Folk on the rocks

(July 09, 2009)

Folk influencing rock music - whatever next?

Interestingly, while it is common folk-knowledge that rock flowed into folk and gave us folk rock, it’s worth recording that the flow went the other way too - folk influenced rock. Maybe not to the same proportion as to cause the creation of ‘rock-folk’ but enough to have the odd influence nonetheless. Folk flowing into rock perhaps did not create a genre with the presence of folk rock, but it's there and in many ways it filtered into rock music through the most unlikely bands.

Those who added a touch of folk appear all over the rock scene. They ranged from all out rock gods such as Led Zeppelin to pastoral rockers such as Jethro Tull. If you want to wind the clock back you can find folk popping up in other bands. Family added folk tinges to their jazz-rock blend as did Gentle Giant and Wishbone Ash, of course those little elven glam rockers T-Rex were once Tyrannosaurus Rex and folked it up with with the best of them. Of course, none of these could be accused of playing folk rock yet they provide clear evidence of folk influencing rock.

Then of course there are bands like Strawbs and Horslips who continually danced along the border between the two genres and in doing so became recognised by both camps. Although one or two folkies still think that Strawbs indulged too much in stadium rock, or was it stadium folk-influenced rock? There are the far less well known forays of folk into rock made by such eminent masters of rock as Frank Zappa, ELP, Deep Purple, King Crimson and Rainbow. Although subsequent to parting with Rainbow, Ritchie Blackmore has shown that with Blackmore’s Night he was a closet folky after all, albeit a medieval one.

So has folk added to the rock genre?

Consider if you will Led Zeppelin’s version of ‘Gallows Pole’ – a traditional folk song turned into a rock ballad – totally different from the majority of Led Zeppelin’s traditional blues-influenced rock.  The metamorphosis from folk to rock steadily develops during the song. The even more famous ‘Stairway to Heaven’ contained elements of both American folk rock and English electric folk, and when you hear that venerated Australian singer give it a 'go' the folk influence is there for all to hear. Perhaps you can hear the most obvious folk outing for ‘Zeppelin on ‘The Battle of Evermore’, on which the celebrated folk voice of Sandy Denny delivered the vocals.

Jethro Tull is possibly the most obvious example as the band began to include folk influences more widely in both lyrics and tunes. They did this slowly at first with the folk-orientated ‘Minstrel in the Gallery’ and much more overtly with the later album ‘Songs from the Wood’ which focused strongly on issues reflecting rural life. Another heavily folk-inspired album followed. ‘Heavy Horses’ not only added acoustic instruments to the band’s electronic instruments, it added rural influences to the lyrics and the album cover themes.

As I said, there's not enough folk influence in rock to form a sub-genre and maybe not enough to be noticed at all at first glance. However, it’s true to say that rarely in music (whatever form it takes) is influence a one-way street. And if it thinks it is then there’s always someone ignoring the roadsigns.

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