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Monday, 26 December 2011

Folk - audible but undefinable


For me folk is a rag-bag of styles and subjects, some horrible (Morris dancing tunes, exaggerated nasality, primitive violins) and some moving (Crosby Stills and Nash’s eminently marine Southern Cross – see pic, certain banjo methods). I have never asked for a definition, simply used folk as a vague sort of dustbin. Certain folk songs seem to demand humanitarian approval – a bit like sorting garbage into separate bags – and this causes me to get nervous. Musically I like Joan Baez’s Blowing In The Wind but morally her insistence hints at direct debits for charity.

Often folk cries out for fun and the cry is ignored. Pete Seegar’s Little Boxes handles humour lightly and unexpectedly, whereas the sentiments of Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changing are often peevish and short-sighted.

Curiously, real English folk (D’ye Ken John Peel, Lincolnshire Poacher) caught leprosy in the fifties and is now a rarity. Or it may be these songs are victims of a delicate filtering system which favours imperishable melody and persuasive – usually simple – words. Lucy’s favourite earworm (and mine too, come to think of it), Did You Not Hear My Lady, still survives as does the shockingly poignant Tom Bowling.

Folk is most successful when its aims are clear. Down By The Sally Gardens (Love measured by age and experience), Ewan McColl’s The Shoals of Herring (An industry now disappeared), the Kingston Trio’s I Feel So Break-up (Perils of a hangover) all know what they’re about. Singers without real singing voices often opt for folk but usually compensate with some other quality: Kirstie MacColl (pathos), Jake Thackray (humour).

A folk song requiring a trained voice (My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose) ceases to be folk.

6 comments:

The Crow said...

CSN and CASNY sang me through my twenties and beyond.

Seeing the Southern Cross is on my bucket list. My favorite line from that song is "Thinking about how many times I have fallen," for some strange reason.

I've never thought of them as folk singers, but as rock and roll. Maybe folk-rock?

Lorenzo da Ponte said...

The Crow: I hoped for a little - in fact, rather a lot of - licence in my use of the word folk. Often it is the song's subject rather than its style that gives it the nod. I have in any case bundled sea shanties (Tom Bowling) in as well. Real vague, man. And that could be the title of yet another folk song.

Folk rock, certainly. My only experience with that phrase occurs in a Simon and Garfunkel spoof of Bob Dylan ("I've lost my harmonica, Albert.") where G, piteously parodying Dylan's voice, announces that folk rock is what he's playing.

Glad you liked Southern Cross. I'm just going to play it again.

Plutarch said...

Can a song that started off in a particular form become folk I wonder? I was once on a train in Holland when I group of merrymakers came through the train singing something in Dutch. I though that it must be a folk song. But it took some time for me to realise that it was Yellow Submarine. Since I have heard children singing it as though it - words and music - had come to us out of the dark ages. Submarine's I know are new but you get my drift.

Lorenzo da Ponte said...

The Crow/Plutarch: Perhaps I wasn't specific enough. I wasn't attempting to define "folk" as it presently exists; any attempt to arrive at any viable definition in music always leads to exchanges which become more and more arid (eg: trad jazz vs modern jazz, song vs. lied.)

On reflection I think I'd have been better off saying "folksy", by which I mean any lyric dealing with out-of-door activities. hopeless historial love affairs, modes of employment which poets of a certain kind regard as romantic (eg, blacksmiths), animals and especially birds as metaphor, distant battles which ended in failure and/or humiliation, lovers' deaths - the more agonising the better, inefficient forms of transportation, pre-tractor farming. "Folksy" verges on the insulting and in a more refined usage can be applied to non-vocal music, the Pastoral symphony being one uneasy example.

Can songs change genres? Certainly, as public sensitivities change. Once, I suppose, the British national anthem was regarded as solemn, now it sounds like a music-hall leftover. And by adopting the choral part of LvB's ninth symphony as its "national" blare, the EU is doing its best to trivialise that symphony, eventually turning it into a soccer crowd chant. As to Submarine, it was my impression that the Beatles either didn't take it entirely seriously or were addressing children. Thus it was ripe for corruption. Three decades ago the Helston Floral Dance, which had until then been folk, was re-packaged as pop

Avus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Avus said...

My comment deleted since I led you astray with a wrong Youtube link.

The post now reads:

Much early traditional folk was adopted in '60s and '70s by the new "folk rock" genre.

I think I can cover your "traditional", "blacksmiths", accents, etc.with this one:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6UqMuz2chI&feature=related

A very early and undeveloped Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span (great favourites of mine) singing "The Blacksmith". Her regional accent is genuine (Buckinghamshire). In maturity both she and June Tabor are both worth listening to as soloists.

There is an excellent history of the folk song beneath this youtube clip.