life. Was he "folk"? How about Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, whose probably most-heard recording is a cover of the keynote song from a depression-era Oscar-winning movie? Is Iz folk? What about Brother Noland, whose hot rockin' music is equally informed by the soul of the Hawaiian tradition?

How about blues? Here are some great bluesmen: Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton. Which ones are "folk"? How about John Mayall? Jimi Hendrix?

The point of all this isn't to find the right answer to any of these questions. Indeed, there isn't a right answer, and that's the whole point. Because "is this folk" isn't the right question.

Louis Armstrong once said "Man, all music is folk music. You ain't never heard no horse sing a song, have you?" That's what I think too. If you ask me, "folk" is when you're doing it because you like it, as opposed to because you think it'll make money (N'Sync, anyone?). This doesn't mean you can't make money from folk stuff. Indeed, lots of people have made lots of money doing this, including many of the people I mentioned above. And that's fine. But to me, folk is when it's from the heart, not the wallet. Now, "from the heart" is pretty subjective. Probably every single person will have a different take on what's included there. But you know what? That's just fine. Notice also that this neither specifies nor excludes any particular genre, and to me, that's precisely the beauty of seeing things this way.

And that's the beauty of FolkWorks too, which covers all sorts of performers, from all sorts of genres. If it's Good Stuff, like as not it'll be in here somewhere, and I love that. Today, so many publications are narrowly focused on limited areas, and to me that makes less and less sense. Face it, these days everybody has access to everything, in all genres, from all over the world. Everybody listens to and is influenced by everybody else. So in a very real sense, all music is fusion music. FolkWorks, then, is a fusion publication, and to me that makes a lot of sense.

Like everyone else, I listen to whatever I enjoy. And if it's something I think you'd enjoy too, it's likely to be in this column. Is it "folk"? Who cares? The real question is whether it's good.

I hope to share lots of good stuff with you. Hang on to your hat, and let's have ourselves a ride.

Barry Smiler is a former touring musician, retired concert producer, and all around great guy. In his doddering senescence he still retains a few opinions, and occasionally offers them in places like this.


All Columns by Barry Smiler