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Beth DeSombre: Blog

What is Folk Music?

Posted on September 7, 2012
Long-time readers of this blog will know that I have gone through angst when music organizations that previously defined themselves as “folk” institutions (WUMB, Club Passim) explicitly decided to take the “folk” out of their names. It seems too often that people have a narrow view of what folk music is, or are afraid that others will view that label as pejorative or antiquated or somehow not worth celebrating. My entire identity in music is fully rooted in folk and I see it as a glorious, expansive thing. Moreover, running away from the word contributes to its marginalization.

But a similar problem can emerge in the opposite direction, when people try to control what can be labeled as folk, in order to keep others out. I have a show with the amazing musician Lara Herscovitch tonight (Sept 7th, depending on when you’re reading this message; you should come!). I’m extremely excited about sharing a show with her – I’ve loved and respected her songwriting and performing ever since I first saw her open for someone at Club Passim.

Since that first time I saw her play she’s gone on to impressive things. She was named the Connecticut state troubadour (how cool is Connecticut for having such a position?!). She’s played on that quintessential folk show (around which I plan my Saturday evenings) Prairie Home Companion. She’s played at almost every folk venue I can think of. And I’m especially excited about her new CD, Four Wise Monkeys, which is focused on “facing adversity and undergoing transition.” Lara says of this project: “my hope is that we each do something to create a better world. The world needs us, and we need each other. But for the grace go I and all.” I’ve heard some tracks from this CD, and it’s folk music in the grandest tradition.

For a variety of complicated reasons this show almost collapsed, and she and I are trying hard to make sure people know about it so they might come see us play. So in my publicity efforts I sent off a notice earlier in the week to folk listerv for this region. Yesterday I got back a notification from the moderator saying that the posting had been rejected because the show was not deemed to be “folk.”

I was as mad as I can remember being. The person who runs this listserv has his own issues and his own reputations in the music community, but runs what purports to be a general list for folk music. And the idea, not only that folk music has such a narrow definition, but that it needs to be protected from all those outsiders who might want to claim that label inauthentically, strikes me as ridiculous. (Which is at the same time exactly the opposite problem of those institutions that removed “folk” from their names/missions and the cause of that type of perception.)

I have some sympathies for these definition wars. When I first went to college (a place where music was central) and people asked me what kind of music I played, I answered “folk.” I was annoyed when people would say “Oh yes, I like James Taylor, too!” because I wanted them to understand that folk music was broader than just things they might have been able to hear on commercial radio. But even then I was railing against a too-narrow definition of what constitutes folk music. I guess I still am. Louis Armstrong purportedly said "All music is folk music. I ain't never heard a horse sing a song." I think if people want to label their music as folk, the rest of us should accept and embrace that label.