Consider psych-folk ...

(November 25, 2007)

Arguably (don’t start a paragraph with ‘arguably’ it sets an argumentative tone), there is a need in some circles to classify bands out of folk music (by the way this is supposed to be argumentative). This is usually because they don’t conform to someone’s arbitrary standard. And it is one of the intensely irritating aspects of the style.

Consider the style described as psych-folk. Its origins lie somewhere between such bands as Amazing Blondel (although, arguably they were more renaissance), Mellow Candle and The Incredible String Band.

From these beginnings, the psych folk classification grew to include many hundreds of bands, and indeed many variations on the psych folk theme. Currently, these include such epithets as gnostic folk, acid folk, magic folk, wicca folk, freak folk (hate that), heathen folk, pagan folk (oh for goodness sake the list just goes on). If we dissolve into all the dark, pagan styles of folk or folk rock we will be stuck on this chapter all night. So let’s stick for the moment with psych folk. Like it or not it’s a reasonable description for an increasingly popular style of folk.

Psych folk is growing – perhaps faster and more widespread than it did under the protagonists of the 60’s. Yet still psych folk struggles to find acceptance with many folkies. And I think that’s a sad situation. One recurrent accusation is that many of these bands use electronic technology to achieve their music. So let’s discuss technology first.  It’s always a good place to start an argument in folk music.

Technology – fine for folk or not?

Generally, genre-traditional folkies will avoid technological complexity to keep the illusion of a pre-computer result.  In this case, genre-traditional is defined as music that has some subset of musical, lyrical or historical features, such as jigs and reels, narrative songs, or lack of a known composer. Commonly known as the ‘usage’ definition. Whereas, current practitioners of the ‘Victorian’ or traditional definition of folk (music made by ordinary people) will often use overtly audible technology. This is often extensively limited however, by their ability to buy the technology and the available time to learn how to use it effectively. 

Many musicians will of course use technology as much as suits their musical purpose at the time. There are psych folk bands that rarely resort to technology – not even their instruments are plugged in. Then there are those that will happily integrate lutes and flutes with synthesisers and programming. The point is the rules are far less rigid and their rulebook, if there is such a book, has a soft cover and remains in a back pocket (so it bends when they sit down). The audible and obvious use of computer technology is one of the identifiers of ‘psych folk’ versus ‘trad’ folk. Even though both only qualify as folk at all under the vague genre related protection of the ‘usage’ definition.

Traditional folk tries to use only 19th century technology, whereas psych folk (and a whole raft of new folk) appears happy to more readily embrace any available technology. This is part of the issue that ‘trad’ folk and its exponents hold nostalgia for a particular time. It’s interesting to consider the view that something as complex as a melodeon or concertina or uillean pipes might, when they first appeared, have been considered high technology and new-fangled.

Fine so that’s a brief exploration into technology. Next up is originality. Is it new versus tradition or some such artificially created schism? To cover or to copy that is the question.

To cover or to copy

Now the issue of cover or copy is going to raise more debate (or even argument) because psych folk is one realm of originality in folk music. True to definition ‘cover’ is take the song, rework, remodel and make your own version. On the other hand, ‘copy’ is to slavishly adopt the style, vocals, approach and even look of the original performer. Now let’s be clear on a point here. I’m not talking about tribute bands. I’m talking about those bands that literally copy. Listen to a ‘copy’ band and the singer’s tone, accent and sometimes dialect change from song to song. The guitarist, fiddle player, drummer – whatever – don’t develop their own style they simply copy.

With ‘cover’ – and let’s face it – many folk songs are covers. Good grief that’s the essence of the genre. The desire to take a song and add to it has been the basis of folk tradition since time began.

Now once you accept that view (or even if you don’t) you can see where such styles as psych folk begin and end. The psych folk bands take many traditional elements and add their own edge. That edge may be technology driven or simply psychedelic energy driven. It matters not. The point is it remains as valid as every other facet of the genre.

‘The last realm of the hippies

‘The last the hippies’- so how patronising is that one? Does music have anything to do with how you look? Unfortunately, of course there’s the proscription on how you should look. What? I hear you cry - surely not. Unfortunately the answer is - surely yes. Too often the judgement is made on appearance not on content. It’s been said that psych folk is the last bastion of the hippies. Those who still hold on to the hippy ideals but have also incorporated both ‘green’ and ‘pagan’ overtones. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing.

If you want to adopt renaissance or ‘minstrel’ dress then good bloody luck. Does the longing to escape the 21st Century and slide into another time affect the calibre of your music. Of course it doesn’t. Does the desire to explore medieval or pagan themes make you a worse or better musician. Of course it doesn’t. Does an emphasis on such elements as ‘natural magik, the faerie world and nature have anything to do with your musical integrity. Oh please!

Of course, image, photography, costume and other non-musical aspects of a performer's existence are valid parts of their art. Bands have always made an effort with their photos and album-art to encapsulate visually what they’re about. The recent trend in folk towards arty publicity photos is to be applauded in general, although many have reservations about it becoming just a fashion, rather than an extension of the musicians' art. Psych folk is one of the leading lights in the use of art in covers and booklets.

Psych folk has a place in the world, and it has a place in folk music.  Who cares if it has a place in some particular definition of folk music? The style such bands adopt is as clearly folk music as anything, yet they are not traditional as defined by many. So did the people who wrote about their experiences in their language and in the musical style of hundreds of years ago sit down to write traditional folk? Of course not - they just wrote the tunes and songs they wanted to write in the popular style of the period. They wrote music that meant something to them played on the instruments they made or had available.

So if psych-folk as a style means more to you than any other then good luck. It’s your expression, and if you can express yourself well and other people want to listen - go for it.

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