FOLK MUSIC: THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY

It suddenly dawned on me while doing my nightly round of pre-sleep songwriting (why does it seem to come so easily and quickly when I don’t want it??) that, despite the title of this blog, I have never talked about music. Folk music in particular. As long as you don’t count the whole “Nickelback SuX0rs!” post. :)

Let’s wade through the often murky genre of “folk” music and try to find those artists you should consider listening to (if you don’t already); and those who’d we’d rather just pretend never existed. I use quotes because my definition of the genre is a little murky. In this list you’ll probably see musicians that fit into other categories: Rock, Country, or the oh so generic singer/songwriter.

Strap yourselves in. This should be a post of E P I C proportions.

FIRSTLY, WHAT IS “FOLK MUSIC”

Each country has their own folk music, but the genre usually refers to American and British music that has been passed through the generations by oral tradition. It’s simple, acoustic-based music that spins everyday events and common people into mythic status. Many traditional folksongs have no known author, they have simply evolved over the years. Most of the earliest recorded folk music was of this nature, but with Woody Guthrie, topical folk began making its way to record. Still, many artists, including the Weavers and Pete Seeger, chose to mix traditional songs with newer material, either written by the artists themselves or other contemporary musicians. Initially, Bob Dylan functioned in that style, but by his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, he began relying entirely on original material, thereby ushering the modern era of folk, where most performers sang their own (usually personally and introspective) material, and only occasionally throwing in covers.

SONGS/ARTISTS: Guantanamera by Pete Seeger, Alice’s Restaurant Massacree by Arlo Guthrie, This Land Is Your Land by Woody Guthrie, City of New Orleans by Steve Goodman.

Now a look at some sub-genres within the umbrella of “folk music” that I will be mentioning. These definitions are more percise, and are, as far as I’m concerned, the more truthful and useful than their bloated and overstretched cousin. The following definitions come from the AMG All Music Guide. Many of these sub-genres have many other branching sub genre’s as well. It all begins to get rediciously complicated.. but I’ll try to keep it as basic as I can.

FOLK-ROCK

Folk-Rock takes the simple, direct songwriting style of folk music and melds it to a prominent rock & roll backbeat. One of the most distinctive elements of folk-rock is the chiming, ringing guitar hooks, coupled with clear vocal harmonies. Folk-rock was pioneered in the mid-’60s by the Byrds, who played Bob Dylan songs as if they were from the British Invasion. The Byrds established the blueprint that many bands followed. As the ’60s winded down, more folk-rock groups emphasized the acoustic origins of folk and backed away from the ringing electric arrpeggios of the Byrds. In the next three decades, both the acoustic and electric folk-rock sounds were commonplace in rock & roll.

SONGS/ARTISTS: Mr. Tambourine Man by The Byrds, Judy Blue Eyes by Crosby, Stills & Nash, Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell, California Dreamin’ by The Mamas & the Papas

FOLK-POP

(EDITORIAL: You’ll find alot of the very cheesy and sacrin Time-Life filler material in this genre.)

Folk-Pop falls into two categories. Either it is folk songs with large, sweeping pop arrangements, or pop songs with intimate, acoustic-based folk arrangements. Folk-pop began to evolve in the early ’60s, but it came into full force after folk-rock became a sensation in the mid-’60s. Folk-pop doesn’t have ringing guitars and rougher edges of folk-rock; instead, it is softer, gentler, and more pop-oriented.

SONGS/ARTISTS: Kisses Sweeter Than Wine by Jimmie F. Rodgers, Tijuana Jail by The Kingston Trio, Leaving on a Jet Plane by Peter, Paul & Mary, Don’t Let the Rain Come Down (Crooked Little Man) by Serendipity Singers

SINGER/SONGWRITER

Although many vocalists sang their own songs, including early rock & rollers like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, the term Singer/Songwriter refers to the legions of performers that followed Bob Dylan. Most of the original singer/songwriters performed alone with an acoustic guitar or a piano. Their lyrics were personal, although they were often veiled by layers of metaphors and obscure imagery. Singer/songwriters drew primarily from folk and country, although certain writers like Randy Newman and Carole King incorporated the songcraft of Tin Pan Alley pop. The main concern for any singer/songwriter was the song itself, not necessarily the performance. However, most singer/songwriter records have a similar sound, which is usually spare, direct, and reflective, which places the emphasis on the song itself. James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell were the quintessential singer/songwriters of the ’70s, and most of the songwriters that followed them based themselves on their styles, or Dylan’s. Singer/songwriters were at the height of their popularity in the early ’70s, and although they faded away from the pop chart, they never disappeared. In the late ’70s, Rickie Lee Jones and Joan Armatrading crossed over into the pop charts, as did Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman in the late ’80s. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, a number of songwriters — like John Gorka and Bill Morrissey — kept the tradition alive through a series of independently released albums.

