These are some thoughts on folk music, specifically the term “folk music”. What meanings does it carry in our current cultural moment, and how do these meanings change when it’s used in different communities with different values? It’s a conversation I’ve had many different ways with many different people, so I don’t expect to resolve it today. I’ll likely write about this in the future, perhaps with a completely different perspective, but in this post, I want to explore some answers to this question: What is the relationship between folksinger and folksong? Along the way, I’ll take a handful of my favorite modern folk musicians and attempt to understand the kinds of cultural labor they perform and what traditions, if any, they belong to.
When I talk about folk music, I draw a fuzzy line between “folk music” as a label in the modern record industry and music performed within a folk tradition. I started thinking about the latter in a course I took with Dr. Guthrie “Guy” Ramsey, a professor of music and culture at Penn who defined “folk” as one of three lenses through which audiences evaluate a musical performance inside a specific cultural moment. There’s art music, which demands your full attention and takes practice, even training, to fully appreciate. For example, classical music and jazz. No one’s standing on their chair at the Mann singing along to Mahler’s 2nd, and no one’s throwing their underwear at Wayne Shorter, at least not these days. There’s pop music, which is judged by its impact, or reach, on audiences at one time (now) and in one place (here). In America, this is simple: how much money is it making?
Finally, folk music. Used in this sense, “good” folk music authentically represents the traditions of a particular community (often a religious or ethnic group), and its merits are judged by those who belong to this community. How well does the artist understand this community’s values and how well do they perform within the boundaries of its tradition? In my mind, this is everything from Chicago blues to Filipino gong ensembles to “real, old-school hip-hop” to the Irish dance tradition (reels, jigs, hornpipes). This post deals mainly with this third discourse, but I will address some of the others later on.
In our cultural moment (America, now), “folk” is a genre label in the popular music industry, and it’s great for the bearded, flanneled types you can find on weeknights at Union Transfer: the Lumineers, the Avetts, the Mumfords, their sons. They aren’t “folk artists” in the sense that Dr. Ramsey uses it — they’re pop musicians — but I think “folk” is an appropriate term for the kind of music they make. While these groups mainly occupy the popular sphere of musical discourse (i.e. they make tons of money), much of their appeal comes from their use of instruments and lyrical / sonic signifiers (e.g. the southern drawl) which reference American folk traditions without claiming to represent them. They are popular acts who are valued in part for their appeals to authenticity within a folk tradition, but not for their strict adherence to tradition, allowing for innovation and excursions into other traditions.
Take the Avett Brothers, for example. The band was formed in North Carolina, which has a well-known heritage and association with “old-time” music, a term used broadly to describe the fiddle-and-dance music of the Appalachian region. As native North Carolinians, the Avetts have some natal access to this tradition, some legitimacy, which I believe contributes to their appeal in two communities. The first is the living old-time community, the musicians and enthusiasts who determine authenticity within this tradition. I can’t speak on behalf of the Carolina old-timers, but I know a bit about old-time, and Scott Avett is a great clawhammer banjo player who can confidently play tunes from the canon. Good enough for me. On the other side, we can identify a much larger community in the millions of Avett Brothers fans who populate the pop folk scene. By any measure, the band has been hugely successful within this genre. They sell albums, they sell tickets, and they inspire thousands of copycat performers on the internet and at coffee shop open mics (me included). Their merit is judged by these metrics within the popular music discourse, but tradition, elements of North Carolinian folk heritage, remains an important part of their performance and appeal. Some examples include the banjo, the “family band”, and frequent lyrical references to life in rural Carolina. At the end of the day, they’re Carolina boys, and their audience loves them for it.
