Will Hermes has an article in today's NYT about freak folk, so read it, and I will take this opportunity to express my dissatisfaction with the genre.
First and most importantly, all music is folk music. It's time we stepped back from the machine here and really thought about it. What music doesn't come from a collective culture? Is anyone out there really prepared to say that hip hop isn't folk music? It seems impossible to divorce oneself from a cultural moment, and even in trying to do so you acknowledge its existence, so.
I think we will all benefit from an important distinction before I go any further. I'm going to henceforth refer to folk music as music that comes from folk, as a cultural product, as "folk." I'm going to refer to the musical genre, as in Woody, Bob, Peter, Paul, and Mary, as "Folk" – that's with a capital F, ladies and gentlemen. Let's try not to get too confused.
My definition of folk music fits a Folk musician's view: music that comes from and builds and strengthens a community of people. Does it matter that Folk was a marketing trick, that Peter, Paul and Mary were pieced together like 'N Sync? That Woody Guthrie was a savvy showman, often posing for photos and accused of hamming it up in his hallmark autobiography Bound For Glory? I guess it doesn't matter to me, because I've absorbed a lot of that stuff on a very basic level; the industry did a good job, if it's all a big hoax, because their Folk become my folk.
Of course it's not all a hoax; these performers and no doubt a lot of other people involved put all their heart and soul into their work. The uncertainty is there though, and at a certain point I just have to move on. And I don't think this is poptimism or whatever, or that it necessarily means that on principle we should be OK with similar dirty tricks that happen these days in the industry. I do think we should be on the watch for said dirty tricks, though I don't think it takes so much work because you can pretty much tell good stuff from bad stuff. (Like Mr. Hurwitz says, Bob woulda been found by someone else if it wasn't John Hammond.)
And Dylan is a great example of why all music is folk music. He, in fact, is partly responsible for why I feel this way. The idea that an electric guitar singlehandedly reforms an artist's entire work of art is preposterous; as if it's possible that all the music he recorded after that fateful day was disconnected at all from what was made before. Dylan's way too much of a personality to be receptive to that stereotypical adolescent boy phase-shifting. It's fair to say that it's not just his early 60's albums that hold fast his title as America's prophet. In fact, what are the albums that most people I ask hold up as his best work, the work that people are most attracted to, most mystified by, and most inspired by? Blood On the Tracks, Blonde On Blonde, Time Out Of Mind, Nashville Skyline. Inside my head, this speaks for itself, but in case my point doesn't come through as obviously as I mean it to, I'll add the "goes without saying" part. Dylan's music that seems to be most popular with the folk, that speaks to a community of sorts, is not his Folk music. But, the backwards (or just plain weird) part is that none of this appreciation for the later albums would exist if Dylan hadn't been a Folk musician first, as if it is a kind of foundation of authenticity that bled into everything else. And the man himself says it wasn't authentic, at least not in the way people took it. Nevertheless, there's a bit of the Alex Ross spirit in Bob Dylan: Where Ross says "Hey man! This is music! Stop treating it like it's some sort of stuffy, outdated, inaccessible and completely irrelevant background noise when the truth is that it's everywhere you already are!", Dylan says "Hey man! This is me! Stop treating me like I can get inside your head or that my Woody obsession had anything to do with anyone other than me!" It starts to seem ignorant to define musicians or their music by a genre, shortchanging both the receiving public and the musicians themselves.
Which brings me back to freak folk and ignorance. It's like a cariacature of a world in which that rapidly growing old joke about the new hip genre post-post-punk-garage-rock-free-jazz-indie-pop. Freak folk is something out of Spinal Tap. I am extraordinarily sensitive to the use of "folk," but in this case I just don't get it. Aside from some appealing alliteration, it doesn't make any sense to me – so Devendra Banhart is a freak? What I see is this weird kind of self-marginalization theater: how ludicrous can we get without being Ludicrous?
Plus, this offhand comment pisses me off: "Jolie Holland, Ane Brun, Cibelle, Juana Molina and M. Ward [are] less connected to the scene but reflecting its aesthetics." I don't see anything freaky about these folks, not one thing. Jolie Holland is nothing like Norah Jones, but she is more like Norah Jones then Devendra Banhart. And M. Ward? – come on. It's less about the fact that these guys aren't freaky, though, and more about the fact that the freaks themselves aren't that freaky.
Folk music, that is, Folk music, will never be back. There has already been a revival, and that was 40 years ago. Luckily, folk music isn't going anywhere: check out the top 40 if you don't believe me. Music's primary function did not, if you can believe it, originate for the pleasure of consumption. Music comes from a social experience, a kind of communication akin to speech but somehow different. Maybe whales have the key to this mysterious connection, but we sure don't, although I'd be the first one to say that we wouldn't want it anyways.