Making progress, but not necessarily progressive – are we folk or are we rock?

(January 23, 2012)

Bolting random or even precise adjectives to the front of a noun or coupling separate nouns together to create a new hybrid is a popular enough pastime, especially in music, but it’s also open to misuse and misdirection. The additional word may add more meaning to some, to others it may obscure. Append any word that take your fancy (with or without a hyphen) to the front or back of ‘folk’, ‘rock’, ‘punk’, ‘metal’ – the list is endless and arguably you have a more accurate or refined description than you did before. The problem is that using these ‘accurate’ descriptions can lead to confusion or furious debate. You only have to experience the wrath of a disgruntled group of folk fans taking considerable umbrage at the couplet ‘progressive folk’ to understand that point. Then there’s the negative connotations attached to the word ‘progressive’. Apparently, the death of folk (or any other musical genre) is imminent once you add the word ‘progressive’. It seems that this ‘kiss of death’ is traceable to the demise of a particular style of rock; and adding it to folk can only result in a similar outcome.

Arguably, coupling ‘progressive’ to anything became commonplace when it was attached to rock however, it appeared long before that attached to both jazz and blues. However, the term ‘progressive’ sprang to wider notoriety when it was added to the word ‘rock’ to somehow differentiate a new, more complex, more involved form of the genre. More ‘arty’ than what had gone before, this weird vehicle spawned a rash of sub-genres – ‘stadium’, ‘art’, ‘space’, ‘theatrical’ and more - all found themselves bolted to ‘rock’. There are of course hundreds of sub-genres within the term ‘progressive’, which rabid aficionados will defend to the death. But we’re not getting in to that right now. Let’s stick with progressive folk. Once it was added to ‘rock’ along came punk like some sort of musical enema and progressive rock appeared to expire in the detritus of its own excesses. So are people worrying the same fate awaits progressive folk?

What does progressive folk really mean?

The term ‘progressive’ applied to music, and in this case folk music, does not necessarily mean that the genre is making progress over what has gone before. It is not necessarily progress in the sense that the music is moving from somewhere that’s merely acceptable to somewhere else that’s better. Neither does it mean that the music is progressing down an evolutionary path with the end-point being the highest achievable form of the genre. Progressive folk as I understand it, is that which moves along different (albeit perhaps parallel) paths to set off in diverse, different ways to the accepted definition of the word ‘folk’ that exists without the word ‘progressive’ attached to it. So, rather than moving from  an unenlightened, quasi-Neanderthal musical state towards a musical Nirvana it’s possible to define progressive as moving, yes – but not always towards enlightenment.

To briefly summarise progressive rock it gave us long meandering songs, complex tunes that involved unexpected instruments and sometimes symphony orchestras, an increased emphasis on lyrical (and sometimes incomprehensible) storytelling and possibly the expression or reflection of specific concepts. In the ‘progressive folk’ world is all of this true?

Consider long songs. Those songs described as progressive folk are not necessarily longer – they are often relatively short, although they may fall outside of the traditional folk topics. If you want to go for long songs there are hundreds of folk dirges that go on for ages with more verses than the Bible. These vocal excesses are not progressive, they are regressive. In fact they are so stuck-in-a-rut that the very mention of them can reduce ardent and casual folk fans to fits of groans. The progressive folk style goes somewhere different it explores new lyrical avenues and in some cases builds its own avenues of exploration.

Moving on to instruments - the range of instruments can be wider in progressive folk but folk musicians use such a vast array of instruments that variety is not simply the province of progressive folk. There is distinct similarity here with that branded nu-folk or psyche-folk, where the use of devices such as programming and sound-bites appears compulsory. Then again it tends to depend on how and where such devices are used. The case for progressive folk appears to be not simply the range of instruments, neither is it the application of technology. Is it more the juxtaposition of instruments – traditional or 21st century that makes the distinction? Could it be the addition of synthesised sounds or complicated sound bites to folk that creates progressive? Or is it a definition looking for a place to land and a style to define?  

Lyrics fall both into and out of fashion within folk songs. They range from the ‘dum-dee-diddle’ to the ‘fol-de-rol’ at one end of the scale to long rambling diatribes about dead sailors and shipwrecks at the other. And in neither case do they become progressive. It would not appear to be the length or otherwise of the song but more the construction and the content. Building lyrics around extracts from poetry anthologies is equally at home with itself as is building lyrics around topics lifted verbatim from the daily news. The subsequent presentation of those subjects then goes some way to fitting into a ‘progressive’ mould.

How about the development of conceptual content? The themed folk album has been around for some considerable time but not every themed outing is classed as progressive. That said those albums that either the band or the audience consider to be progressive do have an extended feel of poetry about them. And for sure we have seen the folk album, similar to its rock cousins, where one storyline carries the entire album.

Why am I having a hard time with this? The issue is not so much defining what fits into progressive folk it’s harder to decide what to leave out.

So who offers us progressive folk?

There are many folk artists that push the boundaries. Alright, let’s reconsider. There are a few that push, while others gently lean and hope something gives way, while most knock and enter as long as the door is opened from the inside.

So if there is a folk form which moves along different but perhaps parallel paths from everything else, and if its diverse, different ways do not follow the accepted definition of the word ‘folk’ does that mean it is ‘progressive’. And if it does who offers us ‘progressive folk’? And is it just another fancy couplet attached to a form that’s otherwise hard/ impossible to classify?

So that being the case, the number of folk artists and bands that fall under the progressive banner may not be huge. Indeed, it appears that some drift in and out of the term freely and frequently. And then one has to ask does the progressive term expand to add the sub-genres of pastoral-folk, psyche-folk and nu-folk?

The more ‘folky’ and less rocky albums served up by Jethro Tull are said to fall repeatedly into the progressive folk slot – despite those that tell you they are a blues-rock band (another couplet designed to illustrate a style). The Tull certainly turn out concept albums – so one tick in the box there if you like. It’s often argued that those notable exponents of folk, The Incredible String Band, fall freely into the progressive slot. Indeed, they delivered many of the requirements – long meandering songs, incomprehensible lyrics, both concept and free-ranging albums and a fair degree of strange instruments. There’s Dr. Strangely Strange – rarely long songs but as obscure as you please and also involving instrument combinations and arrangements that are not immediate bed-fellows. Then of course there’s The Strawbs – oft-criticised for selling out on their folk roots and moving into ‘stadium folk rock’. Then again the defenders of the band will tell you they are pure progressive folk – especially with their repeated ‘concept album’ outings. Even the stalwarts of folk rock, Fairport Convention have wandered into concept album territory but would they ever fall into a progressive folk bracket?

Then there are those bands that practice their art in the less-heady regions of the universe. These could be called ‘progressive folk’ bands. They also glory under the psyche, pastoral and nu banners but could as easily fit themselves (should they wish) into the progressive discipline. Such eminent purveyors of folk as Telling the Bees, The Hare and The Moon, Harp and A Monkey to name but three, could, were one lax with the boundaries of definition, fit the term with some ease.

So after all that debate, does such a beast as ’progressive folk’ actually exist? Depends on your point of view, but in many ways I think ‘progressive’ is as good a definition as any available to illustrate a style of folk music that progresses down different paths, in diverse ways. Put it this way, unless you suffer from an overbearing desire to leave everything as it always was and move nowhere, then it just might.

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