Wednesday, March 29, 2023

The Mystery Of Folk Revisited

Ramblin' Scott Cooley here, back to make another long-winded (or should I say mighty-winded) attempt at solving the mystery that is folk music.  I can go on and on about this topic, so buckle up, for this may be yet another long read.  The motivation here is I’ve never quite been able to pinpoint what folk music is or isn’t exactly, and many listeners of my music tend to immediately use this genre as a label for it, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about that.  So, in case you’re not sure either, read on, for I intend to provide some clarity.  

People who are music journalists or reviewers of music or critics tend to talk about anything that features acoustic guitar as folk music.  I’ve been a reader of enough music reviews to know this.  Thankfully, I’m a nobody, and thus my music never gets reviewed.  If it did ever get reviewed, I’d say I wasn’t going to read it, but then I would anyway, and I’d probably see the word “folk” used somewhere in said review, and then be miffed about it.  When you look up a definition of folk, you’ll see “unknown authorship” and “transmitted orally through generations,” so my songs do not qualify for either of these.

There are a bunch of other modifying words you’d have to look up the definitions of to have an idea what qualifies as any of the various subgenres of folk too.  Contemporary folk, indie folk, folktronica, freak folk, industrial folk, alt folk, folk metal, progressive folk, psychedelic folk, neofolk, country folk, folk punk, or anti-folk to name only a few.  Reading lists and definitions add to the confusion for me.  Folk metal sounds oxymoronic, but again, I’d have to look up that definition too to know for sure or at least have more clarity.  Not sure I have the energy to go there.  I’m apathetic about all this, but something makes me care just enough to blog about it.  I wonder what that says about me?  Hmmm…I’m guessing the vagueness bugs me, and I’m unsure if I should take the accusation of the label being applied to my music as an insult or not.

I am sure that with any genre or subgenre and/or style or substyle of music, it will be a challenge to find authoritative definitions.  I can’t even really say off the top of my head what the difference is between a genre and a style, but I do appreciate a good explanation or description of what type of music is being written about.  A part of me thinks there are way too many of these, and they’re always debatable and imprecise, yet, there’s a need for them to exist in the world.  Another one that is challenging to figure out what qualifies as “pop,” but that’ll have to be another post for another time.

I am also sure that just as the dictionary itself is constantly evolving, so are definitions of various types of music.  Classifications and categorizations and labels and comparisons to other artists help people understand what kind of music someone is talking or reading about without hearing it I guess, and in today’s digital consumption world, such words help the algorithms narrow down your taste, which is very helpful when there are millions of new songs to choose from every year.

Like all genres, Folk is broad, conjures up different definitions for different people, and will probably always both evolve and remain ambiguous.  Somewhere in this blog’s post archives, there is at least one other post about this general topic, and I would link to it if I could quickly and easily find it.  Therein lies the problem – we’re lazy and impatient with the technology we’ve become accustomed to – and if I’d only tagged my posts with topics, it would be way easier, but the impatient writer wants to just hit that publish button when done writing and move on.

The word 'folk' conjures up the common man, regular guys, down-to-earth people, average Joes, not necessarily exceptionally trained, talented, skilled, or educated.  Even if you're not like them in many ways, if you show up to a party at their house, they're the types who will still say "come on in."  I've met many folk like this in my life, especially in Flint, the home of the blue-collar man who will help you fix your car even if he doesn't know you.  These are not the types of people who like folk music though.  

I've probably come into contact with more folk musicians than I have fans of folk music.  Based on what I've run across, I'm of the opinion that in reality, the folk musicians of today are usually exceptional in those aforementioned ways, and are not typical or normal, but rather, closer to aristocrats.  They can be uppity, snooty purists who are close-minded.  They don't care for rock music strummed on acoustic guitar with bass and drums.  I'll admit it:  they bug me.

