What is Slow Folk?
Slow Folk is the name we've coined for our latest playlist to accompany this article. It's a respectful, admittedly very modern and open minded trawl through the folk genre in it's many forms and guises. Although we could have gone way back in time due to some wonderful archive recordings (links at end), the recording quality is quite naturally, given the technology available at the times, pretty awful.
As it is pretty much impossible to design a coherent playlist with such wildly fluctuating recording qualities please find a nice selection of well recorded, nicely sequenced, more modern folk tunes of various descriptions for an altogether more pleasant, modern listening experience.
Keep you eyes on the playlist as we will update it over time. Here's a smartlink to the same playlist on various streaming services.
Tradition and roots are the shoulders that we and most musical genres stand on but we feel it is equally important to be present in the new millennium. Folk music is no exception. Bob Dylan will back us up:
What is Folk Music?
Folk music is also part of the great oral tradition. Songs were composed by the local musical maverick and consequently passed down through the generations by word of mouth. It was transported to other regions by wandering minstrels, migrant workers and those lucky enough to leave their village. In the good old days there weren't a multitude of entertainment options so story tellers, entertainers and singers got a wide and attentive audience. Songs and stories were heard multiple times, remembered then retold around camp fires, meeting places and in living quarters far and wide.
Many original composers, especially the poorer ones, have been forgotten over time, if in fact they were ever truly recognised. Communication was limited and slow - a horse pace if you were lucky but more likely a walking pace, and dictated by people's daily needs rather than any desire to spread music to a wider audience. Folk music like society, was localised and no early composers, certainly static ones - wandering ones slightly less so, would have become popular enough to have their fame spread much further than the next town or village.
With no sheet music, not to mention most poor people's inability to read and write, a massive unintentional game of Chinese whispers would have taken hold. Words of songs would have been misheard, forgotten and changed unintentionally, verses added or subtracted on a whim and songs personalised. As with most creative endeavour some songs would have inspired further original compositions, others would have just been plagiarised for personal financial gain or reasons of vanity.
Music has actually been notated since 2000 BC, the eariest examples were found in Iraq and chiselled on tablets. It was first printed in the West in 1457 but it wasn't until the 18th century that sheet music was printed on any meaningful scale and distributed, a real game changer. Until this time most documented music was to be found in the personal manuscripts of educated musicians. Education meant money and because it was only the wealthy doing the documenting a lot of the music would have been religious and classic in nature as those were favoured by the wealthier classes. Folk music, due to it's distance from the church and the pious elites, largely retained more earthy, mundane and secular themes.
Societal values and views always loomed large over folk. Was music in a region widely enjoyed? Was it encouraged or seen as a threat by the local ruler? Mostly this went in waves dependent on the paranoia or benevolence of the ruling classes and quite often an invading army. The recent extremist crack down on Arabic folk music in some parts of the Muslim world is a stark reminder of this. Cultural imperialism would have been rife with soldiers bringing their own songs & styles, sometimes with intent to systematically replace local ones in an effort to culturally, as well as physically, dominate a new territory. More often, I'm guessing, a cultural cross polination took place with elements of different folk styles from both victorious & defeated armies, combining into new hybrids. Maybe exposure to a new style hastened development in the other, inspired by new instruments, vocal styles or compositional ideas?
Music gatherings have always been seen as a potential meeting place for subversives; probably rightly so. Even if revolutionary meetings weren't planned alcohol always emboldens talk of dissatisfaction and dreams of change. Musicians have often been more radical, alternative, free thinking, or politically and socially questioning than your average Joe. Lyrics in songs, poems and books have long cocked a snoot at invaders and ruling classes. In fact the very term "cock a snoot" dates back to the eighteenth century but that certainly wasn't the starting date for protest lyrics. More recent examples can be found in Brazil's Tropicalia movement and throughout the history of black music in the twentieth century. During various periods of peace then attentions would perhaps have changed to more benign matters - affairs of the heart, making a living or plain old braggadocio.
