Resurgence of folk music in popular culture, The

resurgence of folk music in popular culture, The

Littleton, Mary Wood

“We were searching for definition in our lives…” –Eric von Schmidt & Jim Rooney

We are currently experiencing a folk music revival. However, many of the artists enjoying the swell of popularity that has attended it are loathe to admit they are “folk” artists. Instead, they refer to this thoughtful, original music with less-tainted names, including country-pop, singer-songwriter, bluegrass-pop, fast folk, acoustic rock ‘n’ roll, contemporary folk, folkabilly, and acoustic-grounded country-folk.

Suzanne Vega, one of the first of these artists to achieve mainstream commercial success, says, “The downside of being called ‘folk’ is that you are typecast as old-fashioned, hopelessly earnest, unhip, uncool, and so forth.” So folk music is not current, not hip, and not cool. But what is folk music?

A Brief History of Folk

Born in Ireland and Scotland into the peasant class, folk music arrived in the United States via the settlers of the Appalachian mountains in the eighteenth century The songs, often with a dozen or more verses, told tales of the homeland, and often the words, rather than the melodies, of this music haunt our memories.

By the late 1930s and 1940s, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Alan Lomax, and Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter were writing and performing their own version of this music. Evolving into a vehicle for social and economic change, folk music allowed artists to establish a politicized folk song movement. Many tunes were protest ballads related to the labor movement and the Spanish Civil War, and some of the artists belonged to the American Communist party. Of course, not all of the folk music of this era was political. But it is largely because of this political element that the folk of the forties can be distinguished from the country music of the same period Both styles were rural, storytelling, traditional musics of the people.

By the late fifties, folk was finding a meeting place in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Perhaps it was providence–or Harvard, Wellesley, Brandeis, Tufts, and Northeastern–that brought the young college students Joan Baez, Peggy Seeger, Eric Sackheim, and Bob Siggins to the Boston area. They certainly didn’t come for the folk music scene; none existed in Boston. But they had brought with them recordings of hillbilly music and blues from the forties Soon these young artists were collaborating and performing at such places as Tulla’s Coffee Grinder and Club Mt. Auburn 47. They were joined shortly thereafter by the not-yet-famous Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Jim Rooney, Tom Paxton, Eric von Schmidt, and Carolyn Hester.

Jim Rooney and Eric von Schmidt have chronicled the experiences from the folk community of the period in their book Baby, Let Me Follow You Down: “The time of our collective sojourn in Cambridge was a kind of generational watershed. We were searching for definition in our lives, and folk music was the vehicle we chose to help us in that search….We redefined ourselves as people through the music we chose to sing and play and listen to.”

These young folk artists–inspired and sometimes mentored by such legends as Pete Seeger, Odetta, and The Carter Family–wrote not only about social concerns but also about personal tribulations. embraced by a generation of young people burdened by the weight of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. It enjoyed great commercial success. Although the community in Cambridge is the best known, folk communities were also thriving in Austin, Texas, and New York’s Greenwich Village.

The first modern folk revival had begun, although it was met with contentious disregard. Some folk purists took offense at the newcomers who put themselves in the folk category. They complained that the newcomers were too far removed from folk roots and that the art form was doomed.

Rumors of the Death of Folk Are Exaggerated

For decades scholars have been forecasting the death of American folk music. They have claimed that technological innovation, the dissolution of rural communities, and mass media would ultimately homogenize the musical culture. But folk music is alive and well. “Folk music never dies away, because it is so economical,” explains Suzanne Vega, “Everyone has a guitar, and most people want to tell a story.”

Perhaps aging baby boomers have grown weary of mechanized, mindless music. But the resurgence of interest in modern-day folk is evident: increased album sales, more independent record labels, more venues with larger audiences, and adult alternative radio stations nationwide that specialize in acoustic-based, lyric-focused music. Just as significant, established rock and country musicians, responding to the increased interest in acoustic music, are “unplugging” their electric instruments and picking up acoustic guitars, mandolins, banjos, and harmonicas. Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, 10,000 Maniacs, R.E.M., and Pearl Jam have pulled the plug. Yet these are not folk artists.

