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Jody Kruskal

What is folk music today? UK and USA

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I was about to post something along the lines of...

 

"Is Folk Music Dead?" Then I stopped myself short and reflected... perhaps a broader question would be more revealing... Yes?

 

"Folk Music" certainly appears dead here in the USA from my perspective living in New York City. The UK seems to have a much livelier "folk" scene. Why are you guys so lucky?

 

On my yearly visits to the UK, I've heard it said for years, that the UK scene is not in the state of its former glory, right? Heard that myth too?

 

From my USA perspective... England looks pretty "folk robust" to me,  with hundreds of players clubs scattered all about within a few miles of each other. That is nothing even close to the way it is here in the states. Here we have only slim reigional/urban pockets of traditional song/tune/dance activity.

 

On the other hand... there's the US Old-time instrumental tune revival that is roaring along these days, and spreading to the UK this past 10 or 15 years or so. The growth of playing Southern Old-Time US fiddle tunes as a casual pastime at gatherings, bars and festivals allover seems to reflect a widening interest in preserving, remembering and playing old obscure tunes (and a few songs) on a casual session level. Here at the local sessions at my bar, It's downright scholarly conversation  among the players at these woke sessions as we discuss the origins of the tunes we play in detail... who, when, from whom...and then we bust down for the stuff.

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Maybe what you call old time music IS your traditional folk music?

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I suspect that the common perception of 'folk' music in North America is of '60s and '70s me-centric singer-songwriter stuff that people really do not want to listen to any more.   

 

In the UK folk music was (is?) a much bigger tent and included a lot of traditional music and a lot of tuneage which resulted in more flexibility to repond to changing tastes.

 

That plus serving beer instead of coffee(!) in UK clubs...

 

 

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That sounds very plausible, especially the beer.

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Recently, I was at a conference for organizers of music festivals and I bemoaned the fact that although our festival is in a student-heavy environment, we don't have lots of students attending. I was worried that a lack of young people meant the traditions would die out. Then, a fellow festival organizer said, "you wanna know how to get students to come to your trad music festival? Wait till they're 40."

 

If I run the numbers, the average age of our local session attendees is about 46.

 

So perhaps the traditions are alive and well, but fostered by those of us who have a clearer sense of our mortality than the young ones who are trying to invent new traditions. Don't worry. They'll come around!sessiun2.thumb.PNG.287a66f47d3eefbcb4610f723fee81f2.PNG

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It's difficult for me to respond to this because it's complex and I'm old enough to have been at Woodstock and experience that as an affront to my musical sensibilities, however my wife is an 80's gal and our 15 year old daughter is definitely Emo (sp?).  I have a million things to say about "folk music" but here are two:  It's alive and thriving and money kills it.  So let's open up this can of "wormes" (Thank you Wolfe, I conjure new dragons every time!)......😃

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5 hours ago, Halifax said:

Recently, I was at a conference for organizers of music festivals and I bemoaned the fact that although our festival is in a student-heavy environment, we don't have lots of students attending. I was worried that a lack of young people meant the traditions would die out. Then, a fellow festival organizer said, "you wanna know how to get students to come to your trad music festival? Wait till they're 40."

 

If I run the numbers, the average age of our local session attendees is about 46.

 

So perhaps the traditions are alive and well, but fostered by those of us who have a clearer sense of our mortality than the young ones who are trying to invent new traditions. Don't worry. They'll come around!sessiun2.thumb.PNG.287a66f47d3eefbcb4610f723fee81f2.PNG

And listen to them when they're pre teens.  There's a surprising amount of "Folk Patter" among kids.  Play party tunes, skip rope songs ( Ice cream, ice cream, cherry on top! how many boy friends do you got?) .  It's an oral tradition that survives because it's not yet been co-opted.

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11 hours ago, Don Taylor said:

I suspect that the common perception of 'folk' music in North America is of '60s and '70s me-centric singer-songwriter stuff that people really do not want to listen to any more.   

 

In the UK folk music was (is?) a much bigger tent and included a lot of traditional music and a lot of tuneage which resulted in more flexibility to repond to changing tastes.

 

That plus serving beer instead of coffee(!) in UK clubs...

 

 

For three bucks we could go to the Blues Bag in Provincetown get a big dish of ice cream, an endless cup of good coffee and listen to all the best singer song writers (and interpreters) of the day.  An empty warehouse showing Warhol movies  with but one chair in the middle of the floor which you could mount to shoot up was also an option.  And lots of beer.  I like beer but coffee goes better with folk.

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17 hours ago, Jody Kruskal said:

I was about to post something along the lines of...

 

"Is Folk Music Dead?" Then I stopped myself short and reflected... perhaps a broader question would be more revealing... Yes?

