The Curmudgeon: Is Folk Music Even Possible Anymore?

Music Features

Is folk music even possible anymore?

By “folk music,” I refer not to the diluted meaning of the term, where anyone with an acoustic guitar or a fiddle can be considered a folk musician. I’m talking about true folk music, songs that are created by and for a small, self-contained community, where musicians are performing for friends and neighbors in a style they all grew up with. These folk musicians don’t have to bring out the universal—or generic—elements in their songs because they’re not traveling to play for strangers.

A singer/songwriter who travels the continent with her banjo and Martin guitar is not a folk musician in this sense; she’s a pop musician with different instrumentation. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a very different kind of music-making from the songs of someone who grew up in a community, absorbed the verbal and musical language of the place and reflects that sound back to multiple generations, who in turn let the performer know what they like and don’t like.

I’m asking myself these questions this week, because I’m traveling to Nashville for the Americana Music Festival, a showcase for musicians who try to alchemize folk-music materials into pop-music careers. They’re all looking for the recipe that borrows just the right amount from old, neglected sources and adds just enough modernizing, universalizing innovation. The Festival, which begins on Wednesday and continues through Sunday, explores the murky boundary between folk and pop and what one needs to cross and re-cross that border safely.

Compared to pop music, even in its acoustic, rootsy manifestations, true folk music is likely to address a wider spectrum of age groups and thus a broader range of topics—death, work, weather and parent-child relations as well as the dominant pop topics of romance and partying—and to put less emphasis on novelty. Folk music changes more slowly than pop, but when it does change it often goes off in strange tangents unrelated to any other music in any other place. As the music is passed down from generation to generation, it’s likely to develop peculiar quirks, vocal and instrumental techniques that don’t exist anywhere else. And those eccentricities are what most impress the outsiders who stumble upon a true folk-music scene.

Charles Darwin has taught us that evolution is most likely to happen in small, isolated populations, especially on islands such as Tasmania, Madagascar or the Galapagos, where mutations can take hold without being drowned out by the noise of a larger gene pool. The same is true in music. True originality is more likely to take root in an insular music scene—say, the southwestern Virginia mountains or the north Mississippi hills. Musical mutation is more likely to happen in places where the homogenizing influence of radio, TV, film and the internet are minimal. Is such isolation possible today?

In the 1920s, there were still many such communities in the United States. That was the decade when record-company talent scouts first showed up in places like Bristol, Va., and Jackson, Miss. They were able to document the music of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Son House, Johnny Shines, Clarence Ashley and Dock Boggs in its original “folk” form, when its tales of death and betrayal, when its rough rhythms and odd tonalities were still aimed at local working-class listeners and hadn’t been softened for a broader radio audience.

Rodgers and the Carters were able to adapt to that radio audience, but others couldn’t, and they were still living in the obscurity of their original communities in the ‘50s and ‘60s when a new generation of folklorists set out to find them. Harry Smith gathered up the best of the original recordings for his seminal Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952.

Ralph Rinzler, Nick Perls, Dick Waterman, Mike Seeger, Dick Spottswood and others drove south and found villages and farms where awareness of the world outside their own county was limited. The visitors knocked on doors and asked about long-lost artists rumored to be in the area. The visitors often recorded the musicians they found, and some of those recordings have been released this year in the invaluable Smithsonian Folkways series as Classic Celtic Music, Classic Harmonica Blues and Classic Banjo.

The folklorists also brought many of the artists back north to play at folk festivals alongside younger performers. The liner notes for Bob Dylan’s new box set, Another Self Portrait (1969-1971), describe a moment when the young singer and an aged Clarence Ashley, the Appalachian folk legend, shared a workshop at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. Dylan, Greil Marcus writes, “knows who his audience is that day: far less the people in front of him than this man behind him. This man who more than 30 years before made sly, harsh, all but unanswerable recordings of ‘Little Sadie’ and ‘House Carpenter,’ recordings that, in 1970, as one listens here, it is clear Bob Dylan is doing his best to match. Or maybe escape.”

