Mudcat Café message #2278569 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #109111   Message #2278569
Posted By: Don Firth
03-Mar-08 - 04:24 PM
Thread Name: Folk terminology
Subject: RE: Folk terminology
Since this is a more or less slow day at the Skunk Works, I thought I might take a swing at some of this.

As to the word "folk:"

As far as anyone knows, the first person to use the term "folk song" was Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), a German philosopher and collector of volkslieder (folk songs). He was referring to songs of the rural peasant class.

Despite gross economic disparities, we like to think that this modern, urbanized, enlightened world is "classless," so the word "folk" has morphed into "just plain folks." The term "folk" has been so watered down from its original meaning (when the term "folk song" was coined) that a folk activity is now defined as just about anything that "folks" do. One wonders if the word has meaning anymore.

Except, of course, to those singer-songwriters who are urban born, have no connection whatsoever with the rural peasant class, and who do not sing traditional songs at all, singing only songs they have written themselves—and who insist that others regard the songs they write to be "folk songs."

Now, I'm all for singer-songwriters. Some of them have cranked out some pretty good stuff. And songs do have to come from somewhere. But why must they be called "folk songs?" Is it supposed to be some stamp of approval? And if so, it's not really appropriate for an artist or craftsperson to put a "stamp of approval" on his or her own work. That's for others to do.

1. Finger-in-ear.

The first time I observed this phenomenon was at the 1960 Berkeley Folk Festival where Ewan MacColl was one of the featured performers. He walked on stage carrying a straight-backed chair, set it down with its back facing the audience, then sat straddling the chair (facing the audience, of course). He sang unaccompanied, and most of the time he sang with his elbow propped on the back of the chair with his left hand cupped behind his ear. Not with his finger in his ear. It was obvious to me why he did it. It allowed him to hear the sound of his voice more clearly as it echoed back. This is the same reason that a singer in a recording studio wears earphones.

I usually hear the term "finger-in-ear" used in reference to people who sing traditional songs, often unaccompanied. And it seems to be used mostly as a term of contempt. For what? Traditional songs? It might be revealing to examine those who use the term and see if one can determine the reason for their contempt.

97 verse ballads.

Since the advent of the modern phonograph record and radio broadcasting, the de rigueur maximum acceptable duration of songs has been approximately three minutes (about all one could pack onto a 12" 78 rpm record). Radio stations found this highly acceptable because they could jam a couple of commercials between each record. As people's attention spans dwindled, they would tend to wander about aimlessly and bump into things if a song went on much longer than that.

A breakthrough came with Marty Robbins' recording of "El Paso," which ran for about 7 minutes, and since it gave disc jockeys time to go to the bathroom, they played it. A few years later, actor Richard Harris had a hit song with "MacArthur Park," which went on for bloody ever! Gave the DJ time to go out for a beer.

Before the days of canned or piped in entertainment, people (the "folk?") depended upon themselves and each other for such diversions, and time was not necessarily that big a problem. One could drag out a good story, and people enjoyed it. It is said that Homer's Iliad (a work of considerable duration, covering the whole Trojan War and what led up to it—and spawning at least two sequels) was often chanted to non-literate audiences to the accompaniment of a lyre or harp. Same with Beowulf. One Child ballad, "The Geste of Robin Hood" runs well over 800 verses (I haven't actually counted them). The longest song that I know myself is "Little Mattie Groves" which runs for 27 verses. I don't sing it very often. And I find that with the limited attention spans of some modern audiences, I do have to do some judicious editing of some of the longer songs.

3. and 4. Folk police and folk fascist.

Basically the same, I think, varying only in degree of dedication or fanaticism.

Folk police, the way I have encountered it, usually refers to those hard-nosed, tight-assed, highly compulsive people who tend to think that words (such as—dare I say it? "Folk") have some meaning, and one should, at least, acknowledge the fact. In this regard, I'm sure that there are people who regard me as part of the folk police force.

On the other hand, I have been set upon by self-appointed guardians of what is "folk" and what is not for such heinous crimes and transgressions as thinking that if one aspires to a career of singing before paying audiences, one owes it to them to know something about music, know something about the material, know what you're going to do, and be well prepared to do it.

I could ramble on a bit more, but my wife just got home from her writers' group and she brought lunch. I'll probably be back later.

Don Firth