The state of folk music—A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away
Are you a better writer than you were 23 years ago? I sure am. While assembling a collection of old clips to be used as part of an e-book I’ve discovered many articles I’ve forgotten, and for good reason. This January 1989 clip from the Oregonian is a good example, for its overall wordiness and how it takes a while to get to the point.
My “rule” for this project is to present these clips as they were first published, warts and all, but this becomes difficult when there is no digital version available and I have to actually re-type the piece into the computer. I haven’t changed the piece substantially, aside from modifying a few phrases and cutting some extraneous words.
Even so, it’s clear why this is a clip that I haven’t ever sent out as a writing sample, the rhythm is all wrong and the punctuation isn’t intuitive. On the other hand, some of the quotes are pretty good, especially from John Stewart. I hope that readers can get through all the throat clearing to see that a lot of things haven’t really changed since 1989.
For folkies: The Times they are a changin’
Folk music may not reach the masses, but it speaks to many
By CHARLES BERMANT
Special to the Oregonian
January 22, 1989
Folk music was big business in the 1960s. Descended from centuries of British and American idioms it became a sounding board for social commentary. The folkies even had their own TV show, “Hootenanny,” which provided a direct line into middle America.
The sounds of social change have died down, and folk’s popularity has been eclipsed several times over. The category has assimilated into other forms or has been banished to a dark corner of the record store.
To many, however, the music still speaks. Artists forgotten by the mass market still tour regularly and play to small but eager gatherings. One occurs Friday at 8 p.m. when Peter, Paul and Mary perform at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey and Mary Travers waved the folk flag throughout the 1960s, folded it in 1970 and unfurled it again in 1978. Since then, they have steadily regained an audience through diligent, regular touring and are now on a roll: A holiday album recently was released and the group hosted a PBS special.
“There is no doubt that folk music isn’t dead,” Stookey said. “It’s just looking out from a different window. And the market is changing so fast that it’s possible that what we do today might soon be thought of as unusual.”
Stookey (born Noel Paul Stookey) said the group will draw from its regular repertoire for its Portland show. “There will be the usual solo section: Peter will lead a singalong, Mary will talk about her granddaughter. And I’ll probably sing a song about a child with down’s syndrome and do some sound effects. This is the blessing and the curse of folk music, you do things that are so diverse that they become strange bedfellows.”
Peter, Paul and Mary are the lucky ones, still performing to audiences that want to hear them. Others have been left behind by the public or by their own inability to produce individual music. For every prominent artist with roots in the folk movement-Bob Dylan, Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell- there are many others who eke out a living on the smaller club circuit, reminding smaller crowds that they too once were relevant.
Many of these artists have suffered a common indignity. When it became apparent that their selling power had waned they were dropped by their record labels. Consequently they have sought alternative outlets, smaller labels and mail order sales, to reach their audience which has diminished in size but not enthusiasm. Proof of interest comes from the success of similarly influenced artists such as Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman. U2, perhaps the most popular band int he world, emulates both the social commitment and musical inclinations of modern folk.
“In popular music we hear some of the elements that have always been there in folk music,” Stookey said. “Politically we’ve moved into an era where we are being forced to examine the disparity between the aspirations of the country and the reality we see on the streets. Much of the citizenry is out of step from the direction that the administration takes, and the music is a rallying point.”
Fewer people, however, are rallying. John Stewart, once a member of the Kingston Trio and later a solo artist, feels that folk music’s inability to gather a popular majority saddles it with an innate cultural disadvantage. “Everyone shops at malls all over America,” he said. “You have the same stores everywhere and they only stock what they can regularly sell.
“As far as records go, you have a few artists who are bought by a lot of people. Occasionally someone like Tracy Chapman will sneak through and sell a lot of records but she’s perceived as a novelty.”
Stewart verbalizes what must echo in every once-popular songwriter’s mind.
“This is a business that you are lucky to stay in for 10 years,” he said. “Even Bob Dylan is having trouble and he was a god in the 1960s. Peter, Paul and Mary sell a lot of records but it’s as if their success doesn’t count. They go against the natural order by trying to stay in the business longer than the average.”
In many ways folk music is no different at the dawn of the George Bush era than it was during the Kennedy years. The music still originates from outrage against all types of social injustice. Nevertheless the differences abound, many having to do with the size of the audience. Folk peaked well before the days of arena concerts, but artists who once drew crowds of 5,000 might not fill a 500-seat hall today.
There is the danger that singing the same songs for decades will turn an artist into a nostalgia act, but doing so also can result in a wondrous symmetry. Peter, Paul and Mary still perform “The Marvelous Toy,” a life-goes-on ballad about a mechanical knick-knack that a man remembers from his childhood. He gives it to his own child who is just as fascinated by its magic. The song, like the toy, is passed from one generation to the next.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” is still their performance centerpiece, written by Bob Dylan and enhanced by their signature reading. The group’s performance is of the song is basically unchanged, but Stookey said the song is changed by audience perception and mood.
“The moment is always rare,” he said. “You cannot ever recreate the song’s effect on that mix of people with the news of that evening. It matters how you think the current administration fits into the peace process or freedom of choice process or self determination. But the subject matter is contemporary and the songs are timeless.”
Stewart’s belief in the music is as strong as it ever was, but he perceives talk of a folk revival as so much hype. Despite good reviews for his last album and his multigenerational audience he has no plans to make another record. And he has no desire to join the current, nostalgia-driven Kingston Trio, singing listless versions of “Tom Dooley” wearing the same striped shirts.
“What we’re looking for is not happening,” he said. “The music is as healthy as ever. Acoustic guitars are in. But the 60s aren’t going to happen again.
“It’s like when people ask you to bring your guitar to a party, but when you get there you get the vibe that no one really wants you to play.”