Due to the fact that I record my songs using all acoustic instruments and microphones because I just like the way they sound better than if I used electric or virtual digital instruments, some people automatically want to call it folk music.  I like to keep it real, and I want people to know I play everything myself and don’t cheat in any way.  I like knowing there’s some honesty and skill and talent, and don’t want people to think I just clicked a mouse on a computer to make my music or whatever.

Despite others wanting to categorize my music that way, just because it's acoustic doesn't mean it's folk in my way of thinking.  This kind of thing bugs me, because I think folk bugs me, folk fans bug me, and folk musicians bug me, for reasons that sort of remain a mystery to me.  It also bugs me that I find it difficult to succinctly say why, so here I go again, trying to think it through.

In my own mind, and sometimes verbally or in writing, I'm a stereotyper, I admit it, and I know it can be hurtful and all, but it comes naturally to a lot of people to at least form stereotypes in their minds based on observation and experience, whether they talk (or type) about them or not.  Not all stereotyping is bad though.  When you distribute your albums to online music stores, some of them expect you to supply them with a list of genres and styles so they can classify it to make it findable, which is understandable.  Others do it for you.  When such stores get my music, they often label it folk and therein lies not only frustration for me, but for music seekers.

It's been difficult to describe my music to people in a way that might interest them.  The best way I can think of is reminding them of the show on MTV called "Unplugged" on which rock bands known for electric guitars played acoustic instead.  I really loved this stripped-down sound, as if the band came over to your house and was jamming sitting around in your living room.  

Detractors thought these shows were disappointing because the bands they knew "didn't rock hard enough" like on their albums or normal live shows.  A lot of people who saw the show also realized these guys didn't sound so good without all the effects and everything, maybe that they weren't as good at singing and playing as the studio records made them out to be.  Perhaps noticing for the first time what those songs must have sounded like when they were first written.

Indeed, many established bands later in their careers release "demo versions" of songs that were hits, and from them you can hear what they were like when first written.  To me, this is very cool stuff I love to hear, and often enjoy these types of versions better than the fully-produced ones.  When you take away all the polish and sheen, you hear the song for what it is, it's essence I suppose.  That's really appealing to me, and I'm not sure why.

Needless to say, the unplugged shows and demo version releases have been a big influence on the sound I attempt to achieve with what I consider to be my main studio album releases.  I’ve explained in this blog before that I’m not averse to the sound of electric guitar, but prefer writing and recording on acoustic.  I like to go for a real, natural, raw, organic type of overall sound without using autotune or quantization or tons of digital effects editing, and that same approach is why I’m not crazy about using a bunch of electric guitar pedals because they sound farther from being real to me.  

Now that we have Artificial Intelligence writing good songs for us, I want to stay far away from anything fake or robotic.  All the digital trickery and virtual instruments can make someone sound way better than they would otherwise sound if just playing live in a room with only acoustic instruments, and I certainly could benefit from that, but I prefer a clean and natural sound for my signature sound.  I think a part of the rationale is that if I ever wanted to do shows, I want to be able to play my songs solo and live with an acoustic guitar and no backing musicians, so even though my studio recordings sound like there’s a band, it wouldn’t sound drastically different because the acoustic guitar is the main instrument anyway.  As a music fan, however, I do enjoy listening to electric guitar music, and sometimes those effects like distortion, chorus, delay, flanger, phaser, or reverb, etc. can without a doubt sound pretty cool.

To get people interested in your music, you have to describe it, and therein lies the trouble I have.  However I attempt to describe it, when you make it available for sale in online music stores, those stores sometimes categorize it for you.  Even when I have control over it, it's challenging.  It's made me wonder though, could it be that the music I release on my albums actually is folk, and "they" are right, and I'm wrong?

I think I previously blogged about the difficulty I have with figuring out what folk music is, and I decided to blog about that topic some more here to see if I can figure it out better.  When you're an artist like me, you write songs you like, assuming it's been influenced by the kinds of music you like as a fan or have been exposed to somehow, but not really paying much attention to what kinds of songs they are.  