SONGS/ARTISTS: Heart of Gold by Neil Young, Ol’ 55 by Tom Waits, Fire and Rain by James Taylor, Wild World by Cat Stevens

POLITICAL FOLK

Political Folk follows in the footsteps of the legendary Woody Guthrie, whose highly polemical folk songs inspired a generation of tough-minded, activist singer/songwriters including Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs; simply, protest music follows the aesthetic traditions of folk, but with lyrics which take a definite, usually left-wing, political stance.

SONGS/ARTISTS: We Shall Overcome by Pete Seeger, This Land Is Your Land by Woody Guthrie, The Times Are a Changin’ by Bob Dylan, “Fish” Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag by Country Joe McDonald, Help Save the Youth of America by Billy Bragg

ANTI-FOLK/URBAN-FOLK

Anti-Folk stood in direct contrast to the warmhearted traditions of folk music — at least, what was perceived to be the traditions of the folk of the ’50s and ’60s. The songwriters and performers in the anti-folk movement were raised on punk, inspired by its raw, direct power. They had that same vibe, the same desire to shock and protest — the only difference was, they did it with just an acoustic guitar and blistering, intelligent lyrics. Such singer/songwriters as Roger Manning and Billy Bragg brought the genre attention in the ’80s. Often, anti-folk seemed forever tied to the ’80s, since much of it was protest about Reagan and Thatcher, but it managed to survive since artists like Ani DiFranco found ways to keep its spirit alive in the ’90s.

Urban Folk was a movement of singer/songwriters in the ’80s that grew out of punk rock. Urban folk musicians were initially inspired by punk rock but they performed solo, either with an acoustic or electric guitar. Urban folk was extremely political — the songs had basic melodies and direct, angry lyrics. Though there was only a small handful of urban folk musicians, they made a significant impact in the mid-’80s.

SONGS/ARTISTS: Letter to a John by Ani DiFranco, Waiting for the Great Leap Forward by Billy Bragg, I Don’t Sleep, I Drink Coffee Instead by Brenda Kahn, Needle in the Hay by Elliot Smith

CONTEMPORARY FOLK

Contemporary Folk refers to post-Bob Dylan singer/songwriters in folk. Prior to Dylan, most folk performers interpreted classic folk songs or wrote broad-based, topical songs. After Dylan, folk singers changed their approach. Not only did their music open up, accepting certain pop/rock production techniques and instrumentation, but their songs became increasingly introspective, concentrating on the personal instead of the social. During the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, contemporary folk singers often crossed over into the pop mainstream, but they tended to frequent their own circles, releasing albums on independent labels and playing coffee houses.

SONGS/ARTISTS: At Seventeen by Janis Ian, Fascist Architecture by Bruce Cockburn, Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution by Tracy Chapman, You Never Even Call Me by My Name by Steve Goodman, Sunny Came Home by Shawn Colvin

COUNTRY-FOLK

Like most hybrid genres, Country-Folk draws in different proportions from each side of the equation, depending largely upon the performer’s taste. Most country-folk artists write and perform the vast majority of their material themselves, and in that respect, they follow the mold of the folk artist more closely. Moreover, country-folk performers tend to find greater appreciation among folk audiences; among country fans, it’s often just their songwriting skill that finds acceptance, and that only when full-fledged country singers cover their compositions. There are exceptions on both sides of the fence, of course, but the overall trend is probably due to the fact that country-folk has a mellower, gentler feel than most country, whose audience has usually been weaned on performances that are rowdier or more sentimental. Country-folk artists who compose their own material usually concentrate a great deal on crafting thoughtful, often emotionally complex lyrics, thus keeping with the singer/songwriter tradition established by folk-rock artists like Bob Dylan.

SONGS/ARTIST: Lone Star State of Mind by Nanci Griffith, Our Town by Iris DeMent, Broken Hearted People by Guy Clark, My Morphine by Gillian Welch

There, now that’s as deep as I go.. if you wish to wade any deeper into the cavernous intersecting pit that is music classification then help yourself.. but for my needs that train stops here.

A very good site I found in the course of my research is this one. It has information abound and is very helpful.



Bob Dylan

I would be remiss in what I was trying to accomplish with this post if I did not at least mention Bob Dylan. If you read any of the definitions I posted you would have noticed his name in almost all of them. I have never been much of a Bob Dylan fan. While his songs are top notch his musicality always made it hard for me to listen to most Dylan songs. That being said, no man has done more for the modern songwriter; moreover, between himself and Woody Guthrie, no man has done more for 20th Century folk music.

