There's a great line in The Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis
, when the title character (played by Oscar Isaac) finishes performing at New York's legendary Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village, and says, "If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it's a folk song."
Like "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," there are so many classic folk music standards that we simply don't know the origins of, and to list them all would take far too much time. However, other than their mysterious backstories, a lot of these songs share one simple thing in common: people keep playing them. One of the most popular folk standards is "House of the Rising Sun," a song that is, to this day, covered to no end. You might remember one of the odder moments of this year was when alt-J
, of all people, covered it for their new album:
Now, whatever you think of that… interesting
arrangement, the fact that a band like alt-J covered it at all proves that these songs, which have been around for god only knows how long, still resonate with people across a wide variety of genres and inspire new interpretations. Because folk music can be so difficult to classify, sometimes it is simply defined as "old" music. However, despite how old these songs literally are, they never seem to get old, meaning people never seem to get tired of hearing or playing them.
That's the best way to sum up, not just folk songs of untraceable origins, but also the genre as a whole. Folk music will never, ever die. Like the blues, folk is still so inseparable from British and American music because of how deeply embedded it is in the history of our cultures. When most people think of folk music, chances are they're thinking of what's actually referred to as either "contemporary folk music" or the "folk revival." These terms refer to a new era of popular folk music that began to spring up in the mid 20th century, thanks to artists like Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Donovan, Bob Dylan, and many, many more.
However, all of the folk music that came before this period is commonly referred to as "traditional folk music." This was the period when folk songs were mainly performed during communal work and activities. Think workers singing songs during manual labor, or even during religious events. However, because most factory and farm workers who lived before the 20th century were illiterate, they couldn't transcribe their songs on paper, and this was long before the time of recorded music. Instead, they had to memorize these songs and transmit them orally. This is probably why we don't know the authorship of so many classic folk songs. The songs themselves were almost always particular to various cultures, and were about topics that were relevant to the community.
However, all of that's just an incredibly brief look at the history of folk music and how inseparable it is from human history. But here's the thing: folk music is still alive and well, and a lot of the most important characteristics of its vast history can be heard working to fantastic effect in some of the most beloved folk music of this generation. Again, a lot of these characteristics are "old," but they don't seem to feel old to listeners. Folk music is simply an irreplaceable part of the human race, it's in our DNA. To suggest that people will stop listening to or playing folk music is like suggesting that Americans will collectively decide to stop playing baseball.
Even in popular music, some of the most prominent chart-topping artists undoubtedly owe much of their success to their folk music influences. To put this in perspective, both of Ed Sheeran
's previous two albums debuted at number one in both the US and the UK. The same is true for another popular folk (or at least, folk-inspired) artist: Mumford & Sons
. Now, a lot of people will argue against these artists being called "folk" artists anymore, seeing as how their latest releases veered so far away from the genre. I'd even argue that those two Ed Sheeran albums don't really count as folk music because… well, they're not really folk music. But the genre's influence on both Sheeran and Mumford & Sons has been clear from their debuts, and no matter what you think of their music, they deserve some recognition for being able to keep acoustic guitar-based pop songs in the mainstream amidst our EDM-infused era.
Sheeran and Mumford & Sons clearly haven't been the only ones to achieve this popularity. There's also artists like Of Monsters and Men
, and the Lumineers
, who've all broken through into the mainstream by playing folk music, in one way or another.
However, some artists have achieved almost the same level of popularity to far more critical acclaim. In other words, some of the most widely respected folk albums of the past few years have also been very commercially successful. For example, Bon Iver
's new album, 22, A Million
, not only received almost universal acclaim when it was released last year, but it also debuted at number two on the Billboard 200.
In case folk purists throw up their arms in protest at that album being used as an example, because of the ambitious lo-fi/electronic directions it also went in, it should be mentioned that Bon Iver's more traditionally folky self-titled album also debuted at number two in 2011.