 

"Folk Music" certainly appears dead here in the USA from my perspective living in New York City. The UK seems to have a much livelier "folk" scene. Why are you guys so lucky?

 

On my yearly visits to the UK, I've heard it said for years, that the UK scene is not in the state of its former glory, right? Heard that myth too?

 

From my USA perspective... England looks pretty "folk robust" to me,  with hundreds of players clubs scattered all about within a few miles of each other. That is nothing even close to the way it is here in the states. Here we have only slim reigional/urban pockets of traditional song/tune/dance activity.

 

On the other hand... there's the US Old-time instrumental tune revival that is roaring along these days, and spreading to the UK this past 10 or 15 years or so. The growth of playing Southern Old-Time US fiddle tunes as a casual pastime at gatherings, bars and festivals allover seems to reflect a widening interest in preserving, remembering and playing old obscure tunes (and a few songs) on a casual session level. Here at the local sessions at my bar, It's downright scholarly conversation  among the players at these woke sessions as we discuss the origins of the tunes we play in detail... who, when, from whom...and then we bust down for the stuff.

You live in New York City, one of the major melting pots of the world and you don't hear folk music ?  Open your ears man!  

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Allow me to add a summary of what I see happening in the Washington DC area, where FSGW [Folklore Society of Greaterr Wahsington] continues to find a huge range of folk musics & musicians to perform at the annual 2-day Washington Folk Festival [not to be confused with Smithsonian Folklife Fest], 1st weekend of June each year -- something that has been a big folk event for waaay over 30 years. For instance, there are ethnic groups as diverse as Scandinavian; Greek [Karpouzi trio], tamburica music from former Yugoslavia [Šarenica]; Hungarian táncház music [Tisza]; Macedonian [Luk na glavta]; Bulgarian [Lyuti Chushki]; French [a lot of really fine musicians playing Bal Folk], Moldavian Szikra; more klezmer bands than one can count and these are only the ones I personally know about. Since my introduction to the folk music revivial at Obelrin College in the early 60s, I've seen many changes to the music, to the level of musicanship [generally rising], and especially to integration of that music into people's lives outside of commercial venues. Money in folk music there isn't a lot of, nor venues where performers regularly appear -- but energy and lots of scholarship, reclaiming of ethnic heritage(s) -- those there certainly are. For those of us of the older folk revival generation, we're seeing a lot, I think, of interest in passing along the traditions to subsequent generations. Books to consult: Mirjana Laušević, "Balkan Fascination" Oxford U.P., 2007; Neil Rosenberg, "Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined" U of IL Press, 1993; Carol Silverman, "Romani Routes: Cultural Politics and Balkan Music in Diaspora" Oxford U.P., 2007 -- lots of the Romani music discussed is happening right there in NYC [Oxford has published several really interesting books in its "American Musicsphere" series about folk music.

Enough from me.

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Posted (edited)
22 hours ago, Jody Kruskal said:

From my USA perspective... England looks pretty "folk robust" to me,  with hundreds of players clubs scattered all about within a few miles of each other. That is nothing even close to the way it is here in the states. Here we have only slim reigional/urban pockets of traditional song/tune/dance activity.

 

It's been 25 years since I lived and worked in the US the last time, so I can't make a meaningful statement about the current scene there (I listen to folk alley quite a bit which suggests a rather lively scene, but scattered scarcely all across the vast country).

 

But I will chime in immediately in your envious observation that the UK has an extremly lively traditional folk music and dance scene. It appears very very easy to find session and playalong opportunities practically everywhere (except, interestingly enough, in Scotland, at least 10 years ago when we visited it). Throughout the entire summer one can practically spend every day and night at folk festivals without wasting a whole lot of time driving. There's traces of Morris dancing everywhere. Some of those really into the scene can plan and pursue careers as session/dance/band musicians, callers, festival organizers and so on. And it's even spreading; we have a growing scene of English folk music enthusiasts in Continential Europe which (I don't have hard numbers to support this, it's just my impression being a member of the scene) has already outnumbered the Irish scene and comes close to Balfolk following.

 

I personally tried myself on Irish music but could never get the hang of it, but English immediately resonated when I was introduced to it a few years ago. Can't seem to get enough of it. I'm also fascinated by the lightness which English musicians seem to be able to walk the tightrope between traditional and modern music. Prime example to me is Show of Hands which can play any jig/reel/hornpipe you name but also tackle very modern issues and incorporate young and fresh music and musicians. Chapeau!

 

Let's just hope that through strands like this we can rebuild the bonds that are being cut off by all the Brexit lunacy.

 

Edited by RAc

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All music is folk music: I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.” 

