Folk music is one of the greatest and most diverse music genres of all time. With a presence that has hardly dwindled some hundred years after its genesis, this comes as no surprise.
Let me paint for you a dreamy picture of its humble beginnings. While the specificities of folk music’s origins remain ambiguous, we know that the story goes something like this: somewhere in a rural community in either England, Ireland or Scotland, someone picked up a fiddle and started making music. Eventually, these music makers crossed the pond and took their music to America; songs were passed down from generation to generation, old sounds delivered through new voices, each song adopting its own unique flavour.
Yet despite constant reinterpretation and rehandling by new artists, the features of folk music have always remained the same. We have never departed from those soft, hand-plucked strings, soothing monophonies (a fancy word for a single melody that is repeated throughout a song) and unembellished voices – and I don’t think we ever will. For folk music, a strong stage presence comes naturally.
This is how we have been blessed with several folk revivals over the past century and a half. The first, and perhaps the biggest, was that of the sixties and seventies. This period came with a rejection of boyish rock in favour of returning to dreamy American roots. Artists looked back to glean inspiration from musical ancestors, establishing for themselves a place in this over-crowded network of singers. Many did this by reinventing the classics in a not-so-obvious way. A perfect example of this eclectic life cycle is ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right’ by Bob Dylan. His song has a rich—and somewhat convoluted—history. In true folk fashion, Dylan borrowed the melody from Paul Clayton’s ‘Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I’m Gone)’, which acted as a renaissance of the 19th century plantation melody ‘Who’s Gon Buy You Chickens’.
But as the revival grew, people—including Bob Dylan—found the confidence to create their own sounds – staying true to the trade but not constrained by tradition. This saw the likes of Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell and John Martyn emerge from the darkness for their slice of the pie (if we’re speaking American folk, that pie would have probably been a pumpkin pie…). As for my favourite folk inventions from this great revival, I love the drunken-sounding concoction of folk and blues that John Martyn’s album Solid Air delivers so well (give it a listen; those twangy, elastic chords paired with soft strings are to die for).
This bravery to step out on their own paved the way for a re-introduction to folk music today. This time, however, there are some even greater players on the field. And by this, I am not saying that Joan Baez’s music is by any means secondary, but rather, that today’s artists take their predecessors’ progress one step further.
Today’s folk scene includes everything imaginable, from the very traditional to the newly invented subgenre. For some, folk today means honouring those songs that have existed in the folk world since the beginning of time. Consider Nora Brown – a secret star of the show. Only fifteen years old, young Nora Brown has taken the world of Appalachian folk on as her own and devoted herself to breathing new life into lost gems. During her Tiny Desk Concert, Nora does exactly this; she sings ‘Very Day I’m Gone’, a song originally written and recorded by Addie Graham but essentially non-existent on the internet – the only way to enjoy Addie Graham’s music is through the voice of a much younger artist (trust me, a few hours were spent trying to find the original but alas, as Nora promised, I found nothing).
Our Gen Z folkies have also proven that they are perfectly capable of creating their own music that still fits into the folk music rubric. Lots of artists have taken this opportunity to develop folk music into something that works for them, facing the genre with the same boldness we have harboured in this period of intense social and political change.
As a result, many subgenres have emerged and spaces have now been created for everyone – we have anti-folk for the people who don’t like folk, emo-folk for that inner 14-year-old that lives within all of us and, for all the indie girls and boys out there, I bring you indie folk.
There has been a surge in folk music’s popularity since artists like Phoebe Bridgers and Taylor Swift released albums devoted to the much-loved genre. They have proven that, while folk music is forever attached to its past, it is not incompatible with the now.
In the words of Bob Dylan, the times they are are a-changin’ and folk music hasn’t showed any signs of being left behind just yet.
So now let me do my part in passing on the folk-fired baton as I share a list of 7 songs to match every vibe:
1. ‘Very Day I’m Gone (Rambling Women)’ by Anna & Elizabeth for some great harmonies and yet another version of Addie Graham;
2. ‘Smoke Signals’ by Pheobe Bridgers for sleepy emo-folk;
3. ‘Orange Sky’ by Alexi Murdoch is an absolute must for that 00s throwback;
4. ‘Deep In Love’ by Bonny Light Horseman for something dreamy and emotional and amazing;
5. ‘I’m on Fire’ by The Staves, an oldie turned goldie from an incredibly cool trio of sisters from England;
6. ‘Carey’ by Joni Mitchell for some happy, party worthy folk music;
7. ‘Frankie and Albert’ by Nora Brown for a fun murder ballad with the banjos, American twang, and the whole shebang.
Image Credit:GPA Photo Archive/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0