Folk music is such a vague term ...

(May 30, 2017)

“Folk music is such a vague term and hard to explain” - there's a remark to make you sit up and listen. Folk is often described as ‘music that culturally belongs to a people’. Music that speaks of their experiences in their language. Music that follows a narrative form in telling stories, histories and legends. It is often described as by implication, the music of the common people of society. So is that vague? As it happens, there is no burning need for yet another folk definition but I like to explore these things. So I’ll stick with this, for the time being anyway.

The term ‘folk’ is like the proverbial squirrel under the blanket ... damn hard to pin down. Depending on your birthplace, generation, country of origin and personal predilection, folk ranges from the work of Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson through Martin Carthy, Ralph McTell and Ewan MacColl to Luke Jackson, Damien O’Kane and Kate Rusby That also includes a raft of bands and artists taking folk from wherever they find it and translating it into whatever musical influences catch their ear, innovations and inventions they can imagine ... and everyone else in between, before or since, from both sides of the Atlantic, East, West, North, South (and everywhere else). So that description is a fairly liberal for a start.

However, to some people folk music is not vague at all. Their opinions are so strong that they discount a whole raft of music that could be called folk. Indeed, many of the singers, bands and composers who consider they write in the folk genre would be horrified to hear their work excluded by these self-made arbiters of taste.

Consider a song that has become a folk anthem ... Matty Groves - ask 20,000 people at Cropredy if it’s folk and see what answer you get. However, many consider that Matty Groves as performed by Fairport Convention to be folk-rock ... not purist folk. As if that somehow means the song is no longer pure folk and has joined the ranks of some sort of superficial or disposable music. There are those who argue the song is more correctly sung without electric instruments, and that ‘as performed by Fairport’ the song is no longer ‘folk’. Interesting. But who’s to say folk music or not? And in reality outside of academic meanderings, who cares?

Should you ask: “Which is the correct style for folk?” The answer is: “There is no correct style.” That’s one of the problems you encounter when people are fixated on trying to describe folk music. Definitions of any sort are usually hard, fast and fixed. They confine and restrict, they define and classify. For my money, music, folk or otherwise is not for such restrictions. Something so organic doesn’t readily fit in a confining box.

People are different from one another, they’ve got different backgrounds and like different types of music. Some harbour avid traditionalist views, while others thrive on the eclectic nature of music. The truth: “What matters more is not what you do and the way that you do it, but that you do it with conviction.”

Click here to return to the Comment page