Thinking about a style of music that reminds us that we're all in this together.
Last week we talked about the wonderful singer songwriter Nanci Griffith who died earlier this month in Nashville. While many other people have described her music as being country or even shading over into pop, I’ve always thought of her first and foremost as a folk singer.
I think my favorite recording of hers is a 1994 album called Other Voices, Other Rooms for which she won a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk album. It’s a collection of cover tunes – it’s her playing songs from other artists: Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Janis Ian, John Prine, and
many others. She described it as “a full grown family tree of the songs, voices, and writers whose music so firmly gave me roots and the strength to branch out on my own as a writer.” Perhaps that’s where I would encourage you to dip into her catalog if you were thinking about it. And I hope you are.
Every culture has folk music, inasmuch as folklore is an artistic component to every culture. Lots of European composers including the Russian Stravinsky and the Czech Smetana worked ancient folk melodies into their orchestral works to great effect. Traditional American folk music is, unsurprisingly, tremendously varied because American folklore is driven significantly by immigration through American history. Dutch stories from New Amsterdam via New York; Welsh folk tunes via Appalachia; African rhythmic nuances via jazz.
What we think of as 20th century folk music is actually closely related to the blues. At least in conception. Blues is about having the blues. Folk music is often about watching someone else have the blues. The poetic trick, said James Baldwin, “is to be within the experience and outside it at the same time” and that’s the key to what we think of since the 1930s really as folk music. And this touches on a quality that lots of great art has. It’s teaches us to be empathetic.
Folk music is by its nature communal. It stands against radical individualism. That’s part of the reason that it had such a strong resurgence in the late 1950s and early 60s as the mainstream business culture of the man in the grey flannel suit was becoming more dominant and more cookie-cutter. Folk music was one of the first stirrings of the counter culture.
The best folk music—whether it’s by Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, or Nanci Griffith—takes us out of ourselves and makes us see the world through someone else’s eyes. Our culture could use a lot more of that these days.