What was a cultures perception of musicians? Were they treated with reverence for their abilities or suspicion? Free thinking mavericks and bohemians were often reviled, mistrusted or at best ignored by many normal folk, in much the same way as the old lady with herbal knowledge in the forest hut, that you went to as a last resort with a family illness or unplanned pregnancy. Western religions & their musical elitism were partly responsible for much of this suspicion, and it is notable that folk music played a more integral part in many economically poorer, more animistically leaning belief systems around the world.
How rich was a society? Could people afford instruments or did they have to make their own? Certainly wooden wind instruments play a large part in folk history. Whistles, flutes, the didgeridoo and hand made recorders litter folk music throughout the ages, and thank heavens for conveniently ready hollowed bamboo in more tropical climates. A handful of lucky musicians would have found patronage from the wealthy in need of entertainment. Very few would have managed to support themselves through their art, and I'm guessing the majority of folk musicians were composing and singing songs whilst in the fields. All the manual labour, more prevalent in days gone by, wouldn't have left much time to be creative and if you did find time you were probably singing about how tired you were or why you never had enough food in winter.
Geography is another interesting factor in the development of folk music. Apart from obvious references to local physical geography in hotter climes, musicians would have been practising outdoors for more of the year and henceforth getting more listeners. People would have been stopping as they were passing to work, travelling through a village or even listening unintentionally from afar as they worked. Soundwaves weren't being obstructed by a yurt, wig wam, hut or igloo's walls and people wouldn't have been in a hurry to get inside before they got frostbite or a soaking. Working songs were more likely to be sung in the sun than in the rain or cold. Is this why African music is so much richer than Greenlands? The climate is surely why Norwegian folk is more melancholic than it's Senegalese counterparts?
Thankfully, folk music being of the people, their experiences and geography, means it is consequently as rich and varied as people and the planet are. Bamboo flutes in Asia, bagpipes in Scotland, drums in Africa, stringed instruments in Egypt. Peacefuly songs in Bhutan and many a tale telling of war in Europe. As humanity started in Africa we can at least say with some certainty that is where folk music originated. As soon as music left the motherland it rapidly adapted to represent it's new surroundings, the character of those travellers that transported it and the long term residents of its new homes. Consequently folk music is intrinsically linked to cultural identity.
So the nearest you are going to get to a definition of folk music from me is that it is music that is sung and played by the people. Music that originally mimicked the natural sounds of people's surroundings but then evolved with the advent of language into a sung oral tradition detailing everyday life, it's ups and downs and universal themes - love, loss, birth, death, sun, rain, hard times, good times, peace, war, power, subservience, harvest, famine, hard toil and life's pleasures, all given a location based twist, and it hasn't stopped evolving yet. Welcome to the world of folk music.
What is Modern folk?
The term folklore was coined by an English antiquarian William Thoms in 1846. Folklore condensed various other terms of the time like "popular literature" or "popular antiquities". Folk song, folk tales and folk dance are all extensions of folklore which was in itself derived from the German expression, volk, coined 50 years earlier and meaning "the people as a whole". After happily existing for thousands of years Folk Music now had a name. Modern Folk was born and right from it's linguistic inception it was rightly associated with the lower classes, as opposed to the classical music entertaining the palaces and moneyed classes. If class warfare has a soundtrack then folk is right there alongside punk.
There was a time not so long ago when folk, like rock or pop would have been sufficient to describe a large swathe of music but now we insist on multiple sub-genres so let's briefly looks at a few of these folk derivatives. The sub-title of the accompanying playlist to this article goes: "A laid back and open minded look at the world of traditional/indie/acid folk, Americana, singer songwriters, cosmic blues, global roots & electro acoustic fusions." It might seem like a wide ranging collection of genres but to be honest there really there isn't a lot of difference. It's all a load of old folk and as good a place as any to start.
FUTURE FOLK: FRIENDLY FACES; DIFFERENT SPACES
This is a late addition to the original article, but a worthy, if self interested and shameless one! Over the last couple of years since I wrote this blog post I've become more and more fascinated by folk, so getting some of my favourite artists who lit the flame under my folk fire to record some songs for The Slow Music Movement record label seemed like a logical step.
