Why I Like the Term 'Folk Music'

by Mark Dvorak

Once upon a time the term ‘folk music’ was used by scholars who collected and documented American indigenous music, mostly in isolated areas and small towns in the South and West. By the 1950s and 60s, ‘folk music’ became all the rage when the flood of traditional and traditional-sounding songs being written and performed, attracted the attention of the music industry. Pretty soon though, ‘folk’ faded from the mainstream and the term is now preserved in part, by little organizations and larger corporations all over North America.

Locally, there’s the Plank Road ‘Folk Music’ Society and the Old Town School of ‘Folk Music.’ Nationally, there’s the North American ‘Folk Music’ and Dance Alliance, and SingOut! The ‘Folk Song’ Magazine

And there are ‘folk’ festivals all over the place. Philadelphia, Winnepeg, Kerrville, Mariposa, Fox Valley and on and on. Even though newer terms like ‘singer-songwriter,’ ‘unplugged,’ ‘roots’ and ‘Americana’ have been introduced, the term ‘folk music’ hangs on. It seems to have its place.

I like the term ‘folk music.’ I like that it means different things to different people. I like its suggestion of commonality, and I like its one-size-fits-all uncertainty. It’s a bit of an oddball and a leftover, and I like that too.

Once an interviewer asked blues giant Big Bill Broonzy if one of the songs he sang was a folk song, and Bill answered, “I never heard a horse sing it.” 

That’s a good one.

Here’s another from English professor and musicologist Bertrand Bronson: "Folk song can be thought of as a rich deposit of our common humanity, laid down centuries deep, layer after layer, by generations of anonymous men and women, who have shared the same cultural heritage. Its value lies not in what individual contributions can be made by outstanding gifted personalities, but in the possession of the essentials of our common human nature."

And this from the great Alan Lomax: "Slowly our folk songs grew, part dream and part reality, part past and part present. Each phrase rose from the deeps of the heart or was carved out of the rock of experience. Each line was sung smooth by many singers, who tested it against the American reality, until the language became apt and truthful and tough as cured hickory. Here lies the secret to their beauty. They evoke the feeling of a place and of belonging to a particular branch of the human family. They honestly describe or protest against the deepest ills that afflict us - the color bar, our repressed sexuality, our love of violence and our loneliness. Finally, they have been cared for and shaped by so many hands that they have acquired a patina of art, and reflect the tenderest and most creative impulses of the human heart, casting upon our often harsh and melancholy tradition a luster of true beauty."

Isn’t that beautiful? 

I think what I like best about the term ‘folk music’ is that is represents something so much larger and far-reaching than what the CD table or the iTunes store can hold. It represents something that flies beneath the radar of the pop charts, and flutters beyond the grasp of The Grammys. The music we call ‘folk music’ has less to do with a given performance and more to do with the ongoing participation of many. It is less about what we aspire to and more about what we collectively value and remember. Our folk music is something we have inherited with the earth and the wind.

To be able the play the blues, I once heard, you have to be born with ‘the blues.’ Well, I wasn’t. And the world of jazz is filled with cats who are hip and cool. I’m not. And rock music has been forever entwined with the dazzle of celebrity life. I don’t care anymore. 

I like folk music. It’s for the rest of us.


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