From Me, to You Archive

#1 2009
April 2008: Folk Music!

There are two types of music that, I feel, are particularly endangered today. One is "doo-wop". Several times, in the last 30 years or so, we have seen a renaissance of 50's era style, music, and culture in popular fashion, but doo-wop has slipped through the cracks. It is a distinctly American music form and an important factor in the development of rock and roll. No one new is playing it and with each passing year it slips further off the radar screen. It's truly wonderful, joyous music and I fear for it's survival. So let's put our heads together and try to preserve doo-wop! This is a topic for another day... Secondly, we have the threatened disappearance of "folk" music. Although in this case, there is reason to be hopeful. A new breed of folk artists have appeared on the scene to keep the flame burning and we'll discuss all that later in this column. But for the uninitiated, what is folk music? It's hard to define. It includes many different styles and eras. Bluegrass, old time and even country music all include elements that are folk. To some, it's more in the tradition of the traveling balladeer or minstrel, say Woody Guthrie or Jimmy Rodgers for instance. To others, it's the blues tradition of the Mississippi delta. Work songs. Railroad songs. Prison songs. Calypso. Gospel. It can also be Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young. As you can see, we're covering a pretty wide piece of the musical landscape here. To me, folk music is where you find it. My first awareness of this style was in the pre-Beatles 60's when my oldest brother Tom (my musical mentor at the time) became interested in the current folk movement in pop culture. I can remember groups of high school kids gathered in the family living room (or on a flat-bed truck in the church parking lot) singing songs by groups like The New Christy Minstrels, The Serendipity Singers, The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, etc. Very exciting stuff for a 6 year old. It wasn't rock and roll, but it was certainly compelling and highly melodic. It was fine by me. This type of gathering was what they used to call a "hootenanny". It didn't require any equipment or know-how necessarily. Just a lot of heart and enthusiasm, one or two guitars, and a bunch of folks who didn't mind simply belting it out together. Magical stuff. Furthermore, most of the folk artists of the time didn't have the usual constraints of rock and roll stardom attached to them. Just straight up talented performers who had a sincere passion for what they were doing. For a while, at least, it really was all about the music. It would be later, with the introduction of "folk-rock", that some of the typical trappings of fame and celebrity would appear. Keep in mind, many artists that we know well, began deep in the folk tradition, and only later made the concession to pop. Simon and Garfunkel, CSN&Y, The Byrds, Judy Collins, Donovan, Gordon Lightfoot, Cat Stevens, Jerry Garcia, Jesse Colin Young and MANY others all began as "folkies" The list could go on and on... Very much of what we think of as "acoustic rock" (you know, Eagles, James Taylor) owes a tremendous debt to it's folk music beginnings. So for a listener with a curiosity, it's not difficult to follow the path back from some of our most well known performers and find the connection.

From my own perspective, there are several staring points that I can recommend. First of all, see a video entitled "Festival" by Murray Lerner. This is a documentary of the 63, 64, 65, and 66 Newport Folk Festivals. It gives a fine overview of the many different styles embraced by the folk movement of the 60's and includes the infamous Dylan electric set that ruffled so many feathers and, more or less, introduced the "folk-rock" era. Don't miss this film! Two other Bob Dylan films come to mind. "Don't Look Back" by D. A. Pennabaker chronicles Dylan's 65 tour of England (among other things). A great look at a brilliant artist in his prime. Also, more recently, Martin Scorsese's "No Direction Home", probably as much Dylan as the average household requires. These films will get you started and lead to many other films of interest. Once again, for myself, at least three books are essential. "The Music Hound Guide To Folk Music", an encyclopedic reference with wall to wall coverage. And most importantly, "Follow the Music" by Jac Holzman and Gavin Daws. Jac Holzman was the founder of Elektra Records, an early American folk label that eventually signed The Doors and many other important artists. This label was literally started in the living room with a tape recorder. The book gives an insiders view of not only the flowering of the folk movement, but the changing rituals of the music business over the years. Indispensable. Also, "White Bicycles" by Joe Boyd. Joe was another young American entrepreneur at the very beginning of the movement. He later made the transition to England and became vital to the folk revival in the UK, which in every way, is as rich and rewarding as the American scene. This book will guide you to some amazing British artists. Nick Drake, John Martyn, Fairport Convention, you won't be sorry. Next do a basic search on the internet using the keywords "50 Best Folk Albums" and "100 Ultimate Folk Rock Albums". Both searches will lead you to a web-site called (a great site for any music, by the way). Here are two lists of recordings that are sure to satisfy. Also included are several new recordings by artists currently a part of the modern folk revival. Start anywhere and the race is on... As always, these subjects featured in FM2U, are complex and laden with information. This is meant as an overview or introduction for the new and curious listener. Many books have been, and will continue to be, written on the multi-faceted subject of folk music. I wish you all the best if you begin the journey of exploring this great tradition. It's a never ending road that twists and turns through most of the music on this planet. And I must again say, if YOU know of something that I need to see, read, hear, or have any comments at all, please feel free to let me know. Until next month...
happy listening!