Personal confusion over the term "Folk."

(I wrote this essay in January or 2011. Not sure why I didn't publish, but whatever, here ya go:)

I was recalling when I was a last minute replacement speaker on a panel at the Folk Alliance
conference was held in Austin in 2006. The panel was called "What is Folk" and it was the opening session. When it came around to my turn after hearing all the music professionals; artists, presenters, writers and a DJ, my definition was greeted with quite a bit less enthusiasm as I had hoped.

Brian Marshall at the Houston Polish Fest

I proffered the opinion that the definition of "folk music" was music played by people who didn't want to be left out of the party going on. Music of community functions and families traditions. Its a voice of a living culture, often times filtered and some times entirely drowned out by the consumerist narrative. It's a concept my pal Tex-Polish fiddler Brian Marshall laid on me years ago, and ultimately it's as good a definition as I have yet encountered: "I didn't want to be left out of the fun, so I joined in."
There was an audible and awkward silence amongst the assembled. From the best I can gather, this description didn't sit too well with many "performing songwriters" in attendance, who I have since come to find hold a much different opinion from a vastly different world view. What I came to find that day was that we are talking about two very different narratives and concepts that today share the same public moniker. Confusion and hurt feelings can mount up quite a bit when you realize that you use the same term to describe different things, especially when they exist at such odds with one another.
 

From my possibly limited experience, a "folk" artist is in fact a cultural craftsman who's only attachment to music is serving a function of his/her culture as a whole, music only being a slight fraction of the equation; language, faith, dance, cuisine are all intertwined and carried along by music which is definitely not the myopic focus. It appears that the narrative a great many people who describe themselves as "Folk" artists as if "Folk" was simply a slot they hope to fill in a record shop, or a radio format. For short hand we can use the brilliant parody film "A Mighty Wind" as an example of this perspective.

The "Folk singer" in the consumer narrative is in many respects no different that a Pop singer, save for their setting and instrumentation which appears to "acoustic." Ironically it is

always a guitar made to look like an acoustic model, but in fact must be plugged in electronically to function, much the same way that the "folk" aspects of the presentation (costume, instrumentation, etc.)  is simply a conceit to give the visual image of "traditional" folk craftsmen. Often time what you in fact encounter in this milieu is a pop songwriter who is not yet financially prosperous to field a rock band onstage, and uses the "folk" niche to simply mark time until they can climb the ladder of the music business and "make it big." They embark on a commercial career and if they don't make their dreams come true, they eventually stop and go back to whatever "Plan B" they have in their back pocket, no harm no foul back into the warm comfy waters of the dominant narrative. 

Conversely, the traditional folk musician is way too busy living a life inside a culture, and just happens to play music and most likely will for all of their lives, whether or not they are every examined outside of their community. They couldn't care less in most cases. I learned this by shepherding tradition bearer fiddlers up from Texas to the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes. Rather than help curate and teach with the instructors, I spent most of my time out of class sitting on the porches of our housing trying to explain the motivations of the our students to the confused fiddlers. "Um, again tell me why it is these people want to know this music? Are they Catholic? Do they play dances where they'll need to learn this stuff?" Time and time again we encountered students who desperately wanted to learn a new tune, but seemed entirely uninterested, oft even hostile to the suggestion, that the fiddle tune went with a dance, which went with a party which went with a Church that went with pirogi's and vodka that went with conservative political values, etc... It got ugly on more than one occasion, as these misunderstandings tend to get. In the search for "authenticity," you must take the baby with the bathwater however, weather or not it suits your personal views. The people who taught me Bluegrass in Oklahoma were oft times Klansmen, but that didn't stop me from enjoining in a jam session. You take what you find and do the best you can with it.

In my most jaundiced moments I've felt that when you scratch a "Folk" performer, you tend  to find someone who has either wittingly (or unwittingly) rejected their own culture's narratives and traditions only to then cleave to a some bubbling proto-culture that doesn't challenge their personal values and shares their world view to fill the void. The Jam band scene, bluegrass clubs and the communities that spring up around Festivals are good examples of this expression for culture and traditions. And to be sure, over time this eventually creates it's own "culture," of a sort. For many, it becomes how the define themselves every day and contributes their self image. Far be it for me to rain on anybodies parade. As I go further down this track, I get a lot my forgiving and compassionate for what I find distasteful. I do draw a line pretty clearly however.