Whether popular or not, what is most fascinating about modern folk music is how artists are revitalizing age-old techniques. After all, this is how any genre remains relevant over long periods of time. For example, one of my favorite modern folk musicians is Laura Marling
, whose 2013 album, Once I Was an Eagle,
is all the proof you need that folk music has yet to exhaust all of its potential for moving songwriting that is both original and inspired by what's come before at the exact same time. One of Marling's main influences is Joni Mitchell, one of the most important folk revivalists of the 1960s and 70s, and this shines through especially on Once I Was an Eagle
. Mitchell famously used unconventional tunings for her guitar playing, with which she wrote songs built around chords that she simply identified as "Joni's weird tunings." Among other similarities to Mitchell, Marling also uses her own unconventional tunings. However, Marling took this influence and used it to make her own ingenious songwriting choices. For example, one of her most brilliant decisions was to use three of these Joni Mitchell-esque tunings on Once I Was an Eagle
, each one marking a different change in emotion for the album's central character (yup, it's a concept album). And then there's the way the album begins, during which Marling utilized another classic folk music characteristic that has been around since that pre-20th century traditional folk period that I mentioned earlier: medleys. The first four songs on this album lead into each other like one long, sixteen-minute medley, all of it culminating in the epic fifth track, "Master Hunter."
Father John Misty
is also a perfect example of a lesser-known, yet still incredibly vital, folk rock songwriter. With the exception of his debut under the FJM moniker, Fear Fun
, his other two albums, I Love You, Honeybear
and Pure Comedy
, each respectively tackle two of folk music's most important themes: love, and the human condition at large. However, the way Tillman mainly stands apart from the plethora of other folk artists writing about these themes is through his unique sense of humor. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who writes folk songs in quite the same way, with the same witty commentary, as Josh Tillman.
For example, I Love You, Honeybear
is a concept album about Tillman meeting and falling in love with his wife. But even the title track doesn't hold back any details, no matter how stereotypically unromantic they are ("Mascara, blood, ash and cum on the rorschach sheets where we made love"
It also features "I Went to the Store One Day," and you can predict what fateful meeting that song details.
His newest album, Pure Comedy
, makes its main concern clear from the opening track: "We emerge half-formed / and hope whoever greets us on the other end / is kind enough to fill us in / and babies, that's pretty much how it's been ever since.
" The whole album is a humorous, insightful, moving analysis about human nature and modern society.
In classic folk tradition, these songs tackle modern issues with insightful lyrics. One of the best tracks on the album, "Ballad of the Dying Man," is a satirical look at society's obsession with social media. Tillman does this by utilizing another traditional folk music characteristic: storytelling. In this song, the story's about a dying man (no duh) who, in his very last moments of life, decides to check his newsfeed to "see what he's about to miss." As he's about to check out for good, his main concern appears to be the narcissistic belief that, once he's dead, there will apparently be nobody left to comment on all of the "pretentious, ignorant voices that will go unchecked."
And then, of course, there's Fleet Foxes
. Fleet Foxes, led by lead singer and main songwriter Robin Pecknold, have only put out three albums since they arrived on the folk scene in the late 2000s. However, all of these albums have been fantastic. Their second album, Helplessness Blues
(which actually featured Father John Misty on the drums), is probably their magnum opus (at least it is for now). To get a little technical here, the term "folk music" is derived from the word folklore, which means "the traditions, customs, and superstitions of the ‘uncultured' classes." ‘Uncultured' here means the common people, the lower classes. With that in mind, Helplessness Blues
is perhaps the best embodiment of that age-old folk music tradition of writing songs about the struggles of everyday people. The title track exemplifies this best from the opening lines, which tackle the relatable struggle to find a sense of belonging in modern life: "I was raised up believing I was somehow unique/ like a snowflake unique among snowflakes/ unique in each way that I see/ But now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be/ a functioning cog in some great machinery/ serving something beyond me."
It's a fantastic song about wanting to find your way, and wanting to live a picturesque, fulfilling life ("If I had an orchard, I'd work ‘til I'm sore/ and you'd wait tables and soon run the store"
Their newest album, Crack-Up
, is similarly fantastic. One of the highlights on this album is the song "Cassius, -" which concerns something that's been a stereotypical part of folk music since the mid 20th century revival I mentioned earlier: protests
If we listen closely to both the chart-topping, folk-influenced musicians of today, and especially the fantastic folk music that is coming out of this generations greatest folk songwriters, we'll hear the timeless traditions of a genre that will never die. Genres get thrown to the wayside all the time. It's only natural for people's taste to change, and for them to want to move on from types of music that they're bored of. But even today, one of the longest lasting musical genres is still going strong. Maybe what a lot of today's most popular or acclaimed folk musicians are doing isn't entirely new, but one thing's for sure: it'll never get old.