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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
Frank Hamilton How can we make folk music more apealing (121* d) RE: How can we make folk music more apealing 30 Sep 99

Mark, thank you for your thoughtful response. We do agree. I confess to my frustration. For four years at the OTS of FM I tried to interest students in traditional folk song material. We used the popular "folk type" songs of the day in hopes that we could create more interest in the traditional stuff. The idea was just to get people to play and sing and enjoy it. There were people who did gravitate toward the folk songs as there were those who were content to stay with the composed "folk style" songs by the popular artists. We had the same discussion about "what is folk?" that we have now with one difference in my view. The traditional music has seemed to become less important in the public perception because it's not so showy. You don't blow people away with folk music.

You of course are right about the Weavers. I think that one thing that distinguished them from other folk groups to follow was their interest and committment to traditional folk music. When I was with them, there was a slight tension about this. Lee reflected more of a traditional approach because of his background and I think he felt that this wasn't as important as being more in tune with the Weaver's sound. The group went in for less traditional tunes as they went along. I think the lure of the pop world got to Lee. I don't know that he wanted the Weavers to be as popular as the Kingston Trio but I had a feeling that he would have liked some of that. I think that Ronnie and Erik were more tuned into the traditional approach. Freddie is a fine musician but much more eclectic in his interest in music. They did sound different than many pop groups at the time or who came later. Their focus was as songwriters and adaptors who carried their political ideology into their music and I think they did this successfully.

You bring up the problem of academia and this is valid. It can alienate folks who haven't been exposed to traditional folk. Mainly, it's an attitude thing that I have encountered amoung die-hard "folkies" who have to do things the "right" way. This lead to a schism in the 60's where young people said in effect that they didn't want the creative limitations imposed on them by academic authorities and went into rock and roll because it was "freer". Unfortunately many folklorists and scholars had a more "hard nosed" attitude in those days about folk music and turned a lot of people off. There is also the adage, "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing". Because there's so much to learn about traditional folk music, it's hardly a "science" although some have tried to make it so.

I think that if we take the view that recently composed songs are folk songs, we run into problems. They haven't gone through variations and haven't had historical or cultural connections that are so important to the appreciation and understanding of the music. The very music itself is tied into history and social/cultural influences of a given group and if this is ignored, than folk music becomes whatever anyone wants to make it from acid rock to Pavarotti.

You may be right that restrictive definitions are not useful as much as information about trad folk. A lot of this is highly subjective with me because I grew up listening to Library of Congress field recordings, Folkways records, early 78's of "country" and blues, and music that Rounder has so admirably released. (I sat at the feet of my mentor, Bess Lomax Hawes.) I loved the so-called "primitive" sounds of the singers, many with "outdoor" voices and rich timbres who employed unusual ornamentation and nuances in their singing style that you couldn't hear by the "professional" singers on the radio or TV. Then when I heard many of these traditional sources live they presented to me an entirely different experience in listening to music. There was a raw power in their music which didn't so much as blow you away but pull you in. A blues musician in the back of town in Mississipi or Tennesee sounded so different than Eric Clapton or many of the rock and roll stylists playing popularized "blues". It was an intimate experience which would sometimes be out of place on a concert stage or in a night club which demands a kind of showy energy to please a crowd. This stuff was from the heart and sung not to please any audience or to hit the charts but because the singer was talking about his real conditions that were there in his cultural environment. How can you make this appealing to a large audience? Don't know. Maybe the answer lies in smaller audiences without the distancing effect of sound systems between the singer and the audience. I think there is room for the "revivalist" folkie to play concerts. Pete Seeger certainly is one of the greatest musical performers of this century and imparts the feeling of folk music without actually having come from any specific folk tradition, although some will disagree with that assessment who remember the association of folk songs with the left-wing and labor movement.

I'm back to square one. To make it more appealing, we have to know what it is.

Frank Hamilton

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