Bill Bois’ Music Theory For Non-Musicians™
…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.redditor u/COMPRIMENS
S3:E1 – What Makes Folk Folk ?
Welcome to Series Three! I had planned to start off with “What Makes Rock, Rock?” but I’d been trepidatious about it.
I mean, rock. It’s a big topic.
The basic, simple, watered down definition is:
Rock is rock & roll, without the roll.
That seems silly, but you might remember me saying that rock & roll is an euphemism for sex. When it comes right down to it, any music you can dance to is about sex. Dancing is foreplay. (Remember that, guys, next time a woman says she wants to dance. Take her to the dance floor immediately.)
If we take the roll out of rock & roll, is it still about sex?
Apparently so. Rock is one of our more overtly sexual genres. It’s less subtle, less seductive, less romantic. It’s more overt, more basic, more hardcore.
But what does it mean, in musical terms, to have rock without roll?
Let’s remember that rock & roll is an amalgam of blues, swing, and country. All three, and rock & roll itself, are American genres. English musicians took rock & roll, cleaned it up a little, and sold it back to the U.S. in the British Invasion.
It was still rock & roll for a little while, but then its swing element went away. Rather than playing slightly late or early, every note was played on the beat. It’s less subtle. More overt.
The 12 bar pattern from the blues also lost popularity. It didn’t go away entirely, but chord patterns took less traditional approaches. In some cases, it got downright experimental.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but when rock lost rock & roll’s swing and blues influences, it lost its blackness. Like it or not, race is a huge part of American history and American music.
Rock is what’s left of rock & roll with the African-American elements removed.
You might remember that I said that the name “R&B” is a code to say it’s “black people’s music.” The name rock is a code for white people’s music. Neither R&B nor rock is an individual genre. R&B contains soul, disco, hip hop, and more. Rock contains rock & roll, progressive rock, punk, grunge, etc.. As names, “R&B” and “rock” are just marketing terms.
All that to say that rock is too big a topic to cover by itself.
Instead, we’ll look at some individual genres under that huge rock umbrella.
Let’s start with folk, and while folk music is defined as any traditional music made by common people and passed down through generations, we’ll stick to what came to be the commercialized folk music scene of the 1950s and 60s and evolved into the Americana of today.
That story starts with the Great Depression – but not quite in the way you’d think.
John Lomax worked for a bank that failed early in the Depression, and found himself unemployed.
Desperate to support his family, and as a music fan, he published a book of cowboy songs, including lyrics and sheet music.
This detailed and somewhat scholarly book was one of the first times folk music was documented.
The book helped him get a grant from the Library of Congress in 1933 to travel the South, recording folk songs wherever he found them. Prior to this, these songs that existed in the memories of cowboys, hillbillies and former slaves hadn’t been put on tape.
Lomax took his 18-year-old son, Alan, along with him. Alan would continue doing these “field recordings” for years, amassing a total of 5,000 hours of music across the U.S. and Haiti.
The Lomaxes would often go to prisons, believing that if black people were kept in isolation, their songs wouldn’t be affected by the outside world. In other words, prisons were musical time capsules.
In Angola, Louisiana, they went to the state prison and recorded a singer named Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. You’ll see it as “Leadbelly” but Ledbetter himself spelled it as two words.
The Lomaxes were taken by his voice and performances, and over several sessions had him record every song he knew.
That was a lot of songs, because Lead Belly had supported himself playing in St. Paul’s Bottoms, Shreveport’s red light district.
It was a rough part of town, hence his various prison sentences, and it demanded long hours of entertainment.
The Lomaxes brought a recording of Lead Belly to Louisiana’s governor. That started the myth that the governor released Lead Belly after hearing his music. In reality, Lead Belly had served his time but he became known as the man who sang his way out of prison. Neither he nor John Lomax did anything to bust that myth. A good story sells records and books.
Lomax brought Lead Belly to his lectures at northern colleges as a sort of audio/visual aid, and encouraged him to soften his sound for northern audiences.
In New York City, Lead Belly had several recording sessions with the American Record Company. Most of these songs weren’t released in his lifetime because the initial record didn’t sell well. However, that album was of his blues songs, not the traditional folk for which he would later be known.
Though Lomax and Lead Belly worked together for only eight months and split acrimoniously, their tour of the north introduced the idea that folk music was more than quaint campfire songs. It could be outlaw music.
It could even be protest songs. Or maybe some people thought you were protesting by simply saying that real life is hard for poor people.
Woody Guthrie specialized in these songs.
Desperate for work during the Dust Bowl years, he left his family in Oklahoma and hitchhiked or hopped freight trains to California to look for work. A lot of “Okies” did the same.
In 1937, Guthrie found a gig playing traditional songs on a Los Angeles radio station. He and his co-performer Maxine “Lefty Lou” Crissman developed a loyal audience among the Okies in the migrant camps.
Guthrie was endlessly restless and would never stay in one place for long, and his experiences with poverty followed by success and fame informed his left leaning politics. He famously had the words “This machine kills fascists” emblazoned on his guitar.
He moved to New York in 1940. On the way, he heard Kate Smith’s God Bless America on the radio a lot. It struck him as nationalistic.
So he wrote This Land Is Your Land as a reaction.
He was making a statement against private property, saying everyone has the same rights to this land as everyone else. This Land Is Your Land is a protest song.
He arrived in New York shortly after the Lomax lectures. His songs, along with his Okie demeanor, made him the de facto leader of the new folk music scene. He and the folk movement, and their protest songs, became suspects of the far right in the Communist scare of the 1950s. That’s why the popularity of folk music is sometimes satirically called the “Great Folk Scare,” as if music is something to be scared of.