I couldn't be happier how it has turned out. It's a vivid snapshot of where folk has been, where it's at and where its going. Check it out it's a fine accompanying listen to this article, although it won't be available until April 15th, 2021 for anyone reading before that date!
You can also pre-save the LP to your favourite streaming platform by hitting this smartlink.
What is Traditional Folk?
What is Indie Folk?
What is Acid Folk?
The genre unfortunately died off with the decline of the psychedelic movement in the 70's and the rise of harder rock but has been a massive influence on micro scenes and independent artists in the following decades to this day and no doubt in the future.
What is Americana?
What the hell is Cosmic Blues?
What can I say about the blues? Already briefly mentioned above as connected to Americana, but undoubtedly a genre in it's own right. Originally hailing from Africa where its roots have been revealed in recent years by the global popularity of desert blues groups like Tinariwen & artists like Mali's, Ali Farka Touré. The blues first started appearing or being named as such at the start of the 20th century. If folk music is the people's music then the blues is quintessential folk music. It laid bare the African American experience in the south of America with it's orally transmitted work songs, spirituals, tales of enduring hardship, discrimination and abuse as well as timeless universal themes. Originally played on the most basic of instruments out of economic necessity Blues is about as folk as folk music gets and, as the root of so much of 20th century music - jazz, soul and rock and roll, certainly the most influential folk music from a contemporary music viewpoint. If you need a reminder then take a quick listen to the well polished sound of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee or the rawer Robert Johnson.
What is Global Roots?
What is Electro Acoustic Folk?
Well this is 2018 and "the times are a changing". Since the 80's music technology has become affordable, portable and ubiquitous and, relatively speaking, this is just the start. Just you wait for the brain wave controlled music generator headset that is probably only ten years down the line.
You also can't tell me that a wandering minstrel of yore wouldn't have welcomed a portable amplifier, a drum machine and some virtual harp or lyre VST instruments to imitate an ensemble without the time and expense of hiring, rehearsing and transporting a group of unreliable, heavy drinking musicians? Of course they would! Slowly but surely modern folk musicians have been embracing and incorporating electronic elements since the 60s, and it's not going to stop here.
Traditional instruments and songs are being fused with field recordings, samples, effects and keyboards. Unashamedly electronic artists are making entirely electronic backing tracks with folk vocals to highlight their concerns about society, the environment and injustice. Modern effects are being thrown into the mix by more acoustic leaning musicians to contemporize traditional sounds and grab the interest of a younger generation. If you want a taste then check out some Beta Band and Little Dragon or hear what the Gotan Project did to tango or Ojos De Brujo did to Flamenco.
If folk music is music of the people, by the people and representative of society and location then have a quick think about modern living. Most of humanity live in cities, in the more developed nations we work with computers, stare at screens during our commute then stare at connected devices to relax in the evenings. Folk music has constantly evolved ever since the cave dwellers were humming in time to the sounds of nature. Folk will naturally adapt to represent today's modern lifestyles although I'm sure that there will be no shortage of folk musicians living quieter lives in rural situations and singing about rosy cheeked lasses and mighty storms for quite some time to come.
To keep the peace, in this transitional period for folk music, we've focussed mostly on artists that are fusing the old and the new, often it seems with stringed instruments. We couldn't resist being slightly contrary though so we've thrown in a couple of entirely electronic tracks. See if you think they sound out of place? It's the future don't you know.
Alan Lomax Archive - The dedication of Alan Lomax can't be overstated as he travelled the world for 50 years recording everything as he went. Music from Azerbaijan, Guadeloupe & Wales sits next to sessions from Blues legend Muddy Waters & folk hero Woody Guthrie.
International Library of African Music - The greatest repository of sub Sahararn African music in the world apparently with recordings dating back to 1929.
Smithsonian Folkways - Non profit record label of the Smithsonian Institute, the national musem of the United States. Mindblowing archives of folk & traditional music history from around the world.
Feel free to add any other archives you feel important in the comments section and I will add them over time.
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