Folk Is a Complex Musical Form

Admittedly, contemporary folk defies easy explanation. It can be found in most forms of popular and lite music. In its contemporary manifestation, folk music has expanded to include such traditional forms as Cajun, Celtic, bluegrass, zydeco, and blues. It also includes such popular styles as grunge, alternative, rap, and various singer-songwriter amalgamations. Characterized by powerful lyrics, stark production of recordings, and intimate performance, it is grounded with simple, acoustic instrumentation. A folk artist is first and foremost a songwriter.

“[Folk artists] are self-contained units of art and commerce who pull off the difficult dichotomy of writing and performing. That separates them from their Nashville cousins, who are more neatly divided between those who write and those who perform,” said Marty Racine, entertainment reporter for the Houston Chronicle.

Songwriter Nanci Griffith, winner of this year’s Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk album, says folk music’s “spotlight is on the brilliance of the voice of the songwriter who captures lyrically and musically a panoramic view of the social climate and the writer’s sense of place.”

Whatever the name and its connotations, this acoustic music with clear and forceful lyrics has fought its way up from coffeehouses and church basements to Carnegie Hall without the benefit of radio play or a marketing niche.

Nanci Griffith: The Quintessential Contemporary Folk Artist

Nanci Griffith, who has made eleven albums spanning more than eighteen years, perhaps best: personifies the contemporary folk artist. Her career could be a prototype for the new generation of folk singer-songwriters. But like folk artists from any era, Griffith is first and foremost a musical storyteller, “The most important thing for me, my goal from childhood on, is to be a good songwriter. That stamp of validation for that goal in life comes to me every time some one records one of my songs, every time someone sings one of my songs, and every time someone takes one of my songs on as a companion.”

Griffith’s songwriting expertise has helped to bring intelligent music back into fashion. Inspired by such twentieth-century novelists as Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, her lyrics are as deeply rooted in literature as her melody is in folk. In addition to establishing herself as a preeminent songwriter by all accounts, Griffith has extended her love of storytelling by writing two novels and numerous short stories.

Dar Williams, an up-and-coming folk artist from New England says of Griffith, “I agree that Nanci’s lyrics are rooted in literature, specifically insofar as they reflect the human condition and the poignancy of individual passions and choices. Even more strongly, however, I see her as a character in literature, always staying true to her vision and her fellow artists in a way that’s been a model for the rest of us.”

Building a following month by month and year by year as she drove her Toyota station wagon from venue to venue, Griffith has become a folk success story without the benefit of radio play or, until recently, much support from a major record label. (Although she was with record giant MCA for six years, the label failed to promote any of the five albums she made under its auspices.)

Philo/Rounder, an independent record label that produced two of her early albums, said recently of Griffith: “No single artist has done more than this Texas songwriter to kick down the arbitrary marketing barriers that have separated musical genres and frozen folk out of the commercial marketplace.”

Her refusal to fit neatly into a conventional musical category has forged a path for such other contemporary folk-based artists as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, The Indigo Girls, Lyle Lovett, Shawn Colvin, John Gorka, and Iris DeMent.

“I think she opened the doors for a lot of us–for me, for Lyle Lovett, for a lot of us,” said Jimmie Dale Gilmore while performing with her in Austin, Texas.

Stylistically, the songs that Griffith has written and performed are as varied as the genre of folk itself. Emerging from the Texas singer-songwriter community of the late seventies, her first four albums were recorded on independent folk labels. Had the myriad Triple-A alternative radio stations of today existed when these albums were released, Griffith might have been an overnight success. But like many other folk artists, she got no radio play.

