First of all, I apologize in advance if I don’t say all there is to say on any of my points below. Folk music is a broad topic, and I know I’m not going to say all that I could here.
The past couple years, there’s been a renewed interest – an interest explosion, really – in folk music. I really want to get into a definition of “folk music” in another post, so I’ll mostly let that rest for now. But I think you might know what I mean by “folk music” – not country music per se, but music with mainly acoustic instruments played with little or no effects, and songs that come out of a long musical history or reflect traits of songs that do. People are crazy about this type of music right now. It’s become a fad, but the funny thing is that this type of music has always been around, and will continue to exist after the pop culture fad fades. But I think it’s really interesting that this has become a fad, and I think it reflects a few important things happening in our culture.
Really quick, here are the bands and singer/songwriters you’ve probably heard of, that are some of the big drivers of this movement: Mumford And Sons, The Avett Brothers, Punch Brothers, The Decemberists, Alexi Murdoch, The Civil Wars, and The Head And The Heart. Throw in the pioneering efforts and success of Allison Krauss, and the “now-on-hiatus” Nickel Creek (whose members all have other strong projects going), and you’ve got a pretty good picture of the major players of the new folk resurgence. And that’s not including the tons of other folk bands that exist and flourish more outside the “mainstream.” Visit the website for the Newport Folk Festival for just one example of the large interest out there for what folk music brings to the table. These bands and artists all, on a significant level, tap into a long tradition of folk music of Europe and early America, rearranging traditional folk ballads, singing old Christian hymns at times, and writing new music that reflects the songwriting and instrumentation of rich, old folk tunes.
Pop culture has been adapting to, and benefiting from the people’s interest in quirky folk music the past few years.Why? Here are a few reasons I really believe factor into this phenomenon:
1. Weariness Of Over-Produced, Market-Driven Art
On some level, a segment of our culture has grown tired of music that lacks depth, and that’s only written to be quickly and easily marketable. One possible definition of “pop music” is basically this: music meant to be as catchy as possible on the first listen, written to sell and not necessarily to participate in the experience of a group of people. There’s always pushback in a cultural movement; as our culture’s popular music has gotten more and more produced to perfection, there’s a movement pushing back in the other direction. Studio “perfection” can’t be duplicated live in many aspects, and there is a current rejection of such perfection. Folks want to hear music played by, well, folk. With all the imperfections that potentially come along with it. Folks want to hear instruments sound like they sound, and voices sounding real and genuine, straight from the singer to the audience.
2. Emphasis On Story
Since “folk” music is born out of communities and cultures, with unique regional distinctions, the stuff that lasts is the stuff regular people can really relate to and different musicians can borrow from one another. Songs that last are quality ones that are memorable in melody, and that make lyrical sense. Anything less and composers lose cultural staying power in their music. Good folk music tells the stories of people, with honesty and genuineness; and it’s music that gets people singing along because the stories are really their own. Our cultural moment is unique in that a lot of us want art that tells the honest story of the “common” person.
This is very valuable for the church to be aware of, as we engage folks in relationships. People want to know each others’ stories, and to have their own unique stories known by others. May we engage others on this level, not being content to just bring our friends and neighbors to church events but really meet others where they are. And may we seek out relationships with other believers in the church, to be known and encouraged, and held accountable for our faith.
3. Community Valued Over Celebrity
Folk music celebrates the song and the poetry more than the particular performer. But our culture has gone on for a while doing the opposite. We tend to value celebrity, and a lot of the pop music written today is meant to showcase the particular performer singing the song. Think about what American Idol judges constantly tell their contestants – you’ve GOT to make this “you.” But I think our culture is growing weary of this fad too.
Really, music has historically had more of a community focus. Songs have most often been written out of the experiences of a people, in such a style that people other than the composer could get their hands on a song and sing it in other gatherings and other contexts. It’s actually pretty hard to do justice to a Phil Wickham tune in church (unless you’re him), but think about how easy it is to take a song written in more of a “folk” tradition and arrange it to fit your particular church body and church music leader, in range, instrumentation, and musical style (I’m thinking of a song like “In Christ Alone”). One is very tailored to the skills and uniqueness of a certain singer/songwriter, and the other is written with certain qualities that really gear it toward singing as part of a congregational identity, and within a community. And much of our current progressive-folk stuff is written more in this style. Folks want to sing along with a band’s tunes. They want to learn them, play them, and sing them in gatherings. Folk music has a long tradition of doing just that.
That’s it for now, but there’s more to come. Also, as a final note, I really do like Phil Wickham’s music.