FolkWords Writes

“It’s the definitions, it’s the definitions.”

(October 09, 2007)

Somewhat like Victor Hugo’s hunchback driven insane by the bells, the debate about folk music definitions keeps ringing in my ears. And like the noises in Quasimodo’s deaf-eared head they refuse to go away.


Get two or more people to discuss folk and you’ll get twenty different opinions. Then soon you face another round in the definitions debate. So why bother listening to a debate, which in reality has no answers? Well, it’s pure interest in the differing views nothing more. The genre doesn’t need defining but anyone can define it as they wish – still an intriguing debate all the same.

Now I recognise that defining music is nothing new. And it’s clear that many other musical styles have individuals who strive to find or create definitions. Folk in all its guises from traditional to new has a wide and eclectic audience so maybe nobody cares. But if that’s the case why do I keep running into people desperate to put a label on folk? Some good and kind folk (pun intended) have taken the time to consider the question and share their thoughts - purely from an interest view. The definitions persist and differing views continue to ring out, so here’s another clang on the old bell.

”Folk music is innately hard to define, in the same way that 'culture' is hard to define. For me, the term 'folk' suggests a tradition passed on through participation and experience. With music, this usually means that aural learning and repetition pass on tunes, songs and stories from one exponent to another,” states Brian Madigan of A Band Named Brian.  

Madigan continues:The beauty of folk traditions is that they are subject to interpretation by each subsequent performer and the influences brought in from other cultures and traditions. The reason that I consider what I do, as a singer-songwriter, to be 'folk' orientated, is the subject matter reflects every-day experience that will (I hope) resonate with most people within my 'culture'. What I do not personally subscribe to is a notion of any one 'folk' tradition is fixed or sacred.”

Not only is that a comprehensive definition, it’s also a clearly considered belief. If you happen to be a definitions freak it’s also a good one to add to your collection.

Simon Hopper, lyricist and composer with The Simon Hopper Band says: It’s easiest to describe folk music as ‘music that culturally belongs to a people’ - it’s music that speaks of their experiences in their language. It’s by implication, the music of the common people of society.”

“I’m not certain I write folk music – I just write what I have to write in the way that presents itself. I think it’s sometimes easier to define something by excluding what doesn’t fit rather than defining what does. One thing I’m sure of is that folk music is about truth - the truth of the lived experience.” 

Again, it’s a view that few would argue with, and one that allows significant latitude on folk music as a genre. And I think that’s the important point. Folk music clearly has some areas of style, voice, and approach that dictate its overall impression. Other than that, if it works for you who cares whether it works for me. If it’s good music - then good luck.

Tom Drinkwater, who with Helen Bell was the duo Pillowfish, considers there to be two starting points to defining folk music. “First, there is the Victorian or ‘trad’ definition of folk as the product of an oral or aural tradition over a long period of time, among a culturally and ethnically homogenous population. And second, the ‘socialist’ definition of music made by ordinary people (with other non-musical jobs or vocations) for their own entertainment, without thought of wages.”

“By ‘trad’ I mean the ‘trad’ folk scene rather than ‘traditional’ which has many meanings. This is because ‘traditional’ has a general 
meaning in the language. I'm not sure the Victorian definition
is any more traditional in the broader sense, but it’s certainly more‘trad’
in the sense of being
the dominant definition used by ‘trad’ folkies, even if they don't conform to it themselves.”
“Of course, it’s arguable the traditional folk scene doesn’t fit these definitions either. It's universally middle-class, includes only a tiny
minority of the population and therefore not ‘ordinary’ or ‘common’ people. It’s fixed in nostalgia for a particular time, contains many
professional musicians, and all sorts of cultural contaminants.”

Much folk music maintains nostalgia for an earlier time. That may be linked to an increasing longing among some groups for a return to a perceived ‘simpler’ way of life and a sense of rejection for the ‘modern’ world. Perhaps the answer is more ordinary, in that it’s just because a bunch of people happen to like traditional songs. Good and fine though that love of the ‘old ways’ may be, there is a need to wear ’rose-coloured’ spectacles when viewing the past with a wistful gaze. I’m sure anyone living a hundred or so years ago would agree – if you could transport them to the 21st century. The difficulty comes when the tradition and the rules that go with it define music in a negative way.

Drinkwater continues: “The first definition is dangerous in a way – it can easily lead to parochialism. It’s fictitious anyway in that all traditions evolve from cross-fertilisation with others, often much more rapidly than the traditionalists would believe.”

“My problem with the second is that it doesn't produce an artistically satisfying musical result. Of course, that's not what it's for. I'm all for people entertaining themselves musically, I participate in sessions myself, but why anyone would want to listen to the results is beyond me. Sessions, karaoke, amateur musicals, and singalongs around the piano - they are all fun for those doing it, but not much fun for anyone listening. Those traditional sessions that do achieve good musical results are generally so circumscribed and rule laden that they are effectively a band with an informal performance style.”