 

However you define it, folk music is going strong in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live.  Here's the program for the upcoming San Francisco Free Folk Festival (I'm one of the festival managers): https://sffolkfest.org/program-2019 .  It'll give you a sense of some of the folk things going on here.

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Coffee goes better with folk music than beer!? Wunks, have you been to a session in a good British pub where the real ale flows freely? Having a pint or two with the music is essential to my concept of folk music. You just cannot roar out a belting chorus on a cup of coffee.

 

To the original question; here in Scotland, in the Aberdeenshire area, over the last 10-15 years we have had a gradual resurgence of loosely folk sessions but mainly with an older age group. We were at a club in Aberdeen recently where I estimated that the aggregate of the ages of the 20 or so people there was about 1400 years. However the style of music and performance has changed in our local session. Now there is a move away from more traditional material to songs on the edge of the folk definition and bordering on pop which are read from song sheets or tablets.(An aside: When I started out in folk clubs in the late 60's they were in dingy rooms lit by the gentle glow of candle light. They are still in drab rooms but now the pale blue glow of tablets predominates). Recently I even heard two songs from Les Miserables at another local club. I could go on about our preconceptions of the repertoire enjoyed by our ancestors but I suspect that this broader range of materiel is nearer to what might have been sung of yore but it is not to my tastes. Notice the thread drift?

 

When I was in the States 30 years ago it was very difficult to find any folk-style music and during each two month tour I suffered acute withdrawal symptoms. I cannot comment on the current scene.

 

Dick.

 

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Posted (edited)

OK, I get it Jody, it's not 1951 and Irwin Silber's not publishing Sing Out in the Village, BUT even Sing Out still lives, tho in PA.  And tho US "folkmusic is a lot more diverse than it used to be (coal miner + anglo + black, etc. etc.) as the posts show, more international, multi-cultural,  it's still near as prevalent as always.  Agreed, no more Newport, no more Fox Hollow, no Gerdes, but still plenty of various festivals in US and Canada.  You've been to Clifftop I think. New York City may be affecting  your perspective?  (what's that famous poster that shows NYC, then the Hudson River, then plains of nothing?)

:)

Edited by Devils' Dream
detail and correction

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Posted (edited)
On 4/23/2019 at 3:59 AM, Jody Kruskal said:

I was about to post something along the lines of...

 

"Is Folk Music Dead?" Then I stopped myself short and reflected... perhaps a broader question would be more revealing... Yes?

 

"Folk Music" certainly appears dead here in the USA from my perspective living in New York City. The UK seems to have a much livelier "folk" scene. Why are you guys so lucky?

 

 

An interesting question that's been on my mind a lot lately; last year I started a new band that is focusing entirely on the rich body of 'neo-trad' music emanating from England, France, Belgium and the Scandi countries. 

 

It seems to me that in the US, the folk scare of the 1960s - the Kingston Trio and its ilk - became fossilized and factionalized; across the pond, there was an early recognition that bringing in diverse influences enriched the music. So in England you had the influence of the folk rock surge, and the infiltration of French influences into the English trad scene, and more recently, Scandi and others.

 

In the US, there is a robust oldtime scene,  but it seems dominated by purists who are offended by the melding of other traditions into oldtime music; the same goes for the lively Irish scene.

 

Maybe it's that in Europe and the UK, people tend to think of "trad" music as something that's always evolving; in the US,  "folk" is seen by its practitioners more as a cultural relic, not to be tampered with, and by younger people as something that only old guys like me do.  Maybe there's a fundamental cultural difference; in Europe, the melding of influences is part of life; in the US, we are all in our walled-off little niches.  As Craig notes above, in my area - Washington DC - there is a lot of diverse music going on, but it seems to me that there is very, very little. cross fertilization.  Which, to my way of thinking, is too bad.                                           

Edited by Jim Besser

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I have come across some musicians who declare themselves "Traditional" musicians with a capital 'T'. For those in that category, the traditional music content was something that could not be added to by newly written "contemporary" tunes. My response generally was to comment that everything they now call traditional was contemporary to someone once.

 

Another feature I have observed is that there is a significant regional variation in the tunes that crop up in sessions. That may mean tunes that are rarely played outside a particular area, or it may mean the same tunes with local variations, or played in different keys.

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It is difficult to generalize about the USA.  The Albany NY area where I lived for many years still thrives -- for example, The Old Songs Festival. I also lived in Davis CA for many years, and folk music is strong there. I now live in the Brunswick/Bath area of Maine, which I would consider healthy with folk/traditional music. I think that what obscures the decline in some areas is the fact that anyone with a guitar who sings personal folksy sounding songs is likely to class themselves as folk singers when they may not really know the traditional music well, if at all.

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