Source of the Sound: The Link Between American Folk Music’s Past and Present

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Where can we find American folk music? In the meandering strums of a banjo along the Appalachian Mountain chain, staring up at the Big Rock Candy Mountain? Sitting on a Main Street curb in 1951, listening to Woody Guthrie assuring us that this land is indeed all of ours? Is it in Manhattan’s Sheridan Square in 1963, sipping spiked tea from a jar and nodding in agreement with Bob Dylan’s poetic condemnation of the hawkish, ignorant politics of the middle class? Historically speaking, the short answer is: All of the above.

The way I see it, you can look at American folk music from two different perspectives. You can consider it musically, observing acoustic themes that carried over from one end of the twentieth century to the other. You could also view it as a continually unfolding story, a weathered diary of the laborious narrative that is America, the antique mirror that reflects the soul of the patriot.

The former interpretation is a bit spurious, though; it implies that anyone with a guitar and a voice is making folk music, and while genre labeling is subjective, I don’t think it’s fair to shoehorn each of these artists into the “folk” category. In fact, I often find that it’s the lyrical content more than the musical composition of a given song that makes it “folk” to me. Let me explain.

A large contributor to the far-reaching success of American folk music was the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Like many farmers and settlers, musicians from what we’ll call the southern midwest—northern Texas, the Oklahoma Panhandle, and much of Kansas and Colorado—were forced to leave the barren prairie and head to the places where they could find the most work: cities. Some headed west to Los Angeles; others headed east to New York and Chicago.

Coupled with the rising proliferation of black culture throughout the country in the forms of Louisiana jazz and traditional slave songs, this mass displacement opened up new territories and populations to both folk music as well as its firmly-held beliefs in hard work, self-sufficiency, the promise of the common man, and—as one might expect—folklore.

The tradition of Americana in the past decade or so extends far beyond the so-called “ironic” appropriations of working-class signifiers like trucker hats and PBR. 2005 was a big year for sincere folk-inspired music, as evidenced by the success of albums such as Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois and The Decembertists’ Picaresqe.

The second (and, perhaps, final) entry in Stevens’s “50 states” project—a now defunct attempt to record an album for each of the country’s fifty states—is seeped in the legend of the everyman. The song titles themselves reflect this: “To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament,” “Prairie Fire That Wanders About,” “Riffs and Variations on a Single Note for Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and the King of Swing, to Name a Few.”

There’s even a song about John Wayne Gacy Jr., the infamous serial killer who dressed as a clown to gain closer access to his juvenile victims. Stevens’s obsession with history—of both the factual and mythological variety—reflects the interplay between past and present, legend and fact, the temporal and the spiritual. “You came to take us/All things go, all things go/To recreate us/All things grow, all things grow,” he sings to a higher power on “Chicago.”

For Stevens, the idea of religion as a transformative experience trumps material or geographic concerns: “We sold our clothes to the State/I don’t mind, I don’t mind.” As he tells us about how he “drove to Chicago” and New York, one can’t help but think that he didn’t just drive—he was driven to travel, just like the narrator of “Oh Shenandoah” who was “bound away/Across the wide Missouri.”

Likewise, Picaresque is rife with legends. “Eli the Barrow Boy,” “The Bagman’s Gambit,” and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” are but three examples of songs on which singer/songwriter Colin Meloy verbalizes the vitality of spiritual feeling over earthly possession. With few possessions to their name, many settlers of the late 1800s and early 1900s had to turn elsewhere to find salvation; when relocating, moreover, they also had to make some difficult choices about what—or who—to leave behind and how to acquire necessary land and goods.

Morally ambiguous acts like killing off Native Americans and taking their land could only be excused by an intangible, overarching “manifest destiny,” reinforcing the idea that the ends—providing for one’s family, encountering personal freedom, securing heavenly grace—justified the means, however unethical those means might be. And so, Meloy’s narrator falls in love with a cop-killer in “The Bagman’s Gambit,” sacrificing his professional integrity for emotional fulfillment: “I recall that fall, I was working for the government/And in a bathroom stall off the National Mall, how we kissed so sweetly/How could I refuse a favor or two, for a tryst in the greenery?/I gave you documents and microfilm, too.

Traditional folk music also takes pride in nature, reveling in its sublime environs and puzzling over its mysteries. Texas outfit Shearwater, a side project by several members of the band Okkervil River, constantly praises the natural world. On “The Snow Leopard,” taken from their 2008 album Rook, lead singer Jonathan Meiburg informs the listener that “The way is to climb, the way is to lie still/And let the moon do its work on your body.”

Likewise, Seattle’s Fleet Foxes write beautiful songs that tell—often in harmony—of quiet tragedies. “Oliver James,” from their eponymous 2008 album, tells the story of a drowning boy.

“White Winter Hymnal” also concerns the death of a young man, only in this case it’s a much more abstract affair: “And Michael, you would fall/And turn the white snow red as strawberries in the summertime.” Both songs feature pitch-perfect vocal harmonizations, pretty acoustic instrumentation, and absolutely stunning melodies, but like the slave songs of the 18th and 19th centuries, the beauty of the music is at once bolstered and tainted by the realities of their contexts. (You wouldn’t normally sing a happy fugue about a bleeding or drowning child, would you?)

The goals of many slave songs were to vent frustrations, express desires for freedom, and prevent boredom from constantly working in plantations. While the members of Fleet Foxes don’t have to worry about slavery, their music is undeniably informed by slave songs like “Wade in the Water,” which features the lyrics: “Who’s all those children all dressed in Red?/God’s gonna trouble the water.”

Red as strawberries, indeed.

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