Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Last Folk Music Record

Photo by David Gahr

I should like to consider the folk song and expound briefly on a theory I have held for some time, to the effect that the reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people.  Tom Lehrer (1959)

Remember the great folk music scare of the ’60s?  That was close!  That garbage almost caught on.  —Martin Mull (1977)

Whatever happened to folk music?  You know, the individual singer or group of singers facing a microphone and playing one or more acoustic guitars, chanting songs with easily heard, meaningful lyrics and with simple, minimalist accompaniment.  When it broke onto the commercial scene in the late 1950s/early 1960s, the stripped-down musical presentation avoided the showiness and ostentation of heavily orchestrated mainstream pop, compelling the listener to focus on the lyrics.  To ardent fans, folk music was a music of honesty and, to some, a music of social commitment. 

So, what happened to folk music?  Okay, one answer to that question is that all music is folk music because music is always made by folks.  But leaving that idea aside, back in the 1970s, I used to believe that something called “folk music” survived as a commercially successful enterprise up to that time.  

The usual music histories say that American “folk music” — rural music performed for urban audiences — acquired its commercial impetus with the emergence of the Weavers’ big orchestrally polished hits for Decca Records, “Goodnight, Irene” and “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” in 1950, but a few years later, the group members’ (especially Pete Seeger’s) past as left-wing activists made them a casualty of the McCarthy-era Red Scare.  Folk music wouldn’t come back into commercial prominence until the Kingston Trio’s 1958 all-acoustic chart-topper “Tom Dooley.”  After that, apparently due to the simplicity of needing only a voice and something strummable in order to put an act together, the college coffeehouses and the musical marketplaces were inundated with groups or individuals singing vintage songs accompanied by acoustic guitars. 

The acts seemed to fall into two categories: the clean-cut bearers of sweet harmonies obviously striving for mainstream marketability (the Kingston Trio, the Limeliters, the Brothers Four, etc.) and the rough-around-the-edges troubadours — in effect, the devotees of bohemian balladeer Woody Guthrie — who approached their music with a passion, conviction, and sometimes political perspective that seemed to place popular appeal on the back burner (such as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and especially Bob Dylan), with Peter, Paul, and Mary occupying a sort of middle ground (both polished and politically conscious).  But, the history books say, folk music as a popular commercial enterprise began dying off after the Byrds introduced folk-rock with their cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Dylan himself went electric at the acoustic Newport Folk Festival, both occurring in 1965 and both occurring as a reaction to the very influential British rock & roll “invasion” of the year before.  

Also important was Dylan’s inverse influence on rock’s biggest act, the Beatles, prompting greater lyrical richness and more acoustic arrangements in the band’s songs (such as “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” [1965]), further blurring any distinctions between rock and folk. (Of course, folk music and rock & roll, both in the United Sates and in the United Kingdom, were never very far apart to begin with: in the U.S., both musical genres were influenced by country blues performers like Blind Lemon Jefferson, and U.K. rock grew out of the folk-based skiffle movement.)  Afterwards, the well-known American performers who first gained fame as folk singers, the story goes, were gradually absorbed into rock & roll or country & western.

But growing up in the 1970s, I thought that folk music held on as a high-profile phenomenon for a little while longer.  A large part of that might have been because my older brother played the guitar and hung around other guitar players.  So, I was used to being around acoustic guitar players strumming a well-known folk song or an unplugged take on a familiar rock record. 

Also, the largest, most popular section of my local record store (back in the LP days) was labeled “Rock & Folk,” which instantly put folk music on the same level as the ultra-hip rock music that dominated the radio airwaves.  Included in this section of the store were not only established folk-music figures like Baez, Judy Collins, and Gordon Lightfoot, but also more recently established artists like James Taylor, Jim Croce, Steve Goodman, John Prine, and Janis Ian: artists who sang their own compositions to acoustic-centered arrangements with unobtrusive electric and percussion accompaniment.  To me, this was also folk music.  Backing up my impression was the fact that perhaps the biggest act of the mid-’70s, John Denver, described the kind of music that he wrote and played as folk.  Even acoustically grounded “soft” rock bands like America struck me as playing more in a folk idiom than a rock idiom.  “Folk” became not only a traditional type of song, but a kind of acoustic-guitar-based performance style for recently written material as well. 

But by the end of the 1980s, performers who identified themselves as “folk musicians” tended to be lesser-known, non-mainstream artists who recorded for small labels and for a niche market: Stan Rogers, Kate Wolf, Eric Bogle, and so on.  The more famous acts, such as Taylor or Denver or Paul Simon were now filed together with the rock artists or the country artists — or even, in some cases, with “easy listening.”  Today, iTunes classifies the artists I mentioned above under “singer/songwriter,” a category that includes such obviously non-folk performers as Billy Joel and Van Morrison.  A category called “folk” seems to be assiduously avoided. 

From what I can tell, popular culture seems to think of folk music in its clean-cut, coffee-house manifestation, after the rise of the Kingston Trio and before the rise of the Beatles: as something square and irrelevant, something to be mocked — from the Martin Mull quote at the top of this blogpost to the risible acoustic guitarists portrayed in such movies as National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and A Mighty Wind (2003).  The Coen Brothers’ sympathetic warts-and-all look at an early-’6os Greenwich Village troubadour in their film Inside Llewyn Davis (2012) is a refreshing change. 

But the American folk music movement of the 1960s was more than merely a commercial flash in the pan, as represented by the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Folk music offered a lyrical depth and relevance that was uncommon in both rock & roll and the adult-oriented Tin Pan Alley pop of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.  It’s difficult to imagine issue-driven rock songs of the 1960s like Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” (1965) and the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” (1967) without the infusion of folk’s lyric-centered spirit.  Before then, rock was a kind of music where the beat was often more important than what the singer said (“Da Doo Ron Ron,” anyone?).  While the lyrics were sometimes significant in early rock & roll songs, they became consistently so after Dylan went electric and recorded such songs as “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965), where the music and the beat clearly took a back seat to the song’s caustic poetry. 
So, I have to wonder: Would 1960s rock music have been such a fertile ground for lyric-driven discontent surrounding the Vietnam War if it hadn’t been for the prosodic edge that Dylan and other folk performers brought to it?  The answer, my friend, is… 

Oh, never mind.  

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