MY PICKS:
FAVOURITE RECORD: Blood on the Tracks
FAVOURITE TRACKS: Fourth Time Around, A Simple Twist of Fate, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Al l Along the Watchtower, To Make you Feel my Love, Shelter from the Storm.


James Taylor

John Mayer hit the nail on the head at last years Grammy awards when he called James Taylor “the blueprint.” He was the poster child of the new singer/songwriter movement of the early seventies. Even making the cover of ‘Time’ magazine. His music is a large source of inspiration in my own playing. His cheerfully fingerpicked melodies contrast his stark and usually dark lyrical subject matter. Despite his steadfast appeal on “easy listening” radio, James Taylor’s music is far from light.

Unlike many of his colleauges from that 70’s movement, James Taylor continues to put out successful records, maintains a highly profitable tour, and recently won a Grammy at the 2003 show.

MY PICKS:
FAVOURITE RECORD: Sweet Baby James
FAVOURITE TRACKS: Fire and Rain, Carolina on my Mind, Belfast to Boston, The Frozen Man, Bartender’s Blues, October Road, My Travelling Star.


Townes Van Zandt

I first heard Townes Van Zandt as the haunting voice that closes the Coen Brother’s film ‘The Big Lebowski.’ I quickly learned about his career and how he’s been a major influence on many notable artists. From Steve Earle to Chris Robinson of ‘The Black Crows.” Townes’ music is stark, gritty, and very matter of fact. A notorious joker, Van Zandt would often tell jokes between songs at his shows because, he said, “that my songs are so sad the audience would kill themselves by the end.” Van Zandt is not going to be to everyone’s taste but if you have an ear for outstanding songwriting you can’t go wrong picking up one of his albums. Van Zandt spent 30 years in the music business before dieing of a post-surgical heart attack in the mid 1990’s. Despite the long career he never achieved much fame or anything that could be considered a “hit.” His biggest single was the song “Poncho and Lefty” recorded by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson.

MY PICKS:
FAVOURITE RECORD: Townes Van Zandt
FAVOURITE TRACKS: Waiting Around to Die, Lungs, If I Needed You, Marie, Talking Karate Blues, Columbine, Loretta, For the Sake of the Song,Ballad of Ira Hayes


John Prine

John Prine is the consumate singer-songwriter. He wrote his first few songs for an open mic nite at a local club. He got the itch to perform on a whim and the three songs he wrote: “Sam Stone,” “Illegal Smile,” and “Paradise” are still staples of Prine’s live shows 40 years later.

MY PICKS:
FAVOURITE RECORD: The Missing Years
FAVOURITE TRACKS: The Sins of Memphisto, Fish and Whistle, Rocky Mountain Time, Sam Stone, Angel from Montgomery, In Spite of Ourselves, Jesus The Missing Years, One Red Rose, Illegal Smile


Johnny Cash

Is there really much that needs be to said here? The Man In Black was and will continue to be a legend. He was one of those rare performers without equal. A unique voice and unique politics for a man of his day and position made for a potent songwriting combination. Johnny Cash was an everyman in the truest sence of the word. RIP Johnny.

MY PICKS:
FAVOURITE RECORD: American Recordings,
FAVOURITE TRACKS: Hurt, Ballad of A Teenage Queen, Big River, Going to Memphis, Ring of Fire, Delia’s Gone, I See a Darkness, Folsom Prison Blues, Cocaine Blues


Gordon Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot is Canada’s premiere songwriter and a legendary artist in this country. Since coming to public knowledge in the late sixties/early seventies Lightfoot has carved his own path in this countries musical history while maintaining a unique sound and playing style is instantly recognizable.

MY PICKS:
FAVOURITE RECORD: Did She Mention My Name/Summertime Dream
FAVOURITE TRACKS: Wherefore and Why, Ribbon of Darkness, Carefree Highway, If You Could Read my Mind, Sundown, Restless, Early Morning Rain


Don Mclean

My first musical memory is of a mixed tape a boyfriend of my mother played while driving around circa 1984/1985. On this tape were two songs I loved and tried to play over and over and over as many times as I could. One was “Ricky” by Toni Basil (shoot me. I was 5, lol) and the other was American Pie. Don Maclean’s signature song was a huge hit for him in the 70’s and one of only a few. To this day American Pie is one of my favourite songs of all time. It’s evocative, heartbreaking, melancholy and epic yet completely intimate at the same time. The album it was released on (“American Pie” 1971) contains many other wonderful songs. The man is a skilled songwriter and it’s a wonder he didn’t have a more successful career.

MY PICKS:
FAVOURITE RECORD: American Pie
FAVOURITE TRACKS: American Pie, Vincent, Crossroads, Castles in the Air, Empty Chairs, The Grave


Paul Simon

Despite a very successful career with partner Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon decided to take his act solo in 1970 after the release of their most successful album as a duo. Simon’s career faired much better in the solo arena than his former partner ‘s. Including a grammy award for the classic 1986 album Graceland.

