FolkWords Writes

It’s all in the lyric ... (Part 1.)

(August 10, 2010)

Folk music is music handed down to or between folk that much is certain. People share folk music. People do so because they like the tune or the lyrics. And that’s the point.

Interestingly, it’s the point with most music. People share and listen because they like it; however folk has moved through a curious journey that transcends ‘liking’ and moves into replaying, modifying and adapting.

Accept it or not, the great depth and breadth of the folk genre is music that moves between people and people who are moved by the music, and crucially people that play music. So what? Well the ‘what’ in this case happens to be the ‘content’. And for this discussion, at this point in time, that content is the lyric – the words and the essence - implied, conveyed, or meant.

The folk lyric has taken too many twists and turns to easily summarise its journey

The influences are legion. The corruption is manifold. The devastation of understanding is often complete. There's the development of the chorus lyric – from too many ‘fol-de-rols’ and the occasional 'wack-the-diddle-oh' - followed by a disjointed story about deflowered virgins and dead sailors. The more modern edge lyric ranges from soldiers returning from pointless wars through social commentary to more introspective ramblings that interest other people not one jot.

However you categorise it there often remains a lingering desire to take the lyric away from whatever influence spawned it and analyse it to death. And when you do are you left with poetry, prose or a random selection of words? Whatever you have it’s easy to criticise the old along with the new and make generalisations that offer nothing but confusion.

Despite its race to keep up with a rapidly changing world folk music lyrics continue to come in for a fair amount of possibly unfair criticism. Consider if you will the 'modern' folk song. For the sake of debate let's confine ourselves under that definition to folk songs written in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The fashion, if there is such a thing in folk music, is equally split

On one hand it’s taking a new or different view of an historical event, battle, or person and write new lyrics. The lyrics may well be new (as may be the tune) but with only a tiny tweak of the ‘human imagination chip’, they could quite happily dwell with a distant cousins of two, three or even four hundred years ago.

Such songs have that ‘chameleon-like’ quality that enables them to change their feel to fit their time. The beauty for the listener is that they can position the song whenever they feel it belongs. The advantage for the song is a ready acceptance among the more traditional folkies coupled with the wider acceptance of people who like both story and presentation. There is also the route that moulds everything from odd snippets from military manuals to great chunks of Kipling’s verse to create the lyric, which is then bolted to a new folk tune.

However it's constructed the folk lyric has and implies meaning. As I said earlier, although prone to a bit of 'dum-de-diddle-oh' it conveys meaning and offers a narrative. There are few folk lyrics that rely on 'da-doo-ron-ron' all the way through.

Then, on the other hand there are folk song lyrics that sit expressly in today. These songs look forward not back. There is no doubt where they sit in history. Of course, there’s the still the introspective folk lyric that means nothing to anyone but the artist. However, the song that makes the long journey from one head to hundreds is generally the lyric that either tells a story or makes a point. That story could be told by lyrics that cover the banking crisis, the credit crunch, strikes, public sector cuts and the spectre of home repossession. Although there are a few emerging there are still I feel many more being written or at least gestating ‘in the head’ of a folk artist awaiting birth.

Whatever the route there’s a place for both and their existence is not mutually exclusive.

As the lyrics state: Long may the fashion last that welcomes all your songs.

Click here to return to the FolkWords Writes page