Folk music is neither current nor contemporary

(March 14, 2011)

Apparently folk music is inherently disliked by much of the population – not really news. The main reason for this aversion is that folk is old fashioned. This piece of commentary may explain: “Folk music is neither current nor contemporary but built upon a foundation of history that will always hold it back.” (Name of commentator withheld here not to protect the innocent but to discourage the foolish.)

Perhaps part of the so-called ‘innate unpopularity’ of folk and acoustic music (compared with music defined under the broad umbrella of ‘popular’) may be its seeming unbreakable ties with the past. Along with those ties is the persistent belief that its songs only focus on historical events and past times, and cannot by definition be contemporary. There’s also the conviction that it folk is a refuge for people of a certain senior age.

Writing about the past or building on the future?

Certainly, many people do associate folk with history, and indeed many folk artisans are more than happy with that association and actively promote it. It’s true that many contemporary folk artists write songs about the past, equally many write about what’s going on today, although they may well use folk tunes from the past. The reverse is also true; many write about historical events and weave modern melodies into their music. There is some truth in folk’s association with those ‘declining into the vale of years’ but at the same time the continuing growth of nu-folk and young Brit-folk also gives the lie to that assertion. Perhaps those of a certain age find the instantly-disposable world of modern music a little too scary, or possibly the ability to care about a tradition of any sort is lacking in many that lack in years. That gets us perilously close to the burgeoning desire to replace everything traditional that permeates all levels of our society but that topic is for another time.

So does folk have a link with the past that’s permanent or is there a modern edge that will eventually cut the ties? Or does it thrive on its bond with times gone by? And do exponents of modern or new folk relate to the persistence of folk songs focussing on the past? I suspect the answer is yes to all questions. Why else would so many people continue to write folk songs about historical topics even though they may write with modern influences? It is perhaps the all-pervading history of a culture (however distant that may be from today’s society) rather than its specific historic tales that make those songs develop.

A heritage that shows little sign of fading

Do artists writing in a contemporary vein believe the folk tradition should reflect the current times as well as history and culture? There’s definitely a strong need to use that folk heritage. It has a longevity that has survived for hundreds of years and shows little sign of fading. It allows a freedom of closeness that music of the disposable age does not have. Music that follows fashion cannot get close to deep rooted cultural themes. It may take the superficial skim across the surface that most popular music offers but it does not have the time or the inclination to get close to any cultural roots – mostly because the audience its aimed at have little or no interest in anything, music or not, that doesn’t have that immediate ‘now’ factor. And the essence of that ‘now’ factor is to be at the bleeding (sorry - leading) edge of fashion.

Does this discussion mean that only music which belongs to ‘the now’ has any longevity? Of course it doesn’t. If there is a continuous search for the latest and the new then surely the traditional will eventually fade away. Not very likely given that it persists in the face of the most modern-fixated society that has ever walked this planet. Then again, if you accept the music from many modern folk and acoustic artists is part of a continuing, developing tradition, then folk should continue to flourish. The very existence of music in the now gives it a defined shelf life. And so much of it is well beyond its sell-by date after a few weeks let alone a few years. Presumably, all traditional songs were at some point modern. Of course they were, but again, we’re talking about music that comes from a place of cultural strength not music that comes with the vacuity of the latest celebrity. And that is the essential difference.

Is folk changing?

Yes it is. Is it always for the better? Not in my experience. Does change destroy the past? It can but not usually. Change is inevitable but not always good. Within any given folk niche, there remains a hard-core of purists who don't want their tradition diluted. They don’t want change. They want stagnation. Ironic, when you realise that without growth, old folk would have run out of steam by now. The point is that folk is new because new people come to it and nourish it – and in turn are nourished by it. The desire to perpetuate one’s heritage is not in itself a bad thing  - the desire to do that at the expense of moving forward probably is.

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