I grew up mostly listening to what is now called classic rock.  With an open mind (and ear) I later came to enjoy lots of genres of music, including what I think is folk.  However, folk has to this day (many decades later) remained a mystery to me.  

Defining it is so difficult, but I'll give it a quick try:

·       serious singing (outstanding vocal chops, duos and groups doing intricate vocal harmonies)

·       serious guitar playing (formally-trained fingerpicking on small body acoustic guitars)

·       serious subject matter (battles, tragedies, disasters, supernatural events, murders, work songs)

·       serious lack of percussion (maybe a tambourine at most, but no drums allowed)

My music rarely if ever features any of those four, and it's rarely very serious.  When I have played live where there are a lot of folk fans and/or folk musicians present, I've intentionally tried to play my more serious songs, and they never get a good reaction.  I think these people are purists, and delivering serious subject matter on an acoustic guitar, but in a strumming rock style, just isn't acceptable to them or something.  The only way I can ever get a positive comment from this type of crowd is to play one of my really funny songs.  Those always work.  It's frustrating though.

·       The form:  There is a common folk song format known as AAA, which is basically three verses, typically with a refrain as the last line of each (many variations possible).  I've written several of these, and even tried to finger pick them (although I'm not formally trained), but they never seem to work well.  I don't know why.

I think I just have some sort of aversion, they don't jive with me somehow.  All I can liken it to is that there was a friend of mine I used to jam with who was a really good rock bass player, and every time I played a blues song - thinking that's an easy type of song for people to easily jam along with - he would get lost.  He confided in me that he always has difficulty playing blues with people, and it was hard for him to explain, but he just could never really get into a groove with that type of song.  So, I know this kind of thing can happen - even to great musicians - and I have to conclude this must be how I am when it comes to folk songs.

There are some artists whose music you can safely label as folk without argument from anyone:

·       Woody Guthrie

·       Pete Seeger

·       Peter, Paul & Mary

·       Kingston Trio

Add drums and electric instruments, and you get folk-rock such as:

·       The Byrds

·       Bob Dylan (after he "went electric")

If folk-rock is folk music played on electric instruments, would rock music played on acoustic instruments be rock-folk then?  And if said rock-folk also has drums, then what do you call it?  You might think to be called rock-folk it technically should be rock music played in a folk style without drums, right?  The logic is there, but it's not black and white.

The grey area is where my music falls.  It's acoustic, and it has drums, and the songs are more rock than folk.

Back to folk though, and don't even get me started on what Americana is, folk has roots in music immigrants brought with them from Europe to this country from places like Ireland.  There, those songs were referred to as "ballads," even though many of them were really fast, further adding to the confusion.

Can't leave out of such a discussion a few other important aspects of defining folk:

·       the oral tradition (passing songs on from one person or generation to another, sharing via singing without the benefit of sheet music or recordings)

·       the uncultured, commoner thing (music of the uneducated, lower classes)

·       the isolated, rural thing

These points seem pretty far from describing present day folk artists.  My guess is that in reality, today's folk musicians learn from recordings, sheet music, the internet, and formal lessons.  Further, I'm guessing they're a fairly well-educated bunch, more likely to have higher levels of education than rock musicians, for example.  Far from being "peasants," folk folks are probably middle class (or higher) types nowadays who are fairly sophisticated.   Some might even be more inclined to perceive them as elitists as compared with artists in other genres.  Most of the folk scenes I've run across are a part of university towns and big cities, so these areas are far from the sparsely-populated areas of the country.

Then there's this last aspect:

·       the "world" music thing (culturally exotic, includes just about anything, vague)

This one is completely confusing, but I take it to mean you can be a folk artist from America or Ireland and still throw in a Caribbean song in your reperatoire and have that be acceptable.  Maybe it also includes permission to sing a song in a language other than English as well, such as Spanish.

