Is ‘roots music’ anything to do with folk?

(September 29, 2017)

If it is, has it dropped into the same confusion of categorisation as folk music? The first contemporary use of the word ‘roots’ in a musical sense defined traditional musical played by artists in the styles of their ancestors ... pretty close to an already accepted term for folk. This ‘roots’ definition covered music from Albania to Zimbabwe ... and rightly so, it’s not just music from ‘over there’. Roots was primarily but not necessarily in the folk culture or oral music vein, and although not necessarily music from outside the British Isles, it’s once again pretty close to one accepted definition of folk music. That is music from ‘the oral tradition of a particular region or country’.

The term ‘roots revival’ when it first appeared was more specific, in that it described artists playing music that was all but extinct. Generally, the music being revived was not quite dead, although some branches of its tree were withered and others were near to dying ... not too far away once more from the British folk revival. Then again, many middle-class British folkies of the 70s and 80s perceived ‘roots’ to be ethnic music from third-world countries ... often patronisingly described as ‘music played by third world people’. How horrible is that?

Like folk, much roots music incorporates political lyrics, often critical of a government, religion, a ruling authority or a class or society in general. If that’s not close to British folk what is? Often, the lyrics of thus-defined roots music, are from a class or sub-culture of a nation that uses music to express more than social unrest, injustice and human problems. It often becomes the embodiment of that nation's character or tradition. Roots music is all music that comes from that position ... the roots that ensure we all thrive ... and that includes British folk as much as that from outside these islands.

Take a look at ‘roots’ music today and much of it is categorised by national and regional boundaries. Boundaries that are often perceived as separate to ‘home-grown’ folk. The folk that many refer to as being in the 'British folk vein' includes all music from the British Isles and most of it owes a debt to its roots; wherever they thrive. There is a continual desire to classify and categorise ‘roots’ as there is with folk music and eventually it’s pointless. If musical history shows us anything then it demonstrates the roots derivative of all music.

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