MY PICKS:
FAVOURITE RECORD: Bridge Over Troubled Water/Graceland
FAVOURITE TRACKS: Graceland, Under African Skies, Homeward Bound, Sound of Silence, I am a Rock , Wednesday Morning 3am, Slip Slidin’ Away, Me and Julio


Willis Alan Ramsay

Singer/songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey is a cult legend among fans of Americana and progressive Texas country. Blending folk, country, and pop with witty, introspective lyrics, Ramsey recorded a critically acclaimed debut album for Leon Russell‘s Shelter label in 1972. It was one of the first albums by the new school of Austin singer/songwriters that would come to be tagged “progressive country” (Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandtamong them). However, Ramsey subsequently disappeared from music, owing to conflicts with his label and a general distaste for the business. I first saw Willis Alan Ramsay during his “comeback” when he performed on Austin City Limits in 2001. He performed some of his older material plus a bunch of new songs from an apparent forth coming new record.

MY PICKS:
FAVOURITE RECORD: Willis Alan Ramsay (1972)
FAVOURITE TRACKS: Satin Sheets, Ballad of Spider John, Painted Lady, Angel Eyes


David Francey

David Francey is fast becoming a superstar on the Canadian Folk/Roots music scene. Ever since his debut in 1999 he’s risen fast to success. Culminating in the Juno Award winning album “Skating Rink” in 2003. He has just released his 4th album at the beginning of Sept 04 and tho I have yet to hear it, based on it’s predecessors, it’s sure to be great.

Francey’s success has allowed him to host various songwriting workshops that have included artists such as Kathy Mattea, Dougie MacLean, the Be Good Tanyas, Jesse Winchester, and the Ennis Sisters. He’s also shared several presentations with Billy Bragg, Oysterband, Ashley MacIsaac, and Sylvia Tyson. In 1999, he issued his debut, Torn Screen Door, on his own label, Laker Music. He was hailed as passionate and authentic and fellow folk musician James Keelaghan exclaimed “David Francey is the best Canadian folk writer that I have heard in 20 years.”

MY PICKS:
FAVOURITE RECORD: Far End of Summer
FAVOURITE TRACKS:Highwire, Saints and Sinners, Broken Glass, Flowers of Saskatchewan, Streets of Calgary, Lucky Man, Highwire


Kathleen Edwards

Kathleen Edwards was born in Ottawa, Canada, in 1979, the daughter of foreign service parents who played piano and guitar in their spare time. At five, Edwards began to study classical violin, which continued through her early teens. At that point, the Edwards family moved overseas. Removed from the influence of mainstream North American pop music, Edwards delved into her older brother’s collection of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and early Tom Petty records. After high school, Edwards landed back in Ottawa, singing and playing her guitar in local clubs and networking with other musicians in the scene.

In 1999, Edwards recorded her debut EP, Building 55, and toured throughout Canada to support it, busking and opening for acts like Hayden and Jane Siberry. A bad breakup led to more songwriting, much of which took place after Edwards moved out of Ottawa and into rural Quebec. Those songs became the basis of Failer, her debut full-length, which she recorded in Ottawa in late 2001. The album was a heartfelt mixture of folk and country, and drew upon influences like Whiskeytown and Gillian Welch. A major critical buzz began then, and gigs at the 2002 South by Southwest and opening for Richard Buckner led to a deal with Zoe/Rounder, which released Failer on January 14, 2003.
MY PICKS:
FAVOURITE RECORD: Failer
FAVOURITE TRACKS: Six O’Clock News, Sweet L’il Duck, Hockey Skates, National Steel


Sarah Harmer

Formerly the driving force behind Weeping Tile, Canadian singer/songwriter Sarah Harmer began her solo career in 1999 playing dates with the Indigo Girls, Great Big Sea, and Moxy Fruvous. Harmer’s first album outside of Weeping Tile was a tribute to her father titled Songs for Clem. Credited to Harmer and Jason Euringer, the folksy album was released independently by Harmer but was eventually given wider release by Universal Canada. Her proper debut album, You Were Here, was released in mid-2000 by Zoe Records and showed a polished, more mature side to her music than her work with her former band. It wasn’t until 2004 that Harmer returned with a follow up, All of Our Names.

MY PICKS:
FAVOURITE RECORD: You Were Here
FAVOURITE TRACKS: Basement Apartment, The Hideout, Lodestar, Everytime, Greeting Card Aisle, Dandelions and Bulletholes.

So there you have it.. .my take on music… I hope you found it an interesting read.. and if you read the whole thing.. God bless you! :) I hope you take some of the artists I mentioned to heart and decide to take a chance, and try to listen to something you may not otherwise.

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