It's my feeling that all too often we encounter what are essentially crude burlesques of other peoples cultures. Really no different from a Coon Show in intent, uniformly populated by by the advantaged playfully adopting only the music of the disadvantaged without any understanding or even interest in what makes the music that way in the first place. George Carlin famously noted about why white men had no right in his opinion to play blues "not because its about what are the right notes to play. Its WHY those are the right notes." Time and again it seems and the participants of such imitation versions cheerfully identify themselves as dilettantes, which not a pejorative to the dominant consumer culture with its impenetrable bubble of privilege. As I know from experience, if you presented working traditional musician to this tribe, they uniformly recoil in terror. Possibly recognizing that deep down they actually do not much care for the culture from which the music was born and is a part of, they're far more interested in supporting fellow dilettantes, keeping the savage at arms length.  Danny Barnes' essay on "I know why you're not into music" points out that there's "plenty of music for people who hate music, books for people who hate books, etc." I realize for a great many people my own band Bad Livers fulfilled this same role. While we were trying to get people to check out Stanley Bros. or Don Stover, time and again the kids said they liked us better than the people who inspired us. I recall an interview with Jerry Garcia bemoaning his fans not ever picking up on the great American songbook they were simply trying to expose to a new audience, relating only instead to his clumsy renditions. Could drive a sensitive person to heroin, no?

Danny also told me years ago in reference to the explosion of "we started as a punk band but now we're traditional C &W" bands that overran Austin in the late 80's:


 "All these cats are all hot to play "country music," but none of 'em would dare go out into the country have to deal with the people who like country music. They do alright with the hipsters in town, but I'd like to see them deal with the drunks at the Satin Sabre in LaGrange for instance.

Truthfully, all they ever really did was create a self referential "scene" where out-of-work musicians play for other out-of-work musicians and the waitresses who support them. I should know, as I've participated tangentially performing in the local "blues" and "country" clubs that African American and blue collar WASP's can scarcely be found.  If anyone describes a "scene," this is most likely what they are talking about; a fully inward looking proto-culture, with it's own customs and code of conduct. "Scenes." Like "Rock-a-Billy," or "jazz" or whatever self imposed social club a group of people tend to create for themselves. And it's important to note that if you gather any group together long enough, and they share enough of a world view and "viola'!" you have a safely contained, consumer manufactured proto-culture, no less as genuine as any other. The Juggalos come to mind, as do other cult-like followers of bands and even habitual music festival attendees. No less authentic, truly, they are however more akin to GMO and hydroponic vegetables removed from Mother Earth and natural world.

To further confuse the matter, there have been periods of American history where authentic culture as also been "popular" and thus
commercially successful. Flatt and Scruggs were chart toppers in the wake the "Bonnie and Clyde" soundtrack and Beverly Hillbillies. Ever since "Bluegrass" music, the musical innovation of a single artist, has waxed and waned in the American public consciousness between a vocational and avocational pursuit . 




There was the sweet yet brief moment when Jewish "klezmer" music was elevated by
violinist Itzak Perelman's single album and subsequent tour, which was forgotten as easily as it came on the radar, dashing the aspirations of a whole generation of artists who thought they had finally broke through to be counted as a American culture and not simply a marginalized corner of an even more marginalized community. Any folk musician likes to be appreciated and "hitting the big time" (whatever that means to every individual) is certainly understandable and even laudable, especially when it exposes the musicians greater culture in hopes of not just financial, but hopefully some measure of acceptance by the dominant narrative. But then again, they may only dress you up in Klan outfit when you sing your signature song....

I had this whole conversation with a fellow who's been trying to force fit an instrument from one tradition into another tradition's dance music for decades now with only an embarrassing admixture to show for it. As a "folkie,"and lets be honest here we are talking about people with white skin who speak English almost entirely, he's fully empowered by his wealth and his privilege to see culture as a smorgasbord; where he can pick and choose what elements suit his personal musical vision. How could he see it any way really, having had only consumerism and advertising as a cultural legacy? It is often argued that it's just these sort of people that propel traditions forward and there is indeed some truth in that line of thinking.

However, the important
element, missing in this performers thesis,  is how does this change come to a tradition? From within a community with its own internal standards? Is there a community of like minded, language, custom and faith connected people who within their own experience accepted change from within? Or is it the outlander who imposes their concept onto a culture he stumbles across, or is the natural curiosity of the tradition bearer feuling the innovation? The steel guitar entered French speaking "Cajun" music many years ago, as did the accordion before it, naturally and from internal experimentation. Same for the arrival of the Greek bouzouki in Ireland and the button accordion to the Spanish speaking south west US. Revolutionary as their introductions may have been, they arose as a reaction of a community well versed in their own traditions and as a community welcome to internal innovations. I'm a traditionalist personally, but even I must accept the adoption of American instrumentation in Yiddish music and I foresee a lexicon of authentic Yiddish guitar in my lifetime. That's a conversation from inside our community, and thus is nobodies business but ours.

