Folk in the year 3000.....

(April 23, 2008)

Today’s folk musicians fall into a greater number of writing camps than ever before. The wealth of musical influences that travel, communication and technology place within the writers’ reach are vast. Musicians find a richness of styles literally on their doorstep. Also, the door is more open than ever before to accepting wide and ranging interpretations of folk music.

One part of that wide and ranging style seems to produce two distinct breeds of folk musician. These emerged through the late 80’s and 90’s, and gained strength through the early 2000s. They are musicians that revive traditional folk songs from the past and those who write ‘traditional-original’ folk songs for the future. There are of course dozens of other distinct types but for this little essay allow me to continue my observations. Also for the sake of clarity let’s refer to the two under discussion as the ‘revivalists’ and the ‘originalists’.

And if you believe that you fall into either, both or none and disagree with the view that’s fine, but please don’t take offence - none intended.

The ‘revivalists’ tend to work with the influences of hundreds of years ago and reinvent the themes of the traditional music of their fathers, grandfathers and so on. Sometimes they change old tunes, instruments or words (which has always been an acceptable practice of folk music). Sometimes they ‘plug in’ sometimes they remain acoustic. Whatever the route, they make those old themes live in the 2000’s (I hate the ‘oughties’ word).

The ‘originalists’ (if there is such a word) work with the influences and themes that surround them. They write about the pressures and problems that are here and now. They mould the folk tradition around what’s happening in the today. Incidentally, there is no bias here, both (and other styles) are equally valid -  it’s the combined result that’s the point. It is the basis for the continued existence, growth and expansion of the folk genre - and that’s good news.

So how do the ‘revivalists’ work?

There appears to be many levels of ‘revivalist’ effort. There are those who do little to the words or tunes, they simply take the strength of the tradition and ensure it survives (which is great). Then there are artists who find the words of some long-forgotten or neglected song, and breathe new life into it with different acoustic or electric arrangements. Finally, there are the rewriters who regurgitate ancient themes. They write modern-traditional songs about the politics, life and war that surrounded people hundreds of years ago, but in the style of the musicians of the time.

By contrast the ‘originalists’ seem to work with only the essence of the tradition (which is also good) and write about anything and everything that’s happening today. And the influences are endless – from suicide bombers, desert wars and destitute pensioners to declining healthcare, urban sprawl and rampant inflation. Are these artists writing what is destined to become the folk songs of future generations? In a hundred years perhaps, will these be considered the folk tradition?

And that’s what set my thoughts in this direction.

Will we eventually find ourselves time travelling through folk music (like HG Wells’ hero or Dr Who – depending on your age range) with an ‘old tradition’ and a ‘young tradition’? Will folk music fall into date-defined slices? Will someone in the 3000’s talk with wistful longing about the folk music of the 20th century as ‘the tradition’?

Now wouldn’t that be interesting?

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