With that in mind, I want to shift focus to some artists who more explicitly draw from folk traditions and claim legitimacy within those traditions as part of their performance. First up: Jefferson Hamer, an American singer/songwriter who arranges traditional Scottish and English music, working from transcriptions of folk ballads from the 17th and 18th centuries recorded by musicologists such as Francis James Child. Child included as many regional variations as he could find, and many of the original tunes for these ballads have been lost to history, so Hamer’s work also involves filling in lyrical and musical gaps. His arrangements have a distinctive dramatic and melodic flair. So how legitimate is his work within this tradition? Within the folk discourse, value is decided by those who know the tradition best. There are a handful of musicians who do what Hamer does, but I think the real arbiters of legitimacy in this case are scholars of English history and others who study the geographical and sociological routes of this tradition. It gets interesting when someone plays both roles. I was introduced to this tradition through the music of “ethnomusicians” like Tim Eriksen, Jeff Warner, and Nic Jones, who research ballads and songs through travel, word-of-mouth, and literature in order to arrange and perform them. As a listener, I take it on faith that Hamer and others have done enough research to produce a faithful representation of these ballads and are working as authentically as they can within the tradition. However, the Child Ballads were formally recorded at a single moment in time, and a pretty recent one. They’re an attempt to capture a very old tradition which has more or less reached the end of its life, i.e. nobody’s writing any new broadside ballads because there are no more broadsides. But many folk traditions are alive and, well, growing.
Niall and Cillian Vallely are musical siblings, from an uncommonly talented family, who arrange and compose traditional Irish music. How do you “compose” traditional music? I don’t know, but it makes sense when you hear them play. Their 2002 album Callan Bridge features at least two of Niall’s compositions, “Muireann’s Jig” and “The Singing Stream”, which are virtually indistinguishable from similar jigs and reels from the traditional canon and have become standards in traditional jam sessions. But the album also includes some of these traditional tunes, the old ones (including my favorite: “The Humours of Tullycrine, a.k.a. “Bobby Casey’s Hornpipe”), which the brothers play no differently from any other experienced session player. The Vallely brothers’ knowledge and skill within the Irish music tradition allows them to participate in the living tradition while contributing to and expanding the canon. This is a hallmark of Dr. Ramsey’s “art” discourse, which brings me to my next example.
Gillian Welch is my favorite songwriter, and whole lot of people feel the same way. Her song “Elvis Presley Blues” has been covered by Tom Jones, Joan Baez, Jimmy Buffett and tons of folks on YouTube. Her songs sound a hundred years old, yet at the same time are unmistakably hers. She is something every folksinger strives to be, pushing the boundaries of the genre while remaining authentic, true to her roots yet in a league of her own, something only the best can achieve. After more than six years of fanship, I finally got my chance to see her and her longtime musical partner David Rawlings at the Kennedy Center this past summer. How cool is that? American folk music performed on the same stage that hosts the Washington National Opera and the American Ballet Theater. This is folk music elevated to the level of art, an art form which Gillian Welch has mastered. Like the Vallely Brothers, she is expanding the canon, the list of “folksongs” which other artists within (and without) the genre can play. Like the Avett Brothers, she is a commercial success with widespread appeal and influence. And like Jefferson Hamer and Tim Eriksen, she knows the tradition inside and out.
Gillian Welch is clearly well-versed in the sounds and songwriting traditions of Southern Appalachia, and I consider her songs to be part of the living heritage of that tradition. When she plays traditional Appalachian folk songs, I believe she is faithfully representing the tradition as she knows it. However, she is also a household name within the genre and an amazing performer besides. When she plays a traditional song (e.g. Make Me Down a Pallet On Your Floor), the recording becomes her version of the song whether she intends it or not. She’s simply too good at what she does.
Bruce Molsky, one of the most renowned old-time fiddlers performing today, is a much different kind of folk artist than Gillian Welch. He has also mastered his art: performing music from the old-time Appalachian tradition on a variety of instruments, but unlike Gillian Welch and Jefferson Hamer, Molsky tends to stay strictly within the boundaries of tradition. This is not because he lacks Welch’s songwriting genius or Hamer’s extrapolative creativity, but because he performs an entirely different sort of cultural labor. Instead of stages and stadiums, Molsky inhabits spaces where tradition happens for tradition’s sake. He sings and plays the guitar, banjo, and fiddle for old-time festivals, contra dances, and other venues which exist to preserve the old-time music tradition for the people who love it the most and know it the best. By now, he’s become well-known in these circles, but if you didn’t know who he was, he might blend right in with the rest of the band. To become this sort of folk musician takes some sacrifice, namely your ego. In this context, within the folk discourse, Bruce Molsky becomes a nameless servant of the old-time community, and his job is to preserve rather than expand the traditional canon.