In 1986 she was signed by MCA’s country division and moved to Nashville. Her music adopted some elements from country music, and she termed this hybrid style “folkabilly.” After three albums she moved to MCA’s Los Angeles division, and her next two albums demonstrated a distinctive pop component. Hoping for a record label that better understood her philosophy, Griffith moved to Elektra in 1993.

Griffith has always believed that the songs of the master songwriters need to be sung by new voices in new places to keep them alive. In fact, her Grammy-winning album, Other Voices/Other Rooms, is a tribute to the artists who were her inspirations. Named for Truman Capote’s first novel and produced by Jim Rooney, the album includes songs by Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Kate Wolf, Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Tom Paxton, Janis Ian, Gordon Lightfoot, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Malvina Reynolds. Lining up like a private folk festival, Chet Atkins, Arlo Guthrie, Carolyn Hester, Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan, Guy Clark, Iris DeMent, Bela Fleck, The Indigo Girls, John Gorka, Emmylou Harris, Frank Christian, Leo Kottke, Odetta, John Prine, Holly & Barry Tashian, and others played and/or sang with Griffith. This album of other writers’ songs also highlighted Griffith’s keen ability to interpret the work of others.

Griffith’s latest album, Flyer, released in September 1994, is her most eclectic in style to date. Exchanging one writing style for another, she departs from her usual technique of telling fictional stories to offer a personal account of her life. With help from her widely varied circle of friends, Griffith offers the conscientious listener elements of pop, country, alternative, traditional Irish folk, and rock, in addition to her strong folk roots.

In the span of her career, Griffith has gone from playing bars so rough that heads were smashed into cigarette machines to headlining major folk festivals to selling out London’s Royal Albert Hall for four consecutive nights. She is the first folk artist ever to play Carnegie Hall.

Today’s Folk Artists Enjoy Some Advantages

Folk artists or singer-songwriters coming up today have a few more advantages than their forerunners. For instance, the adult alternative radio stations that have sprung up across the country in the last no years provide outlets for this music.

And contrary to the doomsayers, technological advances actually have given independent folk artists a boost. An artist need not pay the high price of a professional studio to make a suitable recording. State-of the-art recording technology is now so widely available that many artists make better self-produced recordings for less money, often on their own labels.

The word-of-mouth movement, historically the most widely used marketing tool in folk music, has been greatly enhanced by the advent of electronic mail via the Internet. Here, folk aficionados world-wide can share information about artists, including tour schedules, album-release dates, album and concert reviews, news of future projects, and alerts to radio and television appearances. Users of electronic mail can take this information and share it with others in their local areas. Alan Rowoth, list administrator of “FOLK_MUSIC,” has even lured many of the artists themselves to join in the discussion. With 8,000 to 10,000 subscribers, “FOLK_MUSIC” is one of the largest Internet discussion groups (for information, write to “alan at”).

The number of listeners drawn to folk is immense and continues to grow. According to a survey in the August 1994 issue of American Demographics, 23.1 percent of Americans prefer contemporary folk (most of those are white, aged 45 to 54, hold graduate degrees, and earn more than $50,000 annually).

Many of the concert-goers of the 1980s, perhaps exhausted from the overblown live productions in monstrous stadiums and metroplexes, are opting for the intimate, personal performances folk artists offer in the many converted theatres and listening halls across the country. Places like the Iron Horse in Northampton, Mass., the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, the Ark in Ann Arbor, Mich., the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., and McCabe’s in Santa Monica, Calif., consistently offer rich menus of fine folk music from all over the country.

Today’s folk audience, whether seeking definition or just a quiet evening of intelligent entertainment, is doubtless enjoying the resurgence (or surgence) of folk popularity. Surely, it will translate into even more albums, more concerts, and more radio play.

Mary Wood Littleton, associate editor of National Forum, wishes to thank the folk artists who were gracious enough to be interviewed for this article: Nanci Griffith, Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, Cliff Eberhardt, Bob Franke, Cosy Sheridan, and Dar Williams. Thanks also to Mark Ferguson, another of the true believers, for his tremendous research support.

Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Fall 1994

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