The unflinching horror and unpretentious surrealism of Ashley’s songs echo so resoundingly in Dylan’s own music that the latter’s songs would have sounded very different without such a role model. And that influence had a different flavor because the younger man got to meet the older and hear him perform in person. Dylan himself was no folk musician, but his pop music had a distinctive character because he had direct contact with true folk musicians. Dylan once expressed sympathy in an interview for Bruce Springsteen, and by implication all younger musicians, who never benefitted from such personal contact, because listening to records is not the same thing.

That’s why the diminishing possibility of folk music in the 21st century is so important: If there are no longer wells of folk-music influence for pop musicians to draw from, our pop music may well be impoverished as a result. And it’s much harder now, in 2013, to unearth a true folk tradition hidden in an isolated community than in 1923 or 1963, because such places are nearly impossible to find. Where can a young singer today go to discover a folk music unhomogenized by mass media? When the teenagers in every Appalachian gas station and every Mississippi convenience store are wearing ear buds, can there be a region isolated enough to evolve its own mutated music?

Perhaps you will say that rock and hip-hop artists are constantly inventing new stories and strange sounds, so what’s the problem? It’s true, pop music is full of innovation—much of it self-indulgent and boring, some of it quite brilliant—but even the best pop innovation is qualitatively different from folk music. Pop invention reflects the efforts of an individual act to distinguish itself in a broad marketplace, while folk music reflects a feedback loop between the artist and a community. True folk music carries the weight of fate, the sense of dangerous desire bounded by the limits of disappointment and death, a tension that pop music barely hints at. And when it does, those hints often come from a face-to-face encounter with folk music.

But how can one preserve those isolated communities that are necessary for true folk music? You can’t, not unless you’re going to ask certain groups to remain poor and out of touch, not unless you’re going to ask the musicians to give up all ambitions of wider success and to remain within their own neighborhoods. All you can do is encourage musicians who know a vanishing folk tradition to keep playing it as accurately as possible, so the rest of us can experience it and add it to our musical DNA. It’s not the same as discovering a vibrant folk tradition, but it’s better than nothing.

Therefore, we should refrain from mocking those who play old styles the same way previous generations did. Of course, anyone who wants to innovate within a tradition should be encouraged to do so, but anyone who wants to preserve the past should be supported just as much. If we don’t have those wells of musical tradition, what would we drink from?

When Ralph Rinzler traveled in 1960 to the Blue Ridge Mountains to record Clarence Ashley for the first time in decades, the folklorist discovered a friend of Ashley’s, a blind guitarist named Doc Watson. Rinzler wanted to record Watson too, but was dismayed when Watson showed up with the electric guitar he’d been playing in local country and rockabilly bands. The folklorist asked the guitarist to obtain an acoustic instrument and play the songs that he had learned growing up in the North Carolina mountains.

Watson obliged his visitor and recorded the tunes that kicked off a long and remarkable career as a virtuoso guitarist and dramatic singer. You can hear parts of that career on two recent reissues: The Definitive Doc Watson and Milestones: Legends of the Doc Watson Clan. The former collects 34 of the best tracks from his Vanguard and Sugar Hill albums on two CDs; the latter collects 94 previously unreleased tracks from the Watson Family archives on four CDs.

There was a time when I thought Rinzler was wrong to ask Watson to put his electric guitar away and return to the acoustic. Why, I thought, should a musician be discouraged from pursuing his muse down whatever path he wanted? But now I’m not so sure. When Watson finally made an electrified rockabilly album in 1995, Docabilly, it was an enjoyable, even admirable exercise. But it wasn’t a classic of the genre the way his acoustic recordings were indelible examples of Southern Appalachian old-time music.

If Watson hadn’t had the career that Rinzler nudged him into, a lineage of mountain music might have been broken. If Watson hadn’t shared the music of his childhood with anyone who was curious, countless musicians from Norman Blake to Clarence White to Marty Stuart might not have had the careers they had. And if Watson hadn’t been playing and singing the Appalachian mutation of the old British folk song, “Matty Groves,” at a concert in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in the spring of 1969, a 16-year-old future Curmudgeon columnist might not have had his mind blown and might not have awakened to the great depths of American music lay beyond the radio.

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