This past Tuesday, I started studying music history, a required class in my current course. One of the first topics in the class is one that has been sending shivers down my spine since I started reading about it. It's led me through a whole range of emotions, and to the point of tears (which I'll talk about later).
The word 'folk' probably conjures up images of some hillbilly strumming away at his banjo, screeching at the top of his cancerous lungs about his lost dog. Or some Irish people dancing around a fire to a badly tuned fiddle, drinking copious quantities of alcohol. That's not entirely incorrect, but there's far more to it than that. What if I told you folk music is still sung and performed today by artists like Jason Mraz, Dave Matthews and Tom Morello? Interested now? Read on.
The Folk Process
What is folk music? As defined by the New Oxford American dictionary...
The important bit is 'unknown authorship' and the way it is transmitted. Probably a much better explanation of folk music comes from the Folk Process, and is best here;
The Folk Process in Recreation
Because folk music has been largely an oral tradition, the songs have changed with each successive generation. This collective changing of a song is called the folk process, a sort of communal re-creation. Recreation in re-creation.
The process is not unlike genetics, in that slight mutation in the songs constantly occur but few versions survive the test of time. This is significant because such stories and songs therefore reflect the morals, ethics and humor of a large group of people, which a book could never do.
- page 3, Music History, © 2011 Full Sail University.
You'll notice that neither of these definitions had any reference to genre. As a result of the way these songs were passed on, they can't claimed by any one person, or even any genre. Folk songs can exist in any genre. The most important aspect of folk songs, is that they usually tell a story. The way the story is told reflects on the people who passed the songs on, giving them real history and emotion.
Historically, music was not a commodity. The modern commercialization of music has diluted the traditional roles and social importance of music. The history books may have been written by the victors, but folk music tells the loser's side of the story. And both are of equal importance.
- paraphrased, pages 1 and 5, Music History, © 2011 Full Sail University
I couldn't agree more. Today music has lost most of it's value, even as a commodity. Particularly in South Africa, music is undervalued. The artists themselves, our modern day storytellers, are also undervalued, and have to go to greater and greater lengths just to get by. Now you could argue many reasons for this, probably chief amongst them is the music industry prostituting itself for the sake of profit. It's no wonder the common person no longer values music. The consequences are huge, but I won't be going into them here, except for one.
The Death of Folk Music
While folk music isn't totally dead and gone, it's pretty clear it's nearing it's final death spasms. I am a huge believer in songs that tell stories. Listening to music and letting it speak to you. To see that pass away and be replaced by senseless, over-produced hits is going to be a massive shame, and one the majority of the world would let slip by without noticing.
Perhaps the music industry will crash and burn, flooded by too much of the same trash, with not enough people willing to buy it. Perhaps that would be a good thing, as it might again leave music to the storyteller, who writes not for fame or fortune.
Whatever the case, time will tell. We can mourn over those things later. What I really wanted to show you is two traces of folk music found today that give me a bit of hope.
A Hard Rains A Gonna Fall (aka Lord Randall)
Bob Dylan's version of the song is based on the song, Lord Randall. No-one knows who wrote the song, but it was collected as part of the Child Ballads, a collection of English and Scottish ballads, and their American variants, by Francis Child in the nineteenth century. The earliest known publication of the song dates back to an Italian version published in 1629 by Camillo il Bianchino, in Verona. But that's just the first known publication. The song more than likely dates back further than that.
We're talking about a song that's almost 400 years old or older. If that doesn't chill your spine...
This Land Is Your Land (aka Oh, My Loving Brother)
This is the one that really got me. I'm going to trace it forwards this time, from it's origin, or as far back as anyone can remember. The song's melody originally comes from an African-American gospel hymn, called Oh, My Loving Brother.
If you're up for it, take a listen to these successive versions of the song.
Oh, My Loving Brother, Unknown. While this a modern recording of the song, it's the closest I could find to original. The tune should already sound familiar.
When The World's On Fire, The Carter Family.
This Land Is Your Land, Woody Guthrie.
So what? Woody Guthrie pegged it 45 years ago. That's hardly modern. No offense, Woody. That's what I thought until I heard two modern renditions of the song.
In 2007, Dave Matthews performed with his longtime friend, Tim Reynolds, at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. They released a live recording of the album, Live at Radio City. It is to this day one of my favourite albums of all time. In it, Dave Matthews performs one of his best, Don't Drink the Water. It's probably one of the best songs ever written, in my opinion.
I encourage you to listen to it all the way through. Tim Reynolds is one of the best guitarists alive, and a master of effects. Around 4:16 is when tears came to my eyes. The history of the lyric, combined with the performance was overwhelming for me.
Dave Matthews includes the first verse of This Land Is Your Land within his song. The songs speak on similar topics, and the pair are perfect together. This is folk music.
I didn't hear any Tom Morello
Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine fame) is not only one of the best guitarists alive, but also a prominent activist. This performance at Occupy LA follows from a performance that he did at Occupy Wall Street in October last year.
So is Folk Music Dead?
Probably. Dead or dying at least. However, these sort of performances give me hope, make me wonder about my role as a musician, and the responsibility that we all have in the preservation of our culture and heritage. But that's a post for another day...