What am I getting at here?  After a bit of soul-searching, I think I envy folk musicians for several reasons.  I wish I could sing and play guitar as well as they can.  I wish I could write more serious songs like they can.  I have an appreciation for the old-timey stuff, even though I would be hard-pressed to define that too.  I think it bugs me that the serious folkies don't ever rock out.  It seems that bluegrass and blues are somewhat acceptable to them, but not rhythm & blues, soul, or funk, for example.  

When you think of the 60s and hippies and baby boomers and the folk revival, you think of people who should be open-minded, welcoming of all styles of music, and inclusive.  The modern-day folkies seem to be pretty particular about what they approve of though.  You would think it would be ok with them if you're not a great guitar player, not a great singer, not formally trained, but hey, you're trying.  The self-taught, do-it-yourselfers experimenting with different styles should be respected, you would think, but for some reason, they're not.

There were a lot of people born in the 50s, and being in the generation behind them has been frustrating.  They took all the good jobs, and never retired, for one thing.  When I see an old white guy with a beard and a guitar - and he's wearing a beret - I cringe a bit.  I've met so many like that, and you know darned well what kind of music they like to listen to and to play - that serious shit with finger picking.  They're just not my kind of average joe.  They seem to look down their noses at those who are different than them.  

This awesome video from SNL:  hilariously reveals in a fake game show the issues younger generations have with boomers.  Contestants with master's degrees working at fast food restaurants compete for social security while boomers taunt them with their home ownership and debt-free college degrees, and they only win if they don't interrupt them.

A part of me knows there have always been these generational differences.  The generation before them, like my grandparents' generation, didn't approve of men wearing an earring.  Later on, old people didn't approve of the crazy piercings and tattoos you see kids sporting today.  Somewhere in between, especially old white people, couldn't understand black kids pulling their baggy pants down low on their waists and showing their underwear.  Heck, there was a time when old guys who were baseball fans didn't approve of young guys wearing a baseball hat backwards, back when that was cool for a while.

The pop music of today is just so much drastically different than the pop music of the 60s or 70s.  Today's old folk guys wearing berets probably didn't like the Monkees, and instead were getting a kick out of discovering old field recordings from Alan Lomax.  There's nothing wrong with that.  I'd much rather listen to the Monkees though, than today's top 40 pop acts.  

I have a feeling that every generation grows up on popular music of their time, but always grows to appreciate the decade before.  I was born in 67, so started buying records and getting into music in 77, and then the 80s were pretty crazy - from hard rock to disco to punk rock to new wave to hair metal.  I've always really loved the rock from the late 60s and early 70s though, and even discovered some classic country from that era that I liked as well.  I even went back far enough to appreciate the 50s guys like Hank Williams and Chuck Berry.

I still have a sort of feeling of mistrust toward anyone who doesn't like two bands though:  the Beatles and Led Zeppelin.  The greatest from each of my favorite decades.  The hard -core folk people seemed to have totally bypassed and disregarded that stuff though.  It's a mystery as to why.  I'm sure today's teens can't fathom people not liking Justin Timberlake or Beyonce or Justin Beiber or Billie Eilish or Drake or The Weeknd (or whomever is popular these days) though.  So, I kind of get it, and I kind of still don't.

I can't not talk about Jazz in all of this too.  The Jazz cats, like the Bluegrass boys, are known to have great chops, their musicianship always respected, in a similar way as the folkies, if I'm not mistaken.  This is a genre I have a great appreciation for - it's totally American, and I love the improvisational part of it.  To me, the Jazz musicians don't seem elitist like the folkies though.  Maybe they are too, but they seem like more down-to-earth, regular guys.  They like to have fun.  Not afraid of trying new things, giving new ideas a chance.  Just an impression I have, not sure how accurate it is.

Whatever people are into, I'm all for it.  I like to be really accepting and encouraging to younger songwriters and musicians, even when their style isn't my cup of tea.  I should point out that as a music fan myself, I like lots of good songs from lots of genres and styles of music.  I try to find something to like in anything I hear.  I'm open to trying out new kinds of music.  It's fine with me if people are totally different than me.  If they get into a certain type of music, or become involved as a musician in some way or another, that's cool.  I have friends who never write songs, play only electric guitars, and are happy spending hours and hours trying to nail an Eddie Van Halen solo.  Not for me, but more power to them if that's what they like.

