"Folk music" is a funny thing. In the most generalized sense, the phrase refers to the music of the people. In other words, music made by and for the folk. In even other words, all music. As Louis Armstrong said, "I ain't never heard no horse sing a song."
Yet, there are people like me in the world, who get paid to talk about and think about what constitutes "folk music."
Meanwhile, about 54 years ago on the coast of Rhode Island, a fellow named George Wein decided to put on a folk music festival. The idea was to share music indigenous to various parts of the country, all in one place, on one weekend. Music fans attending the Newport Folk Music Festival could hop from Delta blues to Appalachian fiddle tunes, Cajun music, urban singer-songwriter stuff, and beyond. Then one day, about six years into the festival, a young singer-songwriter (who had never called himself a folksinger to begin with, mind you) showed up with a rock band, freaked everyone out, and what was popularly considered "folk music" was theretofore turned on its head.
The world has happened since then, history unfolded, musical styles changed and evolved, grown and spread out. The internet has turned anyone under 30 into a generalized music fan. Rather than delving deeply into any one genre anymore, people can dabble, fill their MP3 player/phone/tablet with as much rap as blues, rock, world music, folk, and metal songs. It all blends together into one giant mass called "music", and artists either ride the wave of genre non-specificity, or they try to speak to some tradition and resign to being heard under the big massive category of "music."
Music festivals, by and large, have followed suit, booking acts with seeming reckless abandon. Giant megafests might play host to Eminem, Paul McCartney, and some random jug band all in one weekend. So, it was with great interest that I headed to Rhode Island for my first go at one of the oldest, most storied American folk music festivals still calling itself as such, without aiming for something more inclusive and 21st-Century-esque.
One of the first and most obvious unanswerable questions I heard all weekend, too, was "What is folk music?" Among folkies, the question is kind of a running joke. Nobody has ever known was that phrase means, since there's such a vast and completely different worldview behind Cajun music than there is behind the talking blues, and so on. But when a music festival decides to market itself, specifically, as a "folk music" festival, it's not a completely ridiculous question.
Given all that, it wasn't terribly surprising to overhear conversations throughout the weekend from young festival-goers admitting they'd never considered folk music before, but were there to see the Lumineers. Or, older festival-goers questioning whether some of what was happening could even very loosely be considered "folk music." I missed his set, but apparently Father John Misty made a moment of wondering all these things aloud, into a mic, from the stage. For my own purposes, I found myself most pleased when I could hear a band picking actual individual notes on their acoustic instruments, singing harmonies which sounded attuned to one another, and interacting with the audience in a casual, stereotypically folksy way.
Don't get me wrong. I have a fondness for loud distortion and gratuitous f-bombs, envelope-pushing, and straight-up defiance. But, when I start off the weekend watching something as glorious as the Milk Carton Kids, making entirely authentic, simple, unencumbered harmonies with just two voices and two instruments, it's hard to wrap my ears around banjo-banging, seemingly aimed only at breaking strings and clipping speakers, despite the fact that the rest of the song doesn't indicate anything remotely destructive. I'm all for musical destruction, as long as it's consistent with both melody and lyricism. Or, conversely, if it's clearly an aural attempt to offset lyrics which are over-the-top undestructive, so that the song, in the end, makes a statement about balance and absurdity, and so on.
But banging for shits and giggles? Maybe I'm not the right folk for that.
Then again, there were moments of extraordinary wonder, too. Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires played a couple songs off her forthcoming disc, in the Museum. That was some of the most beautiful and understated music of the weekend. They both returned a couple hours later for a rousing, stirring band set for many of the songs from Isbell's recent Southeastern album. That was peppered with a number of Drive-By Truckers tunes - definitely not folk music, either, but it came in between other tunes which could at least roughly fit the term.
Iris DeMent, who let about a half-decade pass between her last two albums, climbed onstage to deliver a beautiful, honest, and wholly entertaining set. She dedicated "Justice Rolls Like Water" to Trayvon Martin, and played mostly from her 2012 release Sing the Delta, sharing a particularly fantastic performance of "The Night I Learned How Not to Pray" and the album's title track. She welcomed Spirit Family Reunion to the stage, who seemed to be everywhere all weekend, guesting with Hurray for the Riff Raff, too, before turning up in the family tent on the final day.
Other notable sets came from Cold Specks, who played the festival as a solo act, to a packed and enthralled Quad Stage tent crowd. That same stage had previously welcomed Hurray for the Riff Raff and Shovels and Rope, both of whom unleashed their full-throttle talent with ease and style. Black Prairie delivered an exquisite set mostly from their most recent album A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart.
Tift Merritt brought it on the mainstage, as did Old Crow Medicine Show - the latter delivering songs by everyone from Leadbelly to Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, not to mention their own terrific Appalachian-style folk music.
Leave it to Ramblin' Jack Elliott, though, to show them all how its done. He veered between songs into long, tall tales about his travels around Europe and times he spent driving around the United States with his old friend Woody Guthrie. He talked about driving around with Bess Lomax Hawes, whose husband Butch was an Almanac Singer and the man behind "Arthritis Blues" (a song Jack delivered with particular aplomb). The long and short of it was that Ramblin' Jack delivered a lesson in American folk music to the crowd in attendance and, by the end of his set, they were completely enthralled, giving him a standing ovation.
Despite my occasional crankiness at the banging and flailing, after experiencing the overt display of shameless folk music, I found it easy to forgive the distorted guitars and loud banging that came earlier in the weekend. After all, if anyone's been paying attention to the world these last few years (or ever), some "senseless" banging on any musical instrument is a suitable reflection of our American community and these times in which we live. Further, while listeners may be at odds about what "folk music" is, many musicologists could at least agree that it's a style of music which speaks for a given community of people. No doubt, there was someone speaking on behalf of every community present this weekend.
In the end, the 2013 Newport Folk Festival was graced with a wide array of truly good, well-considered music. The crowd was friendly and respectful, and actually listened closely to what the artists were aiming for, what the songs were trying to say, listening for every nuance and shift in emotion. It was a remarkable thing, to see an audience so attentive to the music being made. They weren't trying to make the scene or look or act a certain way, but seemed to be there to actually hear each other. Was it folk music? Does it really matter?