Why Folk Music Rocks

Music — By on October 16, 2012 at 7:00 am

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.

Image via Flickr.



  • Rapha

    What exactly does folk music have to do with evangelicalism? Talking about music (of any genre) with lyrical content with spiritual implications is one thing. But posts like this in praise of a genre or a band (or bands) for no reason other than musical style to me faintly smells of creating/encouraging a culture of preferences with a Christian (in this case young and “Evangelical”) label slapped on it, an idea which in other articles on this very site has been wisely cautioned against. Even in typing this I wonder if I’m being too sensitive, because we should be able to talk about music without another agenda … but I wonder if this is the proper platform for it.

  • jamesfarnold

    Hey Rapha,

    Thanks for the comment. I didn’t write this post, but I do write here, and edit. I approved this post, so let me give you my perspective. Maybe Andrew will come and provide his own.

    Here at EO, we intend to provide intelligent commentary from a Christian perspective (particularly Evangelical, and we all happen to be young). What this means is simple: we’re all believers, attempting to find a way to intelligently interact with the culture we see around us. God is a creator, and created us as creative people. Lots of creative things happening, and we are happy to highlight beautiful things. Beauty is a reflection of God, though many (most?) beautiful things are marred by less-beautiful things.

    In short, we may take a moment to talk about something like folk music broadly because we see some beauty in it. Justin Martyr argued that all truth was God’s truth (admittedly, he was attempting to ‘save’ Plato, which I’m not convinced he succeeded at), and I think the same applies to anything good, true, or beautiful.

    Does this help clear up our stance?

    I do caution against blind acceptance of cultural goods, or the elevation of preferences to universal beauties, though.

  • Rapha

    I’m pretty sure I understand the argument … my favorite way I’ve heard it phrased is Chris Rice talking at a concert about the way some demand a certain “Jesus Per Minute” in his music, and I don’t intend to do anything of the sort. I guess to me the key to the whole thing is the purpose of the blog. If the focus is to provide a Christian perspective, a perspective that is to some degree representative of Christians/Evangelicals/young Evangelicals … well, for example, your response gives a Christian perspective on beauty. Or how folk music highlights particular aspects of God or beauty (the intimacy/authenticity mentioned at the end of the article could be a great starting point, for example). But there is no Christian perspective on folk (or any other genre) music, so I don’t see how it fits here. If it were on your (or Andrew’s) personal blog that usually deals with Christian topics I wouldn’t bat an eyelash. As Christians we’re allowed to talk about other things, but I wonder if the combination of that topic on this website makes an unintended statement– the “Christian perspective” on folk music as opposed to a Christian’s perspective, which is what it is and there’s nothing wrong that. I realize the distinction I’m making is a subtle one, and somewhat fluid.

    Two parting things: one, as I noted in the first comment, I acknowledge the possibility that I’m just being overly sensitive … my intention was just to ask the question and maybe have something to discuss. Secondly, I happen to be young(ish) and Evangelical and very much in your corner, so please understand that all this rambling is meant to be in a loving, not a critical spirit. Keep up the good work!

  • http://twitter.com/oxenhamuncensrd Oxenham

    Rapha,

    Firstly, thank you for your comment. I’m flattered you took a look at my piece and took a few moments out of your day to think about it and comment on it, that really means a lot to me.

    Secondly, I like the question you opened your response with, “what exactly does folk music have to do with evangelicalism?” For something to be “evangelical,” it is of or according to the teaching of the gospel or the Christian religion. With that in mind, let’s re-examine your question, what does folk music have to do with evangelicalism? It has everything to do with evangelicalism. Central tenants of the Christian religion (ones which I won’t go too deep into here in this comment) include things like authenticity, passion, and soul-searching.

    Thirdly, you note “But there is no Christian perspective on folk (or any other genre) music, so I don’t see how it fits here.” Unfortunately I’m just going to have to push against the term “Christian perspective.” What is a ‘Christian perspective?’ Isn’t it merely a perspective on a thing held by a Christian? As fellow believers we might take a look at said perspective, make sure it aligns with all the things we know to be true about Christianity and how it applies to the topic, and then go from there. And as you alluded, my touching on intimacy and authenticity seem to correlate extremely well to a Christian viewpoint. Soul-searching folk music is reminiscent of the soul-searching David goes through in the Psalms. Authentic is what Christ is, and what he encourages us to be. Those seemed apparent to me so I didn’t draw a direct correlation so that the nuance would exist, so that a non-believer could read my piece and say “yeah I get that about Folk music, I like that authenticity” and then *bam* me and that non-believer have a connection, something to talk about, common ground that (I think) is perfect for a discussion of deeper things. Much like in the way a joke is much funnier if the “getting it” is left to the audience, I usually construct my pieces to let the audience “get it.”

    I hope that helps and I sincerely thank you for your comment.