I want to address the obvious problem here. As I’ve presented them (note: not strictly the way he teaches them), Dr. Ramsey’s musical discourses appear to form a sort of linear progression from folk to pop to art as time goes on. This is a helpful way of understanding how musical genres develop, and it works for almost any musical tradition, but it has some serious flaws. To formally study a tradition, you first have to pin it down. In this way, defining a folk tradition is a bit like hunting Bigfoot. You capture it, you decide what it is and what it isn’t, and then you name it. On one hand, you understand it better. Maybe it’s a new species of bear. But on the other hand, having disproved centuries of folk legends with your ecological survey, you’ve stolen away the mystery and wonder which made those legends so popular in the first place. Bigfoot’s no use to anyone as a bear. In fact, it turns out you haven’t captured Bigfoot at all, just a bear you thought was Bigfoot. Bigfoot survives, uncaptured and uncomprehended, to elude amateur naturalists another day. The tradition lives on.
This is what happens when someone like Francis Child consolidates centuries of diverse folk practices into an easily accessible index of folk songs. The Child Ballads have been written and rewritten, transported and performed by countless nameless artists over many years and many miles, and I’m willing to bet some of these contributors would not have fit any tidy definition of “traditional English folk songwriter”. In other words, the Child Ballads were probably written by No True Scotsman. No tradition exists in a vacuum, and every cultural practice can be dissected to reveal its influences within its own cultural moment as well as the “traditions” that preceded it. This is what’s left out when we define the boundaries of a “folk tradition”. Anthologies like the Child Ballads are vital to preserving folk heritage, but they are a mere snapshot of history, often with a very narrow field of view. We define and engage with tradition from the privileged vantage point of the current moment, and much was lost along the way due to sampling biases of every kind. It’s like hunting for fossils. There isn’t enough room in the tar pits for everything to get fossilized.
In a future post, I want to explore how this erasure factors into our current discussions of cultural ownership and appropriation. As you might have noticed, this post doesn’t feature any non-white artists. But like America itself, American folk music is built on the labor and genius of black people. I chose to write about these artists because they’re my favorites, but my own sampling bias highlights how America’s legacy of racism also affects who makes it into our definitions of folk tradition. Willie Watson, a great modern folk artist, has released two albums named Folksinger which feature traditional American songs including several made famous by Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. Lead Belly was one of the first artists recorded by musicologists John and Alan Lomax in their attempt to capture and preserve what they thought of as authentic American folk music. Watson’s vocal timbre and other elements of his performance are very clearly modeled after Lead Belly’s recordings. This is his way of accessing a familiar folk tradition, manufactured in part by the Lomaxes, in order to claim authenticity within his performance. The sounds of black innovators like Lead Belly have had a profound influence on American folk music, but black folksingers were often left out of formal histories because they didn’t fit the narrative for collectors like the Lomaxes. There is much more to say about this, but I’m going to defer to Rhiannon Giddens (see link below), who explains it much better than I ever could.
To bring it all home, I’ll revisit the question I started with: What is the relationship between folksinger and folksong? Here’s one answer: They can’t exist at the same time. It’s like matter and antimatter. Once a folksinger like Gillian Welch or Lead Belly touches a folk song, it ceases to be part of the tradition, time, and culture which produced it and it takes on a new identity as a recording under that artist’s name. Folk traditions belong to peoples, not persons. Attempts to capture folk tradition in written anthologies and sound recordings are noble and necessary, but authentic folk music is elusive, volatile, and ultimately nonexistent.
Having said all that, I would like to present this very scientific graph charting the development of one interpretation of the American songwriting and folk tradition. It’s greatly oversimplified, but it was fun to make. Just remember, this is the perspective of Abe Musselman, who lived in Philadelphia in the United States of America at age 23 in the year 2018. This chart only makes sense through that lens. See you next time!
Scott Avett plays a traditional Appalachian clawhammer banjo tune.
