Rediscovering the Folk in Folk Music

Maybe we need to re-find the plain-spoken stories and feelings that spoke to our ancestors. Maybe music needs to be less about who we are and more about what we are.
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Ironically, just before Bob Dylan killed folk music, he tried to revive it.

His debut album in 1962 featured only two original songs; Dylan was causing a buzz in small clubs singing old American folk songs -- a stark contrast to the rising tide of electrified rock 'n' roll (though, of course, that was based on acoustic roots music itself). Soon, however, his own poetic songs became the stars and the dusty old folk songs laid back to rest, a few million shovelfuls of dirt piled on them and the term "folk music" became synonymous with acoustic guitar-wielding singer-songwriters in the Dylan mold.

The former Robert Zimmerman was not the only one with his hand on the dagger that polished off folk music. The musical-industrial complex, the "star-making machinery" in Joni Mitchell's words, rarified music and yanked it from the people, the "folk" in original folk music. Where was the money in handing down songs from generation to generation? No one paid royalties on work songs and field hollers.

So now we have music that makes a clear delineation between performer and audience, rock star and fans. Despite a few bumps on the road -- notably the early punk movement -- the stage has gotten higher and the audience more distant. Even karaoke, which seems to be everyman music, is really just a chance to masquerade as a rock star and the ubiquitous nervous laughter hints at our knowledge that we are breaking the laws of popular music.

On one traditional song from the recent album by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Genuine Negro Jig (Nonesuch), the narrator has little in the world, but still savors it: "Cornbread and butterbeans and you across the table/Eating them beans and making love as long as I am able." It seems quaint, but also more.

This trio of young black musicians are exploring music from North Carolina called Piedmont music. At first listen, it sounds like bluegrass, which we usually associate with white rural population, but Piedmont music was a predecessor, enjoyed by blacks and whites and played on the banjo, which itself was a descendent of instruments from Africa.

The interest in world music has been, in part, a revival of traditional music from around the world. In Scandinavia, there is a small, dedicated network of musicians, many now academy trained, making "folk music of the future." While they are bold enough to push and pull the music into new shapes, there is a raging humility among these re-inventors, whose instinct is to collaborate not individuate.

The unassuming-looking musicians in Väsen from Sweden take old dance rhythms such as polkas and, through an almost telepathic ensemble playing, venture into a territory that seems like the intersection of folk, chamber and jazz. Despite the delicacy, there is still a faint scent of hay from these old tunes that used to raise the dust at innumberable Saturday night barn dances.

Likewise, the Irish instrumental band Lunasa also builds on traditional tunes -- while the individual players are all masterful, they don't solo as much as move the song along in a sort of group improvisation -- it has the camraderie of a friendly seisiun at a pub, even if the players are all concert-hall level.

I'm not advocating that artistic accomplishment should be discouraged. And certainly not all pop or electrified music is soulless. But it's hard not to feel that something has been lost when music becomes only pursued as a spectator sport. We don't need to unearth the recently deceased Mitch Miller and revive sing-a-longs, but maybe we need to realign our expectations and experience of music. Maybe music doesn't have to be the new thing or the cool thing to be worth our precious time. Maybe it needs to be less about who we are and more about what we are.

Maybe we need to re-find the plain-spoken stories and feelings that spoke to our ancestors - and were spoken by our ancestors, instead of trying to squeeze some thrill out of watching million-dollar videos that shout without saying all that much. Maybe we need songs that are written from urgent feelings rather than from mere cleverness. These days, we may break up via Twitter and whisper sweet nothings via Skype, but our operating system, the Windows to our soul, is still human. That's what our music should connect to.

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