What is Folk?

What comes to mind when you hear the word? Pete Seeger? Pre-electric Bob Dylan? Woody Gutherie? While these are all fine examples of contemporary music, they’re really not the best examples of true “folk” music. We asked musicians what folk means to them to give us a better idea of what folk music should mean for us.

With the 2011 Folk Festival mere weeks away, we thought we take the time to ask musicians what do they think of when they hear the word ‘folk?’ While many of us think of acoustic jams by the campfire, folk is actually way more interesting than that. Here are several musicians giving us their thoughts about what folk really is:

Pinson Chanselle, drums:

“The soul in sound.”

Lindsey Prather, vocals:

“Folk music is the music of the people. When I ask my music students to research folk music, they always come back with a definition calling it music of the “uncultured” classes (I blame Wikipedia), but I think folk music comes from rich varied cultures and has absolutely nothing to do with class. Folk is music made by the people to enrich their lives in some way. It is music interwoven with life.”

Bryan Hooten, trombone:

“For folk music there is neither artist nor audience. We make and experience the sounds together.”

Joe Westerlund, recording artist:

“Folk music is not necessarily defined by a sound, but by a spirit of inclusion and accessibility. Its defining nature is found in its presentation of shared culture and community.”

Reggie Chapman, trombone:

“Music that belongs specifically to a cultural region. It’s usually called folk after a certain lineage has been established over time.

Music that folks make.”

Cameron Ralston, bass:

“Folk music is music by the people, for the people, specifically of the lower classes of a particular culture, that has been passed on aurally or by mouth rather than by pen.”

Audrey Tillack, vocals:

“Music for the people by the people.”

David Hood, saxophone:

“To me, it’s the first-person term for music that is born out of a certain culture at a certain time and continues to resonate with that cultural period. It helps define that cultural time period. In maybe a more literal sense, folk music is culture music or history music.”

Karl Blau, recording artist:

“This is a question I have thought a lot about. I read a quote from Pete Seeger (I think that’s who!) that said something to the effect of: ‘If the music and lyrics stay the same, a song will get stagnant and die.’ That’s a message I have taken to heart. So, I try to cover a lot of songs and change them to make them involve my personal experience and bring them up to date. One of the earliest pieces I did this to was with the folk song ‘The Water is Wide’ written I don’t know when by who knows. Lots of people have covered this song. I was looking through a book of old folk songs and thinking ‘boy this stuff is such a downer. I don’t feel this way, and I don’t want to propagate this feeling, I’m gonna change this shit.’ So, I rewrote much of ‘The Water is Wide’ to give it an uplifting feeling.

The verse went something like: “Love is warm when it’s new/gay as a jewel when first it is new/but love grows old and waxes cold/and fades away like the morning dew.” I changed it to reflect some hope: “Love is warm when it’s new/and love is sweet when it’s true/But love grows old and waxes cold/Nothing like warm breath melts the snow.”

Folk music is challenged today. Sure there are plenty of old ‘folk songs’ to cover, but when someone makes lyrics their own, you have to pay them to use the lyrics. I resent this. And at the same time I understand. Poets/songwriters need to make money somehow.

But I’m making a stand, you can use my lyrics — all of them — anytime, change them and make them your own. Heck, karlblau.com has tons of lyrics to use for free, they’re mine, I wrote them, but you can dress them up to look like you and they can be yours too. Take them, keep the real folk style alive!”


photo by David A. Ford

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