Definitions are a pain in the ass. I was going to try to define folk music, because it is coming up in a lot of conversations and I wanted to defend it. Nobody comes to the defense of folk music.
But I can’t define it. What folk music is to me is music that sprouts from a community. Music that bonds people together who otherwise wouldn’t be bound in that way. It doesn’t matter how- it could be in a classroom, or in a cotton field, or in a recording studio. For me, it was some concerts on a lawn and summer camp. Some grownups that fascinated me and included me in their worlds.
There is something about folk music, too, that requires the passage of time. There is a lineage; there is something that you can trace forwards and backwards out from yourself. And then you feel this line, like a thread of fishing wire, tugging right there on you, and that is the moment that people are searching for.
Folk music isn’t just the Carter Family or Joan Baez. It’s not just first-grade music class, or an autoharp, or some aging hippies. It is saturated with temporality, and it helps to situate yourself in a certain place and time. And when people play it, when they cover songs, or write their own, or have them stuck in their heads, they are participating too.
Our private lives seem so important; cars, or personal media devices, or any number of things, pretty much separate us from really having to pay attention to what goes on around us. But it’s also important to make sure that we can get pleasure or entertainment out of things other than sexy consumer products, at least sometimes. I know that those things, like certain TV shows or a hot pair of jeans, can tug at a person too.
My defense of folk music is simply that it is meaningful. A fleeting memory that I have of “The Sound Of Silence” on the shores of Fallen Leaf Lake sticks forever, and the deaths of a million pairs of perfectly worn jeans doesn’t even come close, despite the momentary grief.