Electric folk – what and why?

(May 20, 2009)

Is that folk that are powered by electricity? Or is it folk music that uses electric instruments? Or is it just a zappy kind of folk?

As with all musical styles with an ever-changing mix the meaning to the folk world is amorphous and electric folk is no exception. However, for the sake of a few hundred words on the subject let’s try to pin it down – much as we may find ourselves chasing a squirrel under a blanket.

The electric folk heritage is most readily laid at the door of folk rock and an incipient longing for more tradition within that field. Folk rock, in this case being that branch of the folk music tree that first flourished in England from the late sixties, through the seventies dipped a little in the eighties, woke up again in the nineties and now we’re in the ‘oughties (I hate that word –  even though it’s not a ‘word’ as such) continues undiminished.

On the way through its development, folk rock evolved into a host of other derivates. The folklore is that during the eighties it not only declined in popularity, but more precisely it polarised itself out of the ‘popular’ space into the niche spaces it occupies today – electric folk being one of those niches. Although originally the term electric folk once appeared to be interchangeable with folk rock, it is now used more exclusively as a means of distinguishing a clear and distinct segment within wider the wider folk rock genre.

The rise of electric folk began simply because artists were searching for a different expression of folk rock. As well as encompassing English songs and tunes, electric folk extended to take in various Celtic cultures of Brittany, Ireland, Scotland, to some extent, Wales and even the more minor Celtic stronghold of Cornwall. Then of course there’s the electric folk that hails from those regions of Eastern Europe that have cast off their shadows and jumped out into the sunshine. There’s also some from America (where tradition-seeking folkies find their roots and start playing electric folk) and the occasional offering from as far as Australia.

The distinction of electric folk

When bands first defined themselves as 'electric folk' they made a distinction in content and style from existing 'folk rock'. Folk rock was and is (to them) as stated - American-style singer-songwriter material played on rock instruments. It was also English folk played with rock rhythms – mostly by a myriad of followers and impersonators of the original bands.

The distinction of electric folk was pursued because the artists and bands involved focused on indigenous (more precisely – English, or other variations – see above) songs and tunes. That does not mean that these musicians did not write their own material it just meant that their own compositions were characterised by the use of that traditional English song and tune. That and the fact they created new songs in the traditional style, using the format and instruments of a rock band with the occasional addition of more traditional instruments.

Take a look at the clear elements of traditional music. This includes lyrics, tunes and primarily acoustic instruments. These involve the use of traditional music rhythms of 3+3+2 (8 beats, with the stress falling on the first, fourth, and seventh beats). Frequently, it blends multiple traditional songs often with a short instrumental inserted in a longer lyrical piece.

Then look at the standard rock music format. First the rhythm, which specifically has a back-beat, with a melodic and/or rhythmic figure that is persistently repeated throughout a piece or a section of a piece. And add of course the ubiquitous hook plus the key change. Instruments are primarily electric

Not all of these features are found in every song. For example, electric folk groups, while predominantly using traditional material as their source for lyrics and tunes, also write their own (nearly as much as traditional musicians do).

So is electric folk different from folk rock? Who reaaly cares? However, there is this persistent urge to deliver traditional folk through amplified music and that ain't always folk rock.

So for the sake of not much at all 'electric folk' will do for me.

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