Folk artists always throw in some funny novelty songs into the mix, and those are great, so it can't be said they are so serious they don't appreciate humor.  Otherwise, though, they just seem to have this better-than-thou attitude toward guys like me - a generation younger recording rock music on an acoustic guitar...with drums, heaven forbid.  My style isn't for them, and they let me know it - usually very indirectly.  I always think they'll show me some encouragement, but they never want to give me the time of day.  They just simply do not care about the kind of music I make.

Acoustic rock with bass and drums?  In too many worlds at once, too hard to wrap your head around, things that shouldn't go together?  Is the reaction like Pete Seeger getting mad at Bob Dylan and pulling the plug on his Newport show?  Don't get me wrong - I love that folk expresses culture, and I love the protest aspect that can serve as a powerful check against authority, like the press has against the government.  I just don't like the fact that there seem to be so many invisible boundaries in folk, which is supposed to be the voice of the people in a free world.  Don't fence me in, and don't treat me like a trespasser.

I should just do what I do and not worry about how to describe it to people.  When it's mis-categorized online with the "folk" tag though, people won't get what they expect.  Lately, I've started to think of it as garage rock, because it's sloppy and imperfect and has a certain spirit and attitude about it, and it's pre-punk in that the songs are not super fast, but the only weird thing is my music doesn't feature electric guitars, which is an important ingredient of punk and garage.  If I would play electric instead of acoustic on my recordings though, I would feel like it needed really good drumming, and I only have a minimalist hand percussion kit, so that wouldn't quite cut it.  You can't be good at everything.

If you self-identify as a songwriter where I'm from, and you go out looking for others, you inevitably end up hanging out with baby boomer folkies, and that's where I've found cold shoulders.  I have no idea what it's like in Nashville.  I expect if I went there, trying to get into the songwriter scene there, I'd quickly develop a similar attitude.  I have a negative prejudice about this style they call "bro country," and I imagine I'd be disappointed that they wouldn't welcome someone like me into their world either.

A welcome shift has begun to occur in my local scene recently, so there is hope.  I've noticed the old white folkie guys who frequent the open mic scenes at bars now have gradually been replaced by old white classic rock guys more and more.  Every single one of them knows how to play the song Amie by Pure Prairie League, I guarantee it.  More stereotyping, but more palatable to my tastes.  I'm a hypocrite, I know.  I think it's awesome they're out there going for it though, whatever they want to play.

If you can remember back in the days when there were brick and mortar record stores, and then imagine yourself owning one all of a sudden.  You have a bunch of records and you have to label them in sections, grouping similar ones together, so it's easier for people to find what they like.  You have to call it something.  I just can't figure out what mine should be yet, but if it's in Folk, the New Main Street Christy Minstrel Singers fans will probably be bummed if they bought my records.

My music is definitely not folk, then, I've decided it, even though a few songs would definitely qualify.  Neil Young did albums where the entire album focused on a certain style - folk, country, rock, rockabilly, blues, etc., so they were fairly easy for record store owners to place.  It's way harder when you have one of each on the same album - that's how my albums are - maybe a little bit of everything.  I like albums like that.  Most people don't though.  They don't want the Stray Gators, The Bluenotes, the Shocking Pinks, CSNY, and Crazy Horse all on the same album, I get it.  It's a challenge.  The lesson?  Wait until I have a bunch of similar songs, then release them all on the same album.  People like that better.

So, back to what folk is.  The 2003 mockumentary "A Mighty Wind" really nailed how easy it is to make fun of folk.  I loved this movie.  Laughed my ass off.  It shows how folkies can definitely be "smug", so I know it's not just me who thinks this.  Every stereotype you can think of is covered in a hilarious way.  The music is really good, too.  Even though it features original music that totally pokes fun at the whole genre, they're excellent songs in spite.

