Song writers and song writing - folk or not

(December 20, 2007)

 Ask a musician what makes them write and you open an interesting debate. The answers are rarely similar and often enlightening.

There are those who do it because it’s ‘what they do’, those who ‘have to get something out of their soul’ and those who ‘believe their music is important’. Rarely is it for commercial gain. That’s not the end of it though. Many musicians have no clear idea why they do it. To steal some words from a fine folk musician: “There are a hundred other strange, muddy and obscure reasons why human beings write music.” 

There is a supposition that in some way musicians are different to the rest of us. They are supposed to be driven to do what they do. When you ask many people to form a mental picture of a ‘musician’ the image of the starving poet in the bare garret appears to come most frequently to mind. The vast majority perceive the marginally sane songwriter agonising over every word, attempting (and failing) to drag something vital from his or her soul, simply because they have to do it – no matter how painful the process may be. Dramatic though these images are it is clear they are fundamentally flawed.

For many the music is secondary. What drives many to write is the subject. Another musician gave me the following insight into his craft: “Normally, the first verse arrives without music. To me the words are everything. There’s a certain plaintiveness about writing. It’s looking for how to do something, groping. Sometimes it comes to you like that. I’ve tried four or five different rhythms and guitar patterns.”

So it would appear that internal and external influences are inextricably intertwined. External influences affect the song writer’s internal emotions and feelings, which in turn stimulate the desire for outward expression. Many song writer’s songs deal with personal feelings through the device of every-day metaphor, so the process is reversed.

 The well-known (and well sold) masters of the art and those who make no mark on the larger stage both write because they had something to say and share. Not because they thought it was an easy way to make a living. It is demonstrably not an easy way to earn money. Yet thousands still write and perform for little or no gain. Generally the really successful songs become so because they have an intrinsic value beyond marketing and commerce.  

Having got that understood the next point to discuss is the type of song.

Is the narrative form of song writing the backbone of folk?  That’s a good question. It comes up time after time and there has to be some truth in the assertion. After all, folk songs have told tales and stories for all time. Admittedly, those tales were derived from influences as diverse as life in the army, the navy, thievery, incest, land clearances, imprisonment, deportation and hundreds of others. However, although the use of the modern narrative still pervades folk music it’s also used widely in popular or ‘pop’ music and in many instances to excellent effect.

The narrative style is what allows many song writers to label their songs 'folk'. So probably the narrative style is a backbone of folk music. Does the narrative style exist beyond folk?  Yes. The following observation is from another respected song writer I have got to know: “Consider a song such as 'Up The Junction' by Squeeze or 'Bohemian Rhapsody' (admittedly nonsense but highly entertaining and memorable with it) by Queen or 'Arnold Laine' by Pink Floyd. These were and remain wonderful story telling, narrative songs – but are they folk? Probably not - but they may be one day.”

This view brings us back to the question of pop today being the folk of tomorrow. Answers on the back of a beer mat please - preferably with the beer and a full glass attached.

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