Smile Politely

Why folk music matters

Last weekend I needed a break from my role as an organizer of the CU Folk and Roots Festival, so I piled the kids in the car and drove up to a farm outside of Gilman, IL, where a bunch of musician friends of mine were camping and jamming. There’s something about playing old-time tunes with people; even if you have nothing otherwise in common, you end up friends for life. So there we were, sitting in a tight circle around a campfire under the spectacular Illinois stars playing our fiddles, banjos, mandolins and guitars for hours in the cross-tuned key of A like one big family.

At one point, my nine-year-old daughter got bored chasing the barnyard chickens and wandered into the circle. After a few minutes she reached down, picked up two sticks and started banging them together in time to the music. That’s what I love about folk music: at its best, the circle is fluid, allowing access, spontaneity, and a shared creative experience that has no particular goal in mind except the very process itself of making music. (Old-time music takes this idea even further, and jams are judged by how in-sync the players are, how close to achieving a trance-like groove. Like whirling dervishes, the more repetition, the closer to nirvana.)

But folk music is often given the snub. That’s because much of America doesn’t quite get it. Yes, there’s always that not quite in-tune banjo in a jam, or the interminable cheesy singer-songwriter open mic, or, and I swear I truly witnessed this, the rhythmically-challenged spoon player who rushes the stage to sit in with the band and has to be pulled away by folk fest security guards…yes, all the stereotypes that make people turn tail at even the slightest mention of a hammered dulcimer, a song circle or a Fairport Convention LP. But these stereotypes, like all the stereotypes we have about musical genres (think country-western), only tell us more about ourselves and our fears than the musical genres we actually identify as our passion.

What is it about folk music that could possibly merit disdain or neglect from some corners? I venture to guess that said aversion is based on our fear that we are really just like everyone else. One of the folks, in fact.

The problem with making music in America is we’re hooked into believing that we need to be on stage to matter. We need the spotlight, the outside affirmation, to believe in ourselves. Does music falling through an American forest make a sound when no one is there to hear it?

Folk music, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily have these kinds of demands on our egos. In fact, I would argue that what I love most about folk music is it gives us the opportunity to let go of our egos. Banjo and fiddle tunes, shape note songs, drum circles all intrigue me, not necessarily because of their sonic qualities, but because of the social context in which this music often occurs. That’s why it matters so much—because the folk process forces us to interact artistically, for better or worse, simply for the sake of interaction, and often nothing more. If we’re not worried about our next performance, then we can ease up, have fun and just play music. We can be children again, innovative and free.

Really, I got sucked into folk music because I was kind of sick of sitting in the back of Lounge Ax watching (mostly male) rock bands wanking on their whammy bars. I wanted a different musical experience, something that removed the separation between performer and audience, and something that involved me in the process of making music. I no longer wanted to tiresomely “dream” of being on stage, I wanted the very stage itself to disappear, and a new way of making music to take over, where everyone could be a star.

This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a good rock or jazz or classical music show. I do, especially the shows that mine the incredible and unexpected depths of our emotions and creativity. But to limit oneself to either the passive consumption of music (downloading tracks, buying CD’s, going to shows, and participating in the often arbitrary hierarchy of the local “scene”) or the active production of music (making music worthy of an audience/CD), all this merely serves to reinforce the separation between the haves and have-nots, and ultimately our own artistic divestment and loneliness.

Yet folk music, by design, can quench our thirst for involvement in the creative process no matter who we are. Which is why it somehow endures: in community dance halls and barns, late at night at kitchen party-jams, in rural basement woodworking studios, at county fair fiddle contests, around the campfire when the counselors tell scary stories. The folk arts lie quietly under the surface of America, often resisting commodification and subverting our knee-jerk rock-star worshipping, and allowing us the freedom to be vulnerable and connect with others.

Back in high school and college, playing folk music (the more esoteric the better) marked me as different, and truth be told, gave me an identity niche to ward off feelings of artistic inadequacy. Now, I play folk music not to be different, but to disappear into the crowd, to feel a connection to other people. Perhaps this is the true test of identity: when you no longer need to rise above everyone else to feel good about yourself. When you can let go and just be with others. Once there, this kind of experience is addictive.

Folk music gets a bad rap because folk musicians (who often aren’t very polished or talented, because, well, they are just folks) get lured back into thinking they can be rock stars. They get confused. I don’t blame them; it is hard to escape this kind of thinking in America. But we all know what that can sound like in the wrong arena.

Of course, there are also those folks who play folk music, or who are informed by folk music, and are really, really good at it. I buy their CD’s and am lucky to count a few as friends of mine. But that is an altogether different thing, and I happen to admit I judge them not on the quality of their music but on their interactions with others in the long run anyway. It’s just who I am.

And listeners who happen by a folk jam also get confused. Again, who can blame them? We have no models for music-making that aren’t performance-based. Yes, it might not sound so good. But the musicians aren’t playing for an audience. They are playing for themselves mostly. They haven’t rehearsed; they are there simply to enjoy playing music together in a social setting. Again, it often is the process that counts in folk music, not the end product (the show, the CD).

This isn’t to say that folk musicians don’t care about sounding good. Many folk and roots-informed bands play the club circuit and maintain MySpace pages, and many folk musicians are just as viciously cliquish and solipsistic as in any other art-making genre.

But there is something about folk music itself that invites everyone in active participation: young and old, rich and poor, conservative and liberal, self-serving and selfless. Folk music was there for you when your mom sang “Hush little baby” to comfort you and folk music will be there for you when the bar clears out after your last gig. Perhaps then if you listen closely, you’ll hear a Mississippi delta bluesman at the crossroads singing about a far off train coming to bring you home at last.

If you want to find out more about participatory music and dance, and listen in on local and regional folk musicians, come out to the CU Folk and Roots Festival on September 25th and 26th in downtown Urbana. Check out for a schedule and more information.

As noted above, Brenda is an organizer of the CU Folk and Roots Festival.


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