Look up ‘folk music’ in a dictionary and you’ll find references to the oral tradition, to music passed from generation to generation, to music originating from ‘the common people.’
Kristin Baggelaar and Donald Milton’s excellent 1976 encyclopedia Folk Music: More than a song diplomatically skirts around the issue by soliciting definitions from no less than (and no more than) eight folklorists and musicians — among them Arlo Guthrie, Edith Fowke and Judy Collins. The open-minded Guthrie typically offers the broadest definition of the genre, suggesting, “Anything that remains in the cultural mainstream for a long period of time or evokes some kind of memory or emotion and works for the mass of the people, I would consider folk music.”
Nowhere will you find folk music specifically defined as ‘anything sung an individual toting an acoustic guitar.’ Indeed, references to acoustic instruments are notably absent from reputable attempts to pin-down the identity of folk music.
Yet, as folk festivals such as ours remind us each summer, the folk-music powers that be require acoustic instruments for entry to the club. Electrified embellishments are permitted, so long as the volume-level is kept to a minimum. Hence, gentle rockers like Great Lake Swimmers and Broken Social Scene are folk musicians. D.O.A., a band that has sung music of, by and for the common people for three decades, but done so rather loudly, is not.
It’s an attitude that dates back in the long oral tradition to what Martin Mull memorably described as the “folk music scare” of the late-1950s and early-’60s. At that time, the folk intelligentsia welcomed into the fold pioneers like Mother Maybelle Carter and Muddy Waters while conquering the charts via saccharine protest-singers like Peter, Paul and Mary (Too soon?), The Kingston Trio and The New Christy Minstrels. All that was needed to become a folk-singer was an acoustic guitar and a determination to lead the audience in a singalong.
Unfortunately, that watered-down idea of folk music caught on. Today, acoustic guitars, singalongs and the occasional bit of preaching to the converted a folk singer make. And this weekend, that reality is being celebrated in Ottawa with the fifth annual edition of the Canadian Folk Music Awards.
There is a worthy local nominee in rootsy singer-songwriter Lynne Hanson. Homegrown Cafe alumnus and carrier of the Ottawa Valley fiddling torch April Verch will perform at Saturday’s gala event. Holdovers from the folk-music scare such as Buffy Sainte-Marie and Ian Tyson will be in the spotlight, as will 1310 staple Valdy. And with Great Lake Swimmers and Joel Plaskett among the nominees, the awards have attempted to throw a couple of bones to those of us whose definition of folk music is closer to Arlo Guthrie’s than it is to the late Edith Fowkes’. (“Ian and Sylvia started out by singing folk songs,” the folklorist observed, “but then went to singing their own compositions.”
Me, I like the ‘common people’ idea. Arguably, it makes room for every performer not classically trained. (Sorry, Pat Benatar, no Ottawa Folk Festival date for you. Try Bluesfest.) But my folk-music has always made room for performers with something to say.
Hence, I am disappointed that while the Canadian Folk Music Awards have opened the door a crack in this, the ceremony’s fifth year, Propagandhi’s Supporting Caste, for my money far and away the best Canadian folk-music album of 2009, is not among the Best Album nominees. Here is a band speaking loudly for the common people and the disenfranchised during the worst recession in memory. A folk group documenting the futility of a war that continues to cost Canadian lives. A band that dares to stand up even to Don Cherry.
You know, the sort of thing one might have once expected from folk music. Folk music like that of The Clash, Public Enemy or The Wailers. Folk music that evokes some kind of memory or emotion and works for the mass of people. Folk music that remains in the cultural mainstream for a long period of time. Yet, folk music that is immediate.
Even when played loudly.