Friday, February 17, 2012

Folk Music Existential Crisis

There is an existential crisis within what has come to be called folk music in America.

We, as an artistic community, seem to not know why we make the music we do and if we do know why, we can't understand why it is the cultural ghetto that it is. There is an almost willful refusal to
consider the function or purpose of what we are creating. On the one hand, it feels as though the creative vision of the artist is held unimpeachably sacred. Compromise to meet popular taste or commercial success is not only distasteful but morally wrong. On the other hand is a sense of anger at the lack of support from the mainstream music infrastructure and the general population who only understand music as a thing to be consumed. There is a contradiction here. We cannot refuse to make art that meets others needs and expect to be relevant to more than a handful of people.

I think the refusal to have a conversation internally and amongst ourselves about what
function our music serves is caused by the friction created when personal moral
exceptionalism meets the perceived shortcomings of hyper-individualism programed into most of
us. Our culture praises the individual above all else. I think "folkies" are under the
impression that they are immune to the trappings of this hyper-individualism and the consumer
landscape it exists in. We want to be genuine and more altruistic than the unhealthy society
we see around us. This idea is bolstered by the fact that we peruse something that is
decidedly not popular.

However, we are not immune from hyper-individualism.

As best as I can tell, the main function of modern folk is almost solely self expression.
This is how hyper-individualism manifests itself in folk music and American acoustic music
in general. There is nothing objectively wrong with self expression. But unless you are
uniquely apt at expressing a broad range of the human experience, an individuals self
expression is not useless to the broader population. This may sound judgmental, but the
proof is in the pudding. Folk music is struggling in the cultural market. In other words,
I'm not saying that folk music is not useful to others; the consuming population is. We want
people to consume what we produce but refuse to produce what they want to consume.

I have been chastised by some in the folk community for saying that self expression is the
main function of folk but no one can tell me what else it does. This would be fine if our
music didn't need to compete in the marketplace, but it does. I'm saying we need to make
music that panders because the industry will always do a better job that we can at that.
What I saying is we need to find what function we can have in peoples lives.

Popular music seems to be mono-chromatic in subject, aesthetic and function. It tells one
story; the story of consumption. It is produced to be palatable to the broadest possible
population and reinforces the demise of regionalism.

I think we can start to find our function by examining our own communities and purposefully
exploring what needs are being neglected by mainstream music. We may have to sacrifice some
of our voice to meet the needs of our communities and become relevant. That's o.k. By
investing on others, they have a reason to invest in us. I have an unwavering faith that in
our increasingly mechanized and consumerist society that there is a role for independent
acoustic music. We just need to find what it is.


  1. Silas, Your comments are accurate but I think you paint with too broad a brush. Nobody has yet done a census or gotten more than an anecdotal impression of modern folk versus traditional folk, or for that matter, who of which party does how much of which. It's easy to bash the songwriters, but we really don't know how much trad they carry with them that they don't let on they know. And for some in the songwriting biz, it's legit, either they are true poets, or they are commercial song pluggers. But they do make easy targets. They are just not my targets. Mine are the ones who want to learn the old stuff, and are willing to put in the effort and the study. One of them is worth ten song pluggers.

  2. The specific medium is not particularly relevant whether old-time, brother duet, or singer-songwriter (some of whom are rooted troubadours and poets and many commercial hacks).
    What is important and what underlies the "two cultures" is that folk music is a collectivist enterprise, not an individualistic enterprise. Why Phil Ochs is important is because he could not resolve this dilemma and did both at the same time even in writing "Chords of Fame." Folk music has to be rooted in some community, whether it is the labour community or Sodom Laurel, North Carolina or even the singer-songwriter community.
    And folk music has to reflect the values of its community and advance the collective ends of that community.

  3. Art, that's great and eminently sensible. I try to take the widest possible view, in that my community is at once the population of the planet, and at the same time, the continuity of each tradition expressed in its own way. I look at the Folk Revival as an explicit attempt to capture both the particular traditions without harming them, and the general human spirit that the exercise of capturing them in one place embodies. Mark, could you copy my initial response to you, to the group?

  4. Andy,
    You are correct that there is nothing scientific about my approach. However, my attempt is not to exclusive. There is a role for all approaches in music. In my experience, most American music is less reflective of the material conditions of people lives, or what our shared human experiences are, than it once was. I would even say, to the point where it is hard to find much music on the radar, even in folk music, that does address shared concerns.

    Further there seems to be an open rejection of music that implies or states that music is a powerful tool and it that has responsibilities. This is especially true of younger people and I just want to start a conversation. I guess what I'm trying to say is, I feel like the music I value is being excluded. Feels like everything that isn't self referential or about love is excluded. Oh well. Thanks for the comments.

  5. To me, traditional folk music is by and large a sincere and unapologetic artistic projection of the human experience. I agree that most modern music comes from a different place.
    "When a man has let go of attachments,
    when his mind is rooted in wisdom,
    everything he does is worship
    and his actions all melt away."

  6. What if through self expression, you are able to communicate emotionally with listeners? Is pain sharing, or love and joy sharing, a function of modern folk? It happens to me when I play, an experience of mine is sang and shared and often people share back, but I'm not sure how to interpret that in context of our discussion. Thanks for stirring our thoughts buddy!

  7. It is heartening that someone else is asking these hard questions. MY struggle is that the music I make lies somewhere between the old time music and the new, modern music. I have long lamented that both those groups stay separate from each other which leaves me with no place to "fit in". From Kerrville to Folk Alliance much of the music presented there is rather boring, in my opinion, even if it is technically great. I assure you that there are tons of people who feel the same. I still attend these festivals because I am open minded and believe there is something I can learn there. My position on modern rock and the like is that something about the beat of it doesn't move me, and so I don't create music like that. Poetically modern music also leaves something to be desired.
    In summary, I believe my role in the big picture is to be a bridge between these groups. This is the problem with the entire world -- fragmentation. We need to look at the big picture and pin our hopes and talents on that. The old establishments can fade away along with the people who keep censoring and the new fads will be just that -- fads. I kinda think all that stuff is just there to give mediocre talents work. Let's get out of our tight little cliques and make something worth remembering.
    I thought of a perfect analogy for the plight I have lived to see and that is of a forest with much old-growth that catch all the sun. What chance does a young tree have to grow? The answer is that it's only a matter of time.