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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

My Take On Folk Music

The exposure factor.  If you grew up in the Flint, MI area in the 70's & 80's like I did, chances are you didn't really know what folk music was.  As an adult, I'm still not sure I know, despite people telling me I write folk songs.

When you look up what folk is, you get the impression it is supposed to be played by common, everyday people who are non-trained amateurs that don't have much musical talent or skill.  Definitions for folk make you think of poor people who grew up in remote areas with no formal education who play simple music taught to them by the oral tradition on homemade instruments.

When you go to listen to live folk, you find that the folk music scene is full of very talented, formally-trained singers and players.  Today's folk world is made up of very sophisticated, highly-educated people from urban areas who prefer instrumentally complex music played by the formally-trained, literate and highly-skilled on vintage premium instruments like Martin guitars that cost well over a thousand dollars.
Common people, fitting in & acceptance.  I think of Garage Rock and Punk Rock as a couple of examples of genres where you don't have to be a great writer, player or singer to participate and fit in.  Despite folk's history however, modern folk is the complete opposite of garage and punk, where you are much more likely to find people who know how to read music, who took lessons, who understand theory even.

Liberals and open mindedness. One might surmise that it's historical association with liberals like Pete Seeger would mean it would be an accepting bunch, but then when one learns that Pete himself thought it was terrible that Bob Dylan "went electric" at the Newport Folk Festival in the 60's,  you get a glimpse that there are narrow-minded "purists."  Even though average singers and players with simple songs ought to be accepted, and even though the typical folk crowd is full of people you'd think were very liberal, open-minded and welcoming of those average, simple musicians, in reality, they are elitists with high expectations, narrow-minded in what they want to hear.  Theoretically, if you grew up on a farm and your grandpa taught you three chords and some songs his grandpa taught him on the back porch, even though you can barely sing or play them, it ought to be acceptable for you to show up and play them on an old guitar you bought for twenty bucks in a pawn shop because you're just a regular guy, but I have not found that to be the case at all.

For example,  Once I went to a house concert/guitar pull/hootenany/"in-the-round" songwriter's group/club type of thing, where they take turns playing a song, politely applauding, offering supportive/constructive criticism, and the like.  When I showed up, they were freaked out by my black acoustic/electric guitar, commenting on it in an unusual way where I could feel an implied disapproval.  Guitar snobs, and subject matter snobs, for that matter.  When it was my turn, and I chose to play a love song I'd recently written in verse/verse/bridge/verse format - I'd committed another faux pas.  Apparently, if you're not writing about very serious topics (statement songs, protest songs) or corny humor songs, that's not appropriate either - their subtle feedback indirectly let me know I was in the wrong place.  There's an intimidation factor there that goes against the concept for me - it's a group of very serious people making up a very serious kind of music that ought to be much less serious and sophisticated.  I remember another time I played at an open mic night in a bar in the Lasing, MI area once where it was advertised as an "open" blues jam and when playing my songs, which were bluesy, sad, etc., I had hecklers in the audience booing because I wasn't playing traditional 12-bar blues covers of Muddy Waters songs.  It was bad enough I had an acoustic guitar, but then I had the gall to play originals that weren't 12-bar!  Eventually, I think I threw in an Eric Clapton tune just so they wouldn't throw me out.  So, although my experiences may not have been normal, I'm sure the underpinnings of my stereotypical observations may ring true for many a different music "scene" out there.

Drums & electric guitars;  the "world" thing.  Gotta get the obvious out of the way too -speaking of blues, which is a separate genre, and can be played acoustic or amplified, it also gets included in folk.  Which brings me to a couple of other weird things I've noticed about folk music: one is that if you take away drums and electric instruments from rock, you're pretty much left with folk;  and the other is that somehow a bunch of other, seemingly-unrelated genres, a.k.a. "world" music which is vast in variety, get lumped together.  Neither make sense to me, but that seems to be the way it is.

These are the paradoxes that contribute to folk remaining a mystery to me.  Regardless of my understanding of acceptable folk structures, topics and instrumentation, the bottom line here is that even though my songs and recordings have been described as folk, I don't necessarily agree because a hacker like me doesn't fit in to the modern folk scene.