The Resurgence of Folk Music in Popular Culture

Article excerpt

Is Intelligent Music Back in Fashion?

"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. Their music was 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.

For decades scholars have been forecasting the death of American folk music. …