Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Pure as Folk

Most of us have a musical window inside our head. It’s that time period when music played a critical role in imprinting images and emotions into our brain. These are feelings that generally stay with us for the rest of our lives. My musical window extends from roughly the mid-fifties through the sixties. Folk music, now labeled Americana music, was one of the driving forces behind my rabid interest in music of many different genres, styles, and forms.

I recently finished a book that brought back a lot of memories of that period and some interesting footnotes for that style of music. It’s called: ‘Always A Song; My Story of the Folk Music Revival by Ellen Harper.’ Ellen is an accomplished folk singer and mother of Ben Harper, another well-known singer in that tradition.

One of the dichotomies of that period was the conflict between the folk purists and the new musical explorers. While I couldn’t define or even explain it, folk music struck an emotional chord with me. As the book points out: ‘Many in this largely affluent, well-educated, and restless generation, seeking inspiration and hope, embraced the authenticity of folk music as a powerful medium for expression.’ But storm clouds were on the horizon.

The book continues: ‘There has always been a tension between what is considered authentic and what is thought of as commercial. The folk music revival is a story of blurred lines, and navigating those often poorly defined boundaries as complicated. There can’t be a folk music revival without the music industry.’

Authentic folk singers such as Pete Seeger, Bud and Travis, The Steeple Singers, Hedy West, the New Lost City Ramblers, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Huston, and many more were always on the hunt for traditional material. They mined the hills of Appalachia, the printed volumes of English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish music and other cultural artifacts for long lost musical treasures. The thought seemed to be that if it wasn’t over a hundred years old, it wasn’t authentic.

I, on the other hand, was raised on the button-down folk groups like the Kingston Trio, Chad Mitchell Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary and many others of their style. Folk purists thought these new groups had sold out with their crass commercialization of their traditional music. I found the music easy to listen to, with a message that grabbed me on an emotional level that few other experiences had before that.

Folk music has been around forever but changes shape and form as new generations discover its power amid its simplicity. A new trend I’ve discovered on my Facebook newsfeed are the offers of free music from these folk types with only charges for shipping.

The old mechanism of music publishing and distribution has been thrown for a loop with the advent of the internet, YouTube and other streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. If I want to check out a group, old or new, I can either go to their web page or YouTube to see and hear them. Singers today must be their own best advocate with their home page on the internet and other means of reaching their intended audiences.

Talk about coming around full circle. So, here I am at age Eighty-One trying my hand at writing lyrics and creating songs of that style and period. I’ve been so fortunate to have met a fellow traveler who has been an enormous help in crafting nine original songs for one of my plays.

I’ve also written a play about an aging folk group still trying to make a dent in the music business. It’s a combination folk concert and a play. Both plays PTV and Tangled Roots are looking still for a home.

Added to that rucksack of stumbling ambition, my mind (as untethered as it is) has wandered off in a totally different direction. It’s the creation of a full-blown album called: ‘Made in Minnesota.’ My fantasy is that it would highlight periods, incidents, fellow travelers of my past through songs. It would be wrapped up in the cloak of folk and its universal themes of love lost and found, the angst of youth and pleasures of being raised in the North Country.

Where it might go is anyone’s guess at this point in its development.

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