Joining the board of Folk Alliance International recently has really begged me to question “what is folk music” in a new way. It’s easy in my day-to-day reality to become ethnocentric about what the artists I am surrounded by most are doing. Easy to just assume Folk is the heritage from which they come because they think that is so. Easy to get needlessly waylaid thinking about what makes them Folk and forget what makes Folk Folk. But now the question is posed in my head almost daily.
For several months I have contemplated this question – some days more intensely than others. Some days I net out still carrying my Folk card. Some days I just don’t think I belong. I’ve settled in a land of disappointment in the mere suggestion of the question. I don’t know if I should run from the question, or to it. I get frustrated that it’s even a debate. Confused at how I got to this desert island where good people get stuck – in the circular debate in search of answers to unnecessary questions.
I love Folk music. And when I say that, I mean so many things. All of them relevant. All of them real.
And that’s all that matters.
People don’t make Folk music. People make music. And the community that gathers to laugh, cry and sing along makes it Folk.
Today I got my new issue of SingOut! Magazine – their 60th anniversary issue. In each issue of SingOut! they include lead sheets and a CD of songs of their choosing. I put the CD in while I started to read. Testimonials inside from various notable people in Folk music about what SingOut! has meant to them. Including Pete Seeger, who was one of the grand instigators of the magazine at inception in the first place. In Seeger’s note, he recalled the first introductory letter they printed in the early newsletter-esque predecessor to the magazine, “The people are on the march, and must have songs to sing…”
In reading those words, I realized something about the music I love so dearly. Something I hadn’t thought about before in quite that way.
I’ve been marching around saying that Folk music is “of the people” and that it tells stories of people that are often not told for one reason or another. That Folk is about honesty. Good bad or ugly. In fact, especially ugly. But today, it strikes me as that is not enough. Folk doesn’t just tell the story of the people, it gives the story back to the people so they can sing their own story. And sometimes this is the gap and the thing we overlook in our current, contemporary folksinging scene.
I know I’ve thought this before, passingly. That singalongs are a hallmark of Folk. But what I realize now is it’s not the event of people singing a long in a room together – as romantic and inspiring as that might be. People sing along to music in many ways, their own ways, everyday. It’s the recognition of one’s self in the music they are singing along to that matters.
As a music manager, I frequently monitor social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to see what people are saying about Market Monkeys artists and friends. Today when I did a Twitter search for songwriter and gifted lyricist Meg Hutchinson, I found several fans tweeting snippets of lyrics. Words they found inspiring, reassuring, that they wanted to read back to the world in their own virtual voices. A modern day singalong of sorts…
I sometimes hear songs in my head during moments in my life that I feel kindred. My partner picked up a rental car with New Jersey plates and I had to quote John Gorka in response to her Facebook post, “I’m from New Jersey… I don’t expect too much…”
Songwriter and kickass guitar player Natalia Zukerman is always quoting other songwriters mid-sentence as we have conversations, especially our good friend Susan Werner – who has managed to put words to so many emotions we encounter in our day to day. And you know, I know exactly what Natalia means…
Music is an interwoven part of our language and culture. We don’t have to sing aloud to sing along. The music becomes “of the people” when it moves us emotionally. We remember it. It stays with us. And it changes us, in small ways at first. And when we’re very lucky – in large ways, too.