If people ask me to describe my primary taste in music, I go with the easy, interpretable terms of "Indie" and "Folk." I don't especially like using the term "indie" - there's something arrogant and meaningless about it, but there's no other good word or straight answer to describe it, so I've deployed it. But folk music, that's something different. People, generally, don't have a clear idea of what folk is. For a long time listening to it, neither did I.
In this late night typing exercise, I will attempt to define what Folk music is to me. I might be completely, utterly, embarrassingly wrong. But I can only describe it in the terms that I've come to really fucking feel this music. So if I'm historically inaccurate, or just bullshitting, so be it. This is is the only way we come to figure things out.
Silhouetted by the sea / Circled by the circus sands With all memory and fate / drive deep beneath the waves Let me forget about today until tomorrow
First, the term "folk music" really could refer to two different types of music. The first is, simply, music that comes from a people and their culture. These are not songs by professionals, or recorded in a studio, or distributed by labels. These are the barest, rawest, songs passed down through tradition. Whether it's an old spiritual like "Wade in the Water," or the French "Frere Jacques" or the Jewish "Hava Nagila," these are songs that people just learn because they are a part of the culture. We know "Kumbaya" or "This Land is Your Land" by heart because they seem to have always been there, not because it's on the latest NOW! compilation.
"This Land is Your Land," is where the definitions start to cross. I think it's hard to argue that this Woody Guthrie song hasn't been absorbed into the atmosphere of American culture. At the same time, it's also an example of the second definition, or popular folk music. Modern, acoustic, story telling songs. Still music of the people, with the allowance of more popular sounds.
Bob Dylan, armed with a Woody Guthrie hero worship and an acoustic guitar, participated in the folk music revival until he became its most prominent and mythological figure. With that, a whole lot of boys & girls began strumming their guitars against war, poverty, and the spirit of the times. The legend and hindsight tell us that, this was the music that changed the world. So, folk music came to be attached to this type of sound an image, of hippies and beatniks and long-haired youths that believed in peace and had opinions about the world.
But he himself was broken / Long before the sky would open, Foresaken, almost human, / He sank beneath your wisdom, like a stone
This is where it gets weird to describe. The core aspects of folk music are so broad that it could really apply to most music these days. I see it as evidence of how much music has changed directly because of folk's influence. Typical folk is played with an acoustic guitar. It focuses more on lyrics than it does on music arrangement. A simple handful of chord shifts are there for the framework of the melody. They fill in the scenery for the star, the words. In folk, lyrics are expected to be well crafted, tell stories, send messages, protest, and demand your attention. You don't have to do any sick lightning guitar riffs, and you really don't even need to have a good singing voice. If you have control over it, that's good enough. It doesn't matter if it sounds like chipmunks are rioting in your throat.
The subject matter is usually above something as simple as a sadness or love. It can be reduced to that, but it's also about a situation, or an injustice, or the life story of an interesting character. They are examinations of moments in time told through the lends of rhyming words. These are thick meat things for deconstructionists to bite into.
I consider a lot of indie at this moment to be derived from folk. At least, educated in the styles of folk and adapted to a modern world. Bands like Bright Eyes and Okkervil River, while sonically radically different, went to the school of Leonard Cohen and applied their knowledge to their own situation. They have a strength of poetry with the allowances of songs, often throwing away the chorus, because that's a crutch, in favor of getting as much story to listeners as much as possible.
But one day everything changed / Your eyes got strange you didn't seem yourself / You go to tell a story and you start out fine / Half way through it you'd be somewhere else /
So how do you classify some bands as folksy and others not so folksy? There are some easy ones. Mason Jennings and Loudon Wainwright, for example, are so damn folk it comes back around to being refreshing. Sufjan Stevens? He dabbles in it, his song writing is certainly up to par, so people typically make up a genre for him & his type. Something like "post-folk" or the even more nebulous "folk rock." Joanna Newsom? Completely untraditional, but with sharp prose songs, so we'll call her "anti-folk" or some such nonsense. Devendra Banhart and his wildman unpredictability? Throw it in the "freak folk" bin, or if that's full, maybe make a new one called "space folk."
These are all bands that subscribe to the core of folk music, but how do you differentiate them from bands that are certainly far enough from the folk tradition that they are simply "rock" or "indie" or "pop"? And where does the wild card of rap music fit into all of this? These are not easy questions and I should not have posed them to myself because I can't answer them. I have only succeeded in making myself look dumb.
In all honesty, it comes down to hearing and feeling out a lot of folk music until you, the listener, can confidently label and pigeon hole the sounds you hear. Radiohead? Nothing about their music screams, "of the people." Dashboard Confessional? A funny idea, but no. Eric Clapton? Blues, pop, rock & roll, whatever. He seems more Chuck Berry than Bob Dylan.
I don't give advice / but be wise and think twice Before getting involved in a game Where the minority / face the majority Who are faceless and born without name
Like all music genres, it's about the expections of most people, and that means it will always be vague and tenuous. The blurry borders overlap and mix, like an ethereal jigsaw puzzle. The best you can hope for is to dive in deep into the rich history until you can sincerely claim that you just know it when you hear it.