Behind all folk, there is a clear message.
Unlike other music styles more focused on aesthetics and instrumentation, folk’s highest goal is to offer stark truths and sharp criticisms about the society in which we all live.
Stemming from the precedents set by traditional folk music, contemporary folk continuously acts as vehicle for social and political commentary since its inception in the late ’50s and early ’60s. And much like its precursor, it is still performed by the sensible working class, the downtrodden and those who want their non-conformist voices to be heard.
Contemporary folk’s simplistic sound comes from taking time-tested chord progressions and rustic timbres — such as the guitar, the banjo, the harmonica and the mandolin — and infusing them with new commentary about how the folk artist wishes to see change in the world.
Many of the 20th century folk revivalists, alongside their own compositions, covered traditional folk songs for their new audiences like “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” “House of the Rising Sun,” “Oh! Susanna” and “Joe Hill.”
Naturally, the context of their songs change with the era they’re played in, and the times they were a changin’.
Columnist Luke Furman discusses how rhythm guitarists and other support roles are often overlooked, despite playing a crucial part in binding an act’s sound together.
Following the initial wave of artists who established contemporary folk, Bob Dylan turned the movement on its head when he incorporated electric guitar in 1965 much to the dismay of other folk musicians, including Pete Seeger. However, the songs he produced with electric instruments, including “Maggie’s Farm,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” became classics, dismantling the perception of how true folk must be played. But it would not be the last major change that would befall the music.
After going electric, many sub-genres and derivatives emerged from the folk revival such as folk rock, folk punk (e.g. The Pogues) and later on freak folk, psych folk and indie folk, one of the most pleasant genres.
In the new millennium, folk singers started to introduce modern technology and life into into their lyrics. Artists like Father John Misty, Bright Eyes and Bon Iver have adopted a modern angle to folk, referencing topics like email replies, prescription drug abuse, George Bush, Jean-Paul Sartre and online friends.
However, folk’s original working class subversion is still present in these newer works as each one of these artists criticize modern politics or society, in one fashion or another. They also manage to craft their songs in a fairly self-aware way that often adds an extra layer of sarcasm and irony to their music, especially with Father John Misty and Kurt Vile.
With such a wide array of musical arrangements and subjects to pick from, today’s folk artists might have the most freedom to create a unique sound, as opposed to an acoustic guitar and 4/4 drumming.
This is because, at its roots, folk is really about what’s being said and less about how. Something as simple and abrasive as a Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains song is just as much folk as something as complex and lush as a Fleet Foxes tune. They look to accomplish the same goal of transferring relatable truths backed only by a steady beat beneath some bluesy strings.
Having a huge back-catalog to take inspiration from can only produce a better future for folk music, especially since that catalog stretches back long before Lincoln took office. So, although the means might change, the spirit of folk ultimately remains the same: meaningful, subversive and honest.
Luke Furman is a sophomore studying journalism and a reporter for The Post. What’s your favorite folk song? Tweet him @LukeFurmanOU or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.