The fading of “folk music”

May 28, 2008

The late 1950s and early 60s saw a huge upswing in popularity of so-called “folk music” that was as popular as 50s rock n roll. And then the Beatles came along and folk music, at least for many baby boomers, got incorporated into rock bands and solo artists
(think: Bob Dylan, Beatles Rubber Soul, the Byrds, and so on). There was folk music from the 60s, stuff Peter, Paul and Mary would sing, or Pete Seeger or Phil Ochs, or Buffy Ste Marie, and that group, but then there is are old folks songs I sang as a child: “Skip to my Lou” “Three Bind Mice” “Frere Jacques” “The Inky Dinky Spider” or “Koombaya” and the myriad of Stephen Foster songs.

“The Inky Dinky Spider” talked about and finally sung by Pat and Patrick

I bring this up because after polling some young musicians in my classes, it is clear that this legacy of folk music that I thought “everyone” knew, is fading. If they don’t know this music, do you think the late teenagers and early twenty-ers know this stuff? I suspect not.

There is another layer to the folk music popularity in the early 1960s: pop musicians in the 50s were rarely personalities, or philosophers. They were kinda cool, but not really. They were wholesome, opinionated bohemians that embraced the guitar as the instrumental spokesman of their music. It was the transition from folk music into the rock music of the 1960s when the baby boom generation itself became “cool” and ultimately became jaded. (That is the best word I can think of. Jaded here means the loss of innocence.) The bleeding edge of this transition was Dylan’s move from his acoustic guitar to the electric guitar, a shift that infuriated many. [Listen to Dylan’s performance at the 1965 Newport Music Festival “Maggie’s Farm.” At the end you’ll hear many screaming in protest. The dream was over.]

This suspicion was confirmed after a lunch with some Ethnomusicologists (including Tony and Mike Seeger) who agreed that folk music — or whatever it is called these days — is fading from public knowledge. Even in our music major classes, my students have never heard the American folk tune “Billy Boy.”

Young people today are still cool, but I am happy to speculate that the pendulum is slowly swinging back, and I predict an age of sincere teenagers who are not jaded, is just around the corner.

The grunge movement was, in a way, a neo-folk language, but it was filled with psychotic types, so you had the surface of folk music, manifested by psychologically eccentric individuals (Kurt Cobain…).

There is a lot of terrific music from that era that needs to be revisited, or covered by some modern day Mendelssohn who will discover just how brilliant Woody Guthrie was.

I put down these random thoughts because I see a need to pass this music on to future students and audiences.

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