This is not a review of Mumford & Sons’s newest album. Ms. Alicia Prickett did a fantastic job writing a thoughtful review on Mumford & Son’s newest album a few days ago. This post seeks to understand a couple of questions. The first: where did this genre we call folk music come from? The second: why is this genre so popular today, why is contemporary folk music making a resurgence?
Answering the first question, curiously enough, is not as easy a task as one would hope. Folk is a general grouping, a genre with no concrete definition. Originally, the term ‘folk’ came from ‘folk lore,’ a word used to describe the “traditions, customs and superstitions of the uncultured classes,” penned by a British writer named William Thoms. Folk lore described the commoners’ way of life, the way the common folk lived. Musically, ‘folk music’ referred to songs passed down through oral tradition, songs with no credited artists and no copyright on them. Eventually folk music would become an established term for a particular type of music characterized by the vaguely termed ‘traditional feel.’ Much like it is difficult to describe what makes a delicious meal delicious, yet one can easily say “that meal was delicious,” it is difficult to give a concrete definition of what folk music is. And yet, list specific bands and one can pretty easily say “that is definitely a folk band.”
Current contemporary folk bands’ particular styles are as varied as the attempted definitions of the word ‘folk music.’ Bands such as The Head and the Heart use a guy-and-girl-on-lead-vocals-style reminiscent of a more roughshod Of Monsters and Men. Of Monsters and Men clearly draw a lot of their influence from the flagship folk influence of our time, Mumford & Sons. Singer-songwriter Ryan Adams’ iTunes Sessions album, a stripped down version of some of his more popular songs, is an intimate folksy album that just oozes passion and soul. And this seems to be the appeal of folk music. One of my fellow bloggers recently linked to a thought-provoking piece on the Huffington Post which noted that topical diversity is killing current Hip-Hop music. This is both the brilliance and the appeal of Folk Music: it is a vaguely established “genre” which exists in order that people might find topical diversity within their particular blend of folk. It’s a way of giving an artist creative freedom to write music along any particular vein the artist chooses.
Less than a week ago, up-and-coming folk band The Lumineers took the stage in Santa Ana to a sold out show inside of an aging concert venue called The Observatory. As they launched into their hit single “Ho Hey,” lead singer Wesley Shultz stopped the song half a verse in and said “ok we’re gonna need you all to put your cellphones down for this one. You can find videos and photos of us online but we believe hands are for clapping and feet are for stomping, so if you all would put down your cell phones, we’ll try this again.” And therein lies the beauty and the appeal of folk music. It is a return to the rural intimacy that the rise of pop music stars has lost. Few other genres can do such a magnificent job of trading the tedium of contemporary music for the authenticity that honest, traditional, soul-searching folk music brings.