In 1941, Guthrie joined a group called The Almanac Singers, so named because poor people were likely to have only two books, the Bible and The Farmer’s Almanac.
The Almanac Singers were closely aligned with leftist causes, notably the Communist Party. It’s important to remember that before Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Communists were the only political group talking about the prospects of the working class. The Almanac Singers weren’t devotees of Karl Marx or Joseph Stalin, but were very interested in the welfare of poor people.
Regardless, that alliance made it difficult for them to grow their career into the mainstream and they broke up in 1942. However, Almanac members Pete Seeger and Lee Hays formed The Weavers. While the New York folk scene had developed a reputation of being scholarly recreations of actual folk singers, The Weavers performances were unaffected and authentic.
Their residency at the Village Vanguard earned them a steady audience and a record deal.
The Weavers intentionally chose non-political songs. Two of their biggest hits were songs they knew from Lead Belly’s performances, Kisses Sweeter Than Wine and Goodnight Irene.
There’s nothing Communist about Kisses Sweeter Than Wine, and people on the left called them sell outs, but they knew their past affiliations could come to haunt them.
And that’s what happened.
In a time when the country’s right wing insisted on people signing loyalty pledges, radio stations, clubs, and labels were under intense pressure to disassociate themselves from anyone even tangentially involved with the left.
The Weavers, despite selling millions of records, broke up in 1952.
Those sales figures, however, didn’t go unnoticed. Folk singers and groups sprouted like alfalfa. The Easy Riders had a hit with Marianne, The Highwaymen hit #1 with Michael, and The Kingston Trio became one of the most successful recording acts of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Tokens wrote new lyrics to The Weavers’ Wimoweh, which was itself an interpretation of Mbube by Solomon Linda, and had a #1 hit called The Lion Sleeps Tonight in 1961.
New York City, and particularly Greenwich Village, became a magnet for outsider singers from all over.
Musicians showed up with acoustic guitars, never in cases, and played in coffee shops. People would gather in Washington Square Park on Sunday afternoons and sing songs together. Some of these players became household names, including John Sebastian, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo.
The most important and influential was Bob Dylan.
He arrived in New York in 1961 and immediately became a star of the scene. His rough-hewn, untrained voice was a love-it-or-hate-it sound, but it was authentic. And authenticity is paramount in folk.
Paradoxically, many folks singers of the 1960s never led hardscrapple lives. They approached folk academically. Many were college students. Few had the authenticity of Lead Belly or Woody Guthrie.
Dylan visited Guthrie in the hospital as he gradually died of Huntington’s chorea. Dylan idolized Guthrie, and Guthrie liked Dylan and his songs. Their friendship was something of a passing of the torch.
But it was Dylan’s songwriting that made him a star. He had something to say and he said it well. From the anti-war pastoral Blowing In The Wind to the bitter but resigned break up song Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, he wrote relatable lyrics with memorable melodies.
He wrote incessantly and grew as a songwriter, leaving folk far behind before the genre had run its course.
By the time Peter, Paul & Mary hit #1 with Leaving On A Jet Plane, Dylan had already pissed off folk purists by using electric instruments released several rock & roll albums, and gone in a more country direction.
He’s continued evolving musically ever since.
Folk music mostly required a voice, an acoustic guitar, and a message, but the times, they were a-changing. Dylan’s song Mr. Tambourine Man hit #1 in a jangly, somewhat psychedelic version by The Byrds in 1965.
Six months later, Simon and Garfunkel hit #1 with Simon’s song The Sound Of Silence. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were childhood friends who performed under various names. They broke up and reunited many times. They thought they had broken up for good after their first album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., didn’t sell.
Simon was touring as a solo act somewhere in Denmark when he picked up a copy of Billboard magazine and saw The Sound Of Silence on the Hot 100.
Not believing it, he found a copy of Cashbox. And it was there, too.
It turned out that WBZ in Boston had added “The Sound Of Silence” to its late night playlist.
The college kids there loved it.
Word got back to the label, and producer Tom Wilson hired session musicians to add electric guitars and drums to Simon & Garfunkel’s all acoustic version. With a touch of reverb, this new version sounded a lot like The Byrds and, of course, it went to #1.
If folk music is acoustic, adding an electric rhythm section makes it folk rock.
And it was a very successful genre for many artists: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (individually and collectively), Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, America, James Taylor, Leonard Cohen, and many more.
The influence continues with Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, The Lumineers, Father John Misty and what we’re now calling Americana.
Some are more country, some are more soft rock.
But they all owe gratitude to Lead Belly, the Lomaxes, The Weavers, and Bob Dylan.
Lead Belly (1935)
Which Side Are You On
The Almanac Singers (1941)
This Land Is Your Land
Woody Guthrie (1944)
The Easy Riders (1957)
Kisses Sweeter Than Wine
The Weavers (1951)
The Kingston Trio (1959)
Joan Baez (1960)
Blowing In The Wind
Bob Dylan (1962)
Mr. Tambourine Man
The Byrds (1965)
The Sound Of Silence
Simon & Garfunkel (1965)
The Mamas And The Papas (1966)
Both Sides Now
Joni Mitchell (1969)
Leaving On A Jet Plane
Peter, Paul & Mary (1969)
Shawn Colvin (1992)
Pass You By
Gillian Welch (1996)
Hold You In My Arms
Ray LaMontagne (2004)
The Avett Brothers (2007)
Stories Up High
Laney Jones (2022)
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