Published Feb 01, 2000In Western culture, folk music resists one singular definition. Around the turn of the 20th century it was an oral tradition, sung "for the people, by the people." Often linked to social protest and politics, folk gained popularity in the 30s when Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie sang at labour rallies, and again in the 50s and 60s with the folk revival lead by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Informed equally by British songs and Afro-American spirituals and blues, folk music was often defined by "traditional" acoustic instrumentation and basic song structures. Today, the genre remains linked to the singer-songwriter tradition, but has expanded to incorporate elements of country, blues, rock, punk and all acoustic music from around the world.
As an un-hyphenated term, folk is most often associated with recordings from the 1930s to the 1960s, mostly solo performers with little or no ornamentation. Alan Lomax wandered the U.S. in the 30s recording amateur performers, documenting the oral tradition of folk's roots, while Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie became America's best loved and most influential folkies by writing new anthems for the Depression generation. Folkways Records, home of Guthrie and Leadbelly, released the seminal 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, an 84-track retrospective compiled by Harry Smith that uncovered origins of American folk previously unknown to most fans and musicians.
Key listening: Various Anthology of American Folk Music (Folkways, 1952); Woody Guthrie The Asch Recordings Vol. 1-4 (Folkways, 1999); Pete Seeger We Shall Overcome (Columbia, 1989); Bob Dylan The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (Columbia, 1963)
Folk rock was born in the mid-60s with the addition of electric guitars and drums, and less politicised lyrics. In Britain, Fairport Convention "electrified" the early songs of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and fuelled Richard Thompson's lifelong interest in blending English folk melodies with orchestral rock arrangements. In America, Dylan went electric with the Band while the Byrds, like Fairport, covered Dylan's songs with sweetened vocal harmonies and twangy guitar tones. Purveyors of this style typically balanced acoustic and electric instrumentation with a layered, amplified sound aesthetic.
Key listening: Bob Dylan Live '66 (Columbia, 2000); Fairport Convention What We Did On Our Summer Holidays (Hannibal, 1969); Neil Young After the Gold Rush (Reprise, 1970); Rheostatics Melville (Intrepid, 1991); Blackie & the Rodeo Kings Kings of Love (True North, 1999)
Punks looking for something more than volume found kindred spirits in the anti-establishment storytelling and DIY of the folk world, resulting in cross-pollination that rejuvenated the folk scene for older and younger audiences alike. This could take the form of acoustic music played with punk attitude, or children of the Clash exploring the folk continuum and reinventing both forms in the process.
Pogues Rum Sodomy & the Lash (Chrysalis, 1985); Billy Bragg Back to Basics (Go!, 1987); Ani DiFranco Puddle Dive (Righteous Babe, 1993); Weakerthans Left and Leaving (G7, 2000)
The amorphous term "singer-songwriter" is modern folk music, and Canadians are often at the vanguard. Carrying on the melodic, poetic and eclectic styles explored by Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Stan Rogers, Canadian singer/songwriters continue to embrace a convergence of musical styles and forms. Many of these artists are well-produced and commercially viable but perpetually exist on the fringes of the mainstream. Lyrics can alternate between the highly personal and the political, often in the first person. They move beyond folk traditions by continuing to expand the possibilities of texture and instrumentation in their recordings and live performances.
Joni Mitchell Blue (Reprise, 1971); Bruce Cockburn Stealing Fire (True North, 1984); Daniel Lanois Acadie (Warner, 1989); Jane Siberry Bound By the Beauty (Duke St., 1989); Bob Wiseman Presented by Lake Michigan Soda (Warner, 1991); Ron Sexsmith Ron Sexsmith (Interscope, 1995)
Michael Johnston & Michael Barclay