Reflecting the world or commenting on it?

(May 31, 2009)

Does music reflect life and change due to its influence or does music act as an impetus for change?

Ask the writers of 60’s protest songs or those who rode the punk music wave and they would say that music (with social pressures and awareness) creates change. Is it still true? Was it ever true?

Many styles of music, especially the enduring genres that live under the terms folk and roots, reflect what's happening to people and their views of the world they inhabit. They are styles that write about people. Their narratives record more than the emotions and lives of individuals. They record the political, environmental, social and military issues that affect us all. They also impact on the way people think. They change views, catalogue injustice. They become living history, guardians of and communicators of tradition. Equally they evolve and develop into whatever influences their creators.

There are the more transient musical styles such as punk and protest that encapsulate a sense of a time or rage against a situation. 

They make a point but do not endure – any more than the 60’s endured. Not surprising, I suppose styles change and develop and what’s new and different for one generation almost certainly falls from favour with the next. There’s nothing so satisfying for the ‘next generation’ as to tear down, deride or replace the styles and tastes of their parents. That includes forming fashion, slang and musical styles designed to make the oldies shudder. What is surprising however is the way that folk music above all other styles endures.

The successive waves of rabid enthusiasm that accompanied such phases such as glam rock, punk and romantic seem no more permanent than the snows of spring. Whatever spawned their existence has either died or gone into deep hibernation. Yet folk endures. Now I’m certain that if you looked hard enough you could find some tribute bands or maybe even some old die-hards still writing and playing every short-lived musical style known to man, however still folk endures.

So why is this?

It’s mostly down to the subject and content of folk music. Whatever branch of folk lights your fire (and goodness knows it’s a tree with enough branches) the content is always ready to reach out and touch people. It may be through the collective consciousness of a situation or experience. It could be precise observations of cause and effect. It is perhaps identifying an emotion. Whatever it is folk music endures.

Naturally, folk will never gain the adulation nor reach the heady heights of celebrity-driven musicality attained by other genres. Perhaps that’s the secret of its longevity. Whether there’s a mystery or not folk music endures because it is the music of the people rather than the music of fashion.

So perhaps because folk music reflects life it absorbs life. Because of that folk music exists beyond time and taste. And above all it endures.


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