The Avett Brothers perform for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series. I couldn’t help but compare what they’re wearing in this video to the polished, dark suits they’re wearing on Jimmy Fallon in the next link. They were well-established well before this NPR recording, but the contrast reminded me of the way bluegrass (a relatively recent subgenre which is often conflated with the older, ancestral Appalachian folk tradition) has grown into an art form, with virtuoso musicians such as the Punch Brothers performing in suits on concert stages.
The Avett Brothers perform for Jimmy Fallon.
Jefferson Hamer performs a traditional Scottish ballad which he arranged and recorded with Anaïs Mitchell, a contemporary American singer-songwriter and folk artist who incorporates elements of English songwriting traditions into her original songs (e.g. her song The Shepherd).
Tim Eriksen performs his arrangement of “The Iron Door” a.k.a. “Her Servant Man” a.k.a. “Twas a Damsel Fair and Handsome”, a ballad of unknown origin collected by Alfred Williams. Eriksen has developed a unique and innovative technique for playing traditional English and Appalachian music on the bajo sexto, a Mexican instrument. An interesting bit of cultural cross-pollination.
Nic Jones performs a traditional Scottish Ballad. I will be writing about him in the future, but words cannot describe how much I love Nic Jones’s music.
Three of the Vallely brothers perform Niall’s reel “The Singing Stream”, featuring Cillian Vallely on the Uilleann pipes. Also featuring Martin O’Neill and Ross Martin, who is regrettably not playing a Martin guitar. Irish dance tunes are traditionally performed as a “set”, or a medley of two or more tunes, and what impresses me most about this performance is the range of rhythms the musicians are able to achieve across the three tunes in this set. All of the instruments, even the ones in melodic roles (pipes, concertina), are free to play with and improvise around the rhythm. In my opinion, a great, authentic traditional Irish group reminds the listener that this is dance music at its core, whether or not there are dancers present.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings perform Welch’s song “Orphan Girl”.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings perform “I’ll Fly Away”, a hymn written in the early 20th century which Welch performed on the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers’ film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Trigger warning: white people clapping on the downbeat.
Bruce Molsky performs a traditional fiddle-and-banjo dance tune using the clawhammer banjo technique. The banjo has its roots in West Africa, and clawhammer is a direct descendant of the banjo techniques developed hundreds of years ago in relative isolation by black musicians. See Rhiannon Giddens’s video below for more.
Clawhammer banjo is the standard technique used in traditional old-time country dance bands, but modern innovators such as Ken Perlman have challenged the limitations of this distinct folk style. The result is often called “melodic” or “progressive” clawhammer banjo, and Adam Hurt is one of the best progressive clawhammer players around today. He takes old-time banjo tunes and creates highly melodic, artful pieces of solo banjo music. Compare his performance of “Big Scioty” (named for the Scioto River in Ohio) with Old Crow Medicine Show’s version in the next link, particularly the difference in how the audience engages with the performance.
Old Crow Medicine Show (featuring frontman Willie Watson) performs a foot-stomping version of Big Sciota (with two banjos!). The crowd at this show claps and sings along while the audience at Adam Hurt’s show was silent. This is not because they found Hurt’s performance any less exciting, but because these performances take place in different communities with different expectations. Adam Hurt’s version of Big Scioty is a piece of art, and demands the audience’s full attention and silence.
One of the only surviving videos of legendary folksinger Lead Belly. In this recording, he performs a traditional plantation work song from the slave era.
Willie Watson, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings perform a folk song made famous by Lead Belly.
Rhiannon Giddens explains how the enormous contributions of black songwriters and musicians were sometimes left out of early histories of American folk music. Giddens, a classically-trained vocalist, is a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an all-black folk trio who arrange and perform traditional Appalachian music, drawing in particular from the music of black musicians in the Carolina region. She also performs as a solo act.
This is a link to Dr. Guy Ramsey’s blog, where he and contributing authors take a scholarly approach to discussions of music history and current issues in popular music and musicology. A lot of my thoughts on this subject were shaped by discussions, readings, and lectures in his class.