Done their homework
My pal Henry Sapoznik has a litmus test for who's coming from inside the music and who haven't done their homework. It's really easy: walk up to a band playing "klezmer-punk" or "klezmer-jazz" or some other clumsy fusion, hold a Colt 1911 .45 up against the band leaders temple and say "Play me an old fashioned Yiddish Bulgar, one my zayde would recognize." 9 times out of 10, sadly, the test doesn't end well. But within communities there are indeed master musicians who have imbibed the totality of their own cultures, assuming a collective voice and then and only then are capable of making truly revolutionary music that would in fact speak to the aspirations of a people while propelling them forward. 

To reach back to the opening paragraph, there was an earnest young Folk singer who responded to my definition at that Folk Alliance panel with the plea, "But I'm a white middle class American, raised without attachment to any of the heritages that make up my family's story. What am I to do with your definition then?" That knocked me back on my heels. I didn't have an answer for him, nor did I have one. Maybe I'm lucky that my identity was clearly identified for me so early on that I possibly don't even possess the tools to understand why folks don't see it my way. Just as I can't understand why they treat culture and it's byproducts as nothing more than a commodity. I'll allow further that I may be the only human on the face of the Earth that these issues seem to bother, and I'll be working to let it bother me less, seeing as I am in the great minority in these views. 

Rolf & Beate Sieker
But even my thesis falls apart in the complexities of everyday life it seems. There's a really great banjo player living in Texas named Rolf Sieker. When I say really good, I mean you have maybe heard different, but you won't hear better. I met Rolf in 1991 when he drove down from Hamburg to see Bad Livers play in a club in what formerly housed the Gestapo HQ in Berlin. Many years later we reconnected when he moved to the US, naturalized and set out to play bluegrass professionally with his wife Beate as the Seiker Band. (Check 'em out, I love them.) Rolf is so good, playing American music from the inside, not like a tourist but with real old school feel, I had to ask a) why did he play banjo and b) why not German music? I'm not going to bore you with the details, because Rolf's story should be his own, but he really couldn't enjoin with his family's long tradition of music making. Rolf told me that his father, and his father before him were all Bards from the Thurnigen Forest, singing songs passed down generation to generation, accompanied upon the Waldzither. 


But by 1933 the National Socialists had co-opted these songs and traditions and had perverted them for their own purposes. After the war, simply whistling the melodies was an indication that you preferred the Third Reich. Papa put his instrument under the bed and never sang those songs again. But Rolf was lucky. His mother listened to Armed Forced Radio and became (like many post war Germans strangely) a HUGE Johnny Cash fan. In hopes of hearing the Man in Black, Momma Sieker kept the radio on, and that's when Flatt & Scruggs came blaring through the ether. Young Sieker was entranced, so much so that he eventually founded arguably Germany's only decent Bluegrass band, going on to tour with Bill Monroe (even sleeping in the same bed, but like I said Rolf should tell these tales himself!) Brutally disconnected from his own traditions, he cleaved to this foreign one and made it fully his own, following his passions from Hamburg to Nashville and eventually Texas today. Is it any coincidence that his father's instrument, has five courses and is tuned to an open G chord? I think not.

To close, let me share this one anecdote from my childhood. My family was very close with a group of young Native American artists who were engaged in complete re-examination about what was "Native" art? They took all the tools of classical western art and focused it back onto their own cultural narrative in a bold and exciting new way, unbound by what outsiders considered "traditional." My family would host shows form them when the non-Native owed galleries pronounced their output at "not Indian" enough. They established themselves by word of mouth and hard work driving all over the country showing their canvases to whoever would look at them. The "Indian" Art  world came around to accept them finally, we would go to their showings quite a bit, sometimes all the way out to Santa Fe the big art fair. I saw my buddy Ben Harjo Jr. setting up a few new prints.
Ben Harjo, Jr. at work
I was struck with one, a figure of a woman enveloped in a swarm of yellow honey bees. I knew that Ben's art almost always related to a story of a legend. He said "It's a story about a spirit who wants to visit the world, so she becomes a beautiful woman. But men come upon her and rape her. Confused and angry, she turns herself into a swarm of bees and kills the men. It's a story about medicine and women and how you should always honor them." "But Ben, " I inquired, "what is medicine. I hear you talk about it all the time, but what is it?" He gave me a big smile, patted me on the head and said "Oh, this is our medicine, it is not meant for you. You have your own medicine, with your people. Go and study that."


What am I getting at? All I recommend is that when you enter some ones home, you try and do like your parents taught you to and be respectful. Every human on Earth has their own medicine. Go and study yours. It could very well be staring you in the face right now. You may be surprised what treasures you will find.



PS:

Oh, I guess I should make a pitch for Hank Bradley's ground breaking essay on this very subject called "Counterfeiting, Stealing, and Cultural Plundering: a manual for applied ethnomusicologists with 12 tunes for fiddle composed by the author" 1989. Available from the author. It was very helpful me in understanding motivations when I was just starting out searching and engaging in cultures other than my own.