What is With You Folkies?
After Folk Alliance last weekend, my newsfeed was full of the people and rooms I’d been seeing all weekend, most of the posts recapping performances. But one post caught my eye:
“What is it about folk music that has nurtured an industry that includes Folk Alliance, various smaller conferences like it, a flourishing folk club scene, and successful festivals, where other genres do not experience the same type of supporting culture? Aka, WHAT IS WITH YOU FOLKIES? INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW!”
Interesting question. I think I know the answer.
It’s all about money.
If we’re to see history in clearly delineated eras and generational lines, then we could point to the 1958 release of the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” as the start of the folk revival. (Problem #1: the Seegers and Guthries of the world were producing folk music in a steady stream for the two decades prior to the emergence of the Kingston Trio, so the suggestion that the revival is at all revivalist is totally ridiculous; by definition don’t we need a break, a death, for something to be revived? Nevertheless, let’s call “Tom Dooley” the beginning of the mainstream popularity of folk music, wherein it got played on commercial radio, released on major labels, and performed in well-attended venues.) That starting point meant that the audience for the music was a group of young people who were the first to grow up in a prosperous, post-war North America. They did not marry young (like, at 16), did not quit school to find a job to help support their family, did not start having children at an early age, did not go fight in a war (yet). Their lives were – largely – comfortable and stable in comparison to their ancestors. These listeners were sick of, or too old for, the rock ‘n’ roll fad of the late 50s, and they wanted music that had a message, that spoke to their concerns about civil rights and social justice. They had time and energy to consider these concerns and do something about them because they were still in school, maybe still living with their parents, in relative economic comfort, and not struggling to survive and support a family on a low-paying job. They had the rich combination of the energy of youth and the context of civil unrest and desire for change, plus their numbers made them a force impossible to ignore.
This generation, compelled by the messages their folk-singing heroes delivered, went on to finish school, get decent (lifelong!) jobs, start families, and settle into middle-class life, with a lingering set of concerns for the marginalized folk that the music tended to address. I find this generation among the most contradictory in that they were lured into complacent participation in the capitalist system that they once abhorred, a sign of how easy it is to be brainwashed by it. Honestly, the powers that be are stupid to not keep us all in positions of ease and comfort this generation around, because economic desperation breeds riot and revolution, whereas big-screen TVs and soft couches do not. I also know that I’m horrifically generalizing for the sake of pointing out generational trends and contradiction, and that many folk music listeners did not have this experience, nor fall completely into a blind embracement of capitalism, but in order to make my point about why folk music continues as a successful artistic phenomenon, I have to sacrifice a level of argumentative subtlety.
Back to my story: this group, once ensconced in the arms of economic security, got restless. They missed the energy and excitement of this music and culture, if they indeed felt they had lost touch with it. As their kids grew up, they gained free time away from work and responsibility, and they began to establish institutions that resurrected folk music in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Another folk revival, if you will.
These institutions had cash. Maybe not tons, but the money was there. Neighbourhood folk jams turned into folk clubs with regular series, which then morphed into community concerts and civic festivals. When times got tough, organizers turned to corporate sponsors, who were more than happy to lend a hand if it meant a well-placed logo and an affiliation with a wholesome form of entertainment. Older performers returned to the circuit, celebrated for their longevity, the timelessness of their messages, and their influence on younger performers. Younger performers were inspired by the weightiness of folk’s themes, and crafted new songs that deviated little from its earlier sounds. That meant an easy transition in terms of programming: clubs and festivals could easily find a mini-Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell without drifting too far away from their programming; meanwhile new generations were able to leap into the genre smoothly without necessarily having to spend a lot on gear or dedicate years of study to their chosen instrument. A cheap acoustic guitar and a few tabs downloaded from the internet could get you started. See? It’s all about money.
The fact is, because this generation is thoroughly invested in keeping this music alive, they have done so, and their economic circumstances were central to their efforts. Now, you may think I’m dismissing the importance of community and I’m not, because with no impetus to keep bringing people together for music, you can have all the money in the world and no audience for it. But there is something quite specific about the wealth of the baby boomers and their social context that lets folk music flourish, and keep flourishing. It’s not cheap music in many respects: concert series cost a lot of money, money that kids don’t have; with that money, the older audience is buying a full experience of soft seats, quiet and clean venues, good alcohol, and a general ticket to keeping out the riff raff.
Why hasn’t this – the fostering of a scene through clubs, conferences, showcases, festivals, and other investments of time and money – happened with other genres? I suppose the reasons are obvious with pop, where youth, newness, and spectacle prevail. There’s a lot of money invested in it, but without a view to longevity; more to instant profit. Same goes for rock in many ways, although at least there we have the profit motive somewhat balanced by respect for long-term artistic development. But why not more institutionalized genres like jazz and classical? Here’s where the music comes in: it’s much easier, we must all admit, to understand folk on your initial encounter with it. The words are clear, the melodies are often symmetrical and based in forms common to popular music, rooted in Western harmony with minimal surprise and dissonance. Songs are short. We can’t always ascribe these characteristics to jazz or classical. Not to mention the perhaps more important social component: these genres are now viewed as highbrow because of their musical inaccessibility and institutionalization. You must be “smart” in order to understand them, and this understanding has started a cycle of gradual isolation, wherein concerts happen in special spaces increasingly unavailable to a general public. As attendance dwindles, they fight for government funding and exposure, which further alienates a potential audience already dividing their attention between many other more accessible musics.
But somehow folk escaped this, securing an influx of capital when it mattered that has regenerated itself as audiences continue to find value in what they’re hearing, as governments bestow grant money on music proven to draw a crowd, as producers find ways to create relatively inexpensively. Its audience is not the only contradictory thing: for a genre that purports to rely on simplicity and give voice to the everyman, it somehow entirely depends on a stable – or even lucrative – economic situation to survive. The audience that keeps folk going is a middle-class, modern-day patron. To keep the community going requires investing in long-running, community-based initiatives that don’t seem to exist the same way in other genres. I mean, it costs a lot of money just to go to Folk Alliance. It’s just that nobody wants to admit this, or maybe we’re not even aware. Something to consider, though, is folk’s unique position in the music industry: it is largely a music with a message, whether personal, collective, or political, or all of the above, and despite its progenitors being the ones most comfortable and able to fully participate in capitalist consumption in the modern world, they clearly think it vital to keep that message alive and well, and as such infuse it with cash. Not a bad thing at all, and maybe folk should be kept alive over other genres for that reason.
I’m sure most people are going to argue with me, but after being at Folk Alliance this weekend, I can tell you that I saw a lot of evidence of money. Everywhere.