It reminds me that when I wrote what I thought was a satire of a country song, "Puttin' Up A Pole Barn," friends of mine who were country fans thought it was actually a really good country song!  You can try to capture the essence of what something is, and in coming up with your own version of it as a parody, it can accidentally become something that seriously qualifies.

Today's folkies will tell you about how much they believe in equality and inclusiveness in the world, while at the same time be very discriminating about who belongs in their folk world.  They are a class of people who might like to think they're plain, but are far from it.  It's a paradox, and they know the meaning of that word, unlike the common man.  Pseudo-intellectual, college-professor types who love NPR and PBS and study music theory are far from the image of the uneducated, hardworking, moonshine-drinking original hillbillies in overalls playing old Irish ballads on homemade fiddles they brought to West Virginia from the old country.  Folk has come a long way.

The bottom line here is, as a young generation x songwriter hitting the open mic and songwriter scene dominated by condescending baby boomer folkies, I was startled by how rudely I was treated by them, and about how consistently they made me feel like I didn’t belong, and subsequently formed a negative stereotype in my mind about them I’ve had ever since.  There are exceptions like Joel Mabus, who has a great sense of humor and went out of his way to be cool to me, and I realize stereotyping is mostly a terrible thing to ever do.  In subtle ways, however, most let me know I wasn't allowed in their club, despite my aspirations and efforts.  The Mighty Wind movie proves I'm not the only one who thinks those folks take themselves way too seriously and need to lighten up!

I’m a purist when it comes to some things, and I’m guilty of not always maintaining an open mind to change, and I occasionally end up sounding like a grumpy old man.  For example, I love the sport of Tennis, and to me it is a shame that people turn perfectly good tennis courts into basketball courts or, even worse: pickleball courts.  So, I’m the Pete Seeger of pickleball.  Times change, trends happen, people plug in, etc.  I love the fact that certain songs become "standards” – which is yet another thing about music that is hard to define.  

I know some of what were once considered folk are now also considered standards.  Oldies, public domain, traditional, unknown authorship, passed on through generations orally (or by recording).  Standing the test of time is a great thing about the oral tradition of folk, and now in the era of recorded music, the same can be said for standards.  Perception is key.  In my mind, when I think standard, I think Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Willie Nelson comes to mind, Dylan too.  In the future, you wonder if any of today’s hip-hop and rap become standards?  Maybe.  What about death metal?  Not as likely, but who knows? 

It's only when you tell the world you have some recorded music available that anyone cares how it’s described.  When you distribute to Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube Music, Amazon Music, etc., they want you to classify, categorize, describe, tag, put in some keywords for genres and styles, and this forces you to think about it and realize it’s difficult to explain your own music.  Since it has to be done, you need to think ahead of time about what you sound like, who you sound like, how their music is described, etc.  I don’t really care, and now that I’ve typed though my thoughts about folk and whether my music is or isn’t, I realize I don’t care either way.  

The risk is that the label of folk may make close-minded people immediately dismiss it, and not give it a chance.  For example, when they see it’s described as folk, they might instantly write it off as a genre they don’t like, and automatically think of Pete Seeger or the Kingston Trio, and then not ever try it out.  Rock fans would never then learn that I’m far from artists like them, like way less hokey-pokey or kumbaya-ish, and instead have way more rock in there.  You don’t want people to be turned off and get the wrong idea before giving it a fair shake.

So, yeah, wrapping up the mightily long-winded read here, as a music fan, popularity that endures is what is most appealing to me, regardless of genre, and if people describe it as folk, that’s fine by me.  If people describe my music as folk, this too is fine by me.  If people don’t think I belong being associated with folk, also fine by me.  I mostly play an acoustic guitar, I’m American, I like to have bass and drums in my music too, I’m influenced by roots music, whatever that means to you.  To end with a quick pun, I probably won’t revisit the folk topic again, so I’m not going to fret it any more.