Editorial by Jake Goodman
Typical Suburban Mom: “Yeah, I like this new acousticy stuff on the radio right now. It’s folksy, reminds me of American Pie. It makes me want to clap my hands!”
Typical Suburban Youth: *Flips hair* “Stop Mom, it’s just like a good song. You don’t have to make it all weird and stuff.”
Okay, that was a bit dramatic, but I’m sure this exaggerated conversation can provide some insight into the current resurgence of folk music in America. From the traditional songs of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, folk music has held an integral position in America’s cultural conscious--representing the voices of a cohort of outsiders. It has often gone through dips and crests of popularity. The rise of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in the ‘60s brought folk music into a social progressive context that thrust it into unforeseen heights of popularity. Yet, up until recently, folk music has largely seen a diminished presence in American popular music. Now, groups like Mumford and Sons, the Lumineers, Fleet Foxes, and the Avett Brothers, are selling out large venues and receiving radio time.
I think there is justification for why folk music is experiencing another revival. It has always been a truly alternative style of music--alternative in the sense that it offers something that current pop music cannot. Contemporary folk music, starting in the 1930’s with Woody Guthrie’s prominence in the leftist folk circles, developed into a new widespread genre of popular music that reflected the realities of common people. Guthrie’s satirical ditties drew on the vernacular of the Dust Bowl Era to express the political and social grievances of those he worked with. Likewise, Pete Seeger, a friend of Guthrie’s, was heavily involved in labor movements and civil rights movements. Bob Dylan, an icon of the 1960’s counterculture movement, wrote folk ballads that became anthems of the civil rights and anti-war movements. Joan Baez, who sang at the 1963 March on Washington with Dylan, reached gold record status with her songs of social justice and peace.
After the 1960’s, electric folk became popular, especially with Bob Dylan’s entrance into the genre, with the emergence of artists like Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell, and John Denver. In the ‘80’s, ‘90s, and early 2000’s, folk music largely receded into indie circles. And now that this brief history lesson is over, we can get to today, when folk music is back--albeit in a slightly varied form --and rising in visibility at a rapid rate. The explosion of Mumford & Sons with their 2010 Grammy nominations and performances and the Lumineers’ 2012 mega-hit “Ho Hey” has brought folk music back onto pop stations. The genre’s elevated status was further confirmed when Mumford & Sons won Album of the Year at the 2013 GRAMMY award for their second album, Babel. Other groups like emo-folk fusionists Bright Eyes had achieved wide critical popularity before that, but the trend has been more noticeable and more commercialized in the past couple years. With the transformation of a couple folk groups from unknown acts to household names, alternative & indie music have incorporated banjos and fashionable beards into their repertoires, and the line between indie and mainstream has become blurred. The popularization, and hence commercialization, may corrupt the genre, moving it away from its roots as an alternative common people’s music, but I have hope that folk music will continue to reach its target audience.
Today, more than ever, pop music demands homogeneity, something that Generation X parents will agree to listen to, and even enjoy, for the sake of their kids; a pounding 4/4 beat, a catchy, melodic chorus, a minimal chord progression leading up to a percussive build up, that inevitably results in an infamous “beat drop.” In short, pop music has been reduced to a vapid commercial recipe designed to create hits that yield as much profit as possible. (Not that this keeps most people from enjoying it. No one can resist a finely crafted Katy Perry megahit.) Yet, I think folk music is offering an escape from this pop culture vacuum that has alienated people from popular music. It is again offering stripped down, visceral songs through the channel of acoustic guitars and raspy voices. While folk music may not be as progressive and socially conscious as it was in earlier American history, even though it may become progressive again, I still think it serves an important function as a genre conscious of its function as an alternative. It gives us simple and true music that fulfills one of music’s greatest functions: to sonically transpose a feeling from the artist directly to the listener. In this sense, Typical Suburban Mom is right to enjoy folk music. Hopefully, all of us will continue to enjoy its success in pop music, until it most likely recedes into obscurity yet again.