Perhaps the problem is considering session-type music as art. It's not, it's conversation, recreation, socialising. It’s the musical equivalent of talking rubbish to your mates down at the pub, rather than writing a poem or a story. It’s arguable that great songs do not fall out of session-type music. Traditional or otherwise, most great music needs far more than a few mates playing for fun. Although the session itself can often be the ‘seed bed’ for something far more enduring – many a pub conversation has sowed a powerful seed in someone’s mind.

Damien Barber of The Demon Barbers says: “For me folk is what I grew up with; the music I listened to and learned as a child,
music that develops and grows but keeps
its original roots in the words, tunes or style. If I’m searching through Walter Pardon’s songs
looking for something that I can work with and a lyric catches my attention
it doesn’t mean I just trot out the same old rhythm and melody.
What it does mean though
is I'm working with a music that connects us to our past and that's important. History
books
tell us what our forefathers did, folk music tells us how they felt when
they did it."

The question of style raises an interesting point. Is it easy to say if a style is rock or not? A rock style is easy to identify (given there are many variations within rock as with folk). With folk music there is a continual blurring of the edges, mostly brought about by the people who play in a folk style even though many argue that they don’t play folk music. The style that’s called folk-rock is in many ways easier to identify than folk. Perhaps it’s the division that makes it easier. Maybe it’s a little like defining species down to groups – the smaller the group the easier to define.

Barber believes: “Folk-rock styles are easily identified. Just because there’s an electric instrument in a band doesn't make it folk-rock; it has to use rock rhythms. Folk-rock has specific style; electric folk is different, it's folk music that uses electric instruments. Definitions are important, especially for audiences. We like to have an idea of what it is we're going to see but for me if it’s good music, it’s good music –whatever the style.”

Now that sounds as though we’re getting somewhere.

Are we in danger of including pop music in the wider scope of folk?

Many musicians consider pop music to be the folk music of today. Personally, I used to hate pop music on the radio. Nothing would make me listen to Radio 1 – mostly because of the music, but also because of the presenters. Bob Harris and John Peel were great but Tony Blackburn and Peter Powell and the like were not! Also, I and many of my generation believed the establishment had somehow stolen the freedom of the Pirate Radio Stations. All Radio 1 did was sanitise their approach and make their message part of the establishment. A vast amount of pop music became pap controlled by the music industry. However, slowly pop music changed. Much new pop music has lyrics that are worth listening to. Of course there is still pop designed for mass consumption and commercial gain with no more depth the average puddle.

Barber comments once more: “Over the last 50 years or so the mainstream music industry has had control over what people listened to. I don't believe that people really wanted musical pap, they never had a choice, it was what they were given and for a while there was nothing else. Things are changing now because of the Internet, the music industry is losing control and there's some great music being played on mainstream radio - I guess through popular demand. Pop music is becoming it's own definition at last!"

"There are many folk music influences in today’s pop music. There’s folk music on Radio 1 – they might not call it folk music but quite often there’s just one-person and a guitar. Pop music got hung up with the ‘fashionista’ thing and a huge chunk of it still is - but there’s a definite move towards pop music that’s worth something.” 

 That raises a good question

Is 'pop music' the folk music of the 21st Century or is 'pop music' just mindless garbage? Broadly speaking, pop music is the folk music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries because it provides a common currency to explain ideas and shared experience through easily memorable and repeatable melody and lyrics. Thus it continues the largely aural tradition of earlier folk forms.

Is the difference that folk songs tell stories to convey point and meaning, while pop songs are just commercial words for commercial gain? I think this comes down to each individual's idea of what defines 'pop'. Both Simon and Brian believe: “Within the pop culture there is much cynical production of easily marketable, commercially viable tunes. However, the same genre has produced countless songs that are the staple of whole generations in making sense of their shared world.

Many people I speak to contend that different people see the value of any piece of music (or any other art form) differently in different circumstances. It’s not so much the value placed on it, as how readily any group accepts it and accepts that a particular style belongs to its definition of itself.

One enduring argument among many new and to be accurate, some established musicians, is the fixed English folk tradition makes it hard for folk musicians to develop. Too many parts of the genre define people ‘out’ rather than allowing them the latitude to develop their music where it will.

Of course, there is always another definition to consider and that’s the ‘usage’ definition. That’s music that has some subset of musical, lyrical or historical features, such as jigs and reels, narrative songs, or lack of a known composer. Many of these have randomly been lumped together by historical accident and perceived as ‘folk’. The vagueness of this definition and its co-existence with the first two more sensible definitions is what leads to the ‘what is folk’ debate, which is ultimately not about content but about definition and limitation.

I think there is an element that is deeply conservative and impenetrable but this is true within any branch of performance art. There is a tendency to equate 'traditional' with sacred and immutable and this, I suspect, can be the death of any living art form. In the main, I think there is an ebb and flow between the more rarefied 'traditional' branches of folk music and the more accessible populist performers. Probably, I think that neither would work so well without the other.

That’s a view that works for me.

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