Joanna Newsom, in an interview conducted four or so years back, baulked at a question regarding the ‘new folk’ scene. This type of folk is not in the least bit ‘new’, she claimed, citing artists such as Bill Callahan and Vashti Bunyan who have been making this type of folk music for years. Besides, within every categorisation - ‘freak folk’, ‘new folk’, ‘psych-folk’ - there is an inherent arc. This movement that we like to call ‘new folk’, she argued, invariably has its own death built right into it.
But surely even Newsom would find it hard to deny that this folk revival can fairly be termed a movement. She, after all, is one of the people at the centre of it. At the turn of the century, a counter-cultural scene surrounding the folk genre came to seem, somehow, increasingly relevant and appealing for our generation. In the twenty-first century, popular folk music has once again officially hit the mainstream, infiltrating mobile-phone adverts and approaches to fashion. So, why folk and why now? What does a genre which champions the raw, human element of music mean to a generation which defines itself terms of its technological advancement?
It may seem naïve to define a cultural atmosphere by its interest in a genre of music, and perhaps it is. Folk music, however, is and has always been the manifestation of a specific ideology. The ‘folk’ ideology is, roughly, what the etymology of the word implies: giving a voice to the people. What folk is and what it says may be reinterpreted through different epochs and generations – hence our contemporary ‘new’ folk – but it always seeks to represent the unadulterated voice of the people, of communities of human beings.
If the ‘voice of the people’ sounds disconcertingly political, it’s because it is. Folk artists in from the 40s through to the 70s, figures such as Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, wrote lyrics protesting against war and modern materialist culture. Dylan’s songs attempt to evoke a nomadic, aural music culture, reminiscing nostalgically about a time when music was the primary medium of the story-teller. Joni Mitchell, in “Blue Motel Room”, uses the cold war as a simile to describe a power struggle between two lovers who are “always keeping score”, stating in her hit song “California” that “they won’t give peace a chance - that was just a dream some of us had”.
This spirit of protest has been revived in contemporary folk music. In a world of such impressive technological advancement and dependency, even the use of acoustic instruments and old-fashioned recording equipment appears to be making a significant point. The concept of the ‘voice of the people’ is manifested in the production of music which uses the organic sounds of the human body, along with all its so-called imperfections. The songs of California-based Shelby Sifers use four- and eight-track recorders, and Sifers makes a point of leaving in the count-downs, coughs and periods of fuzzy silence which are intrinsic to the process of recording and creating music. Modern folk is music which has been subject to hyper-distillation. It is music which has been paired down, and this pairing-down must be understood in the context of a culture which is becoming increasingly built-up; a culture of over-populated cities, high-rise buildings and sensory saturation.
Folk artists of our generation have been misguidedly associated with nomadic culture, with living in tepees, with living in the forest; in brief, with a culture that is fundamentally alienated from the urban culture in which we now exist. To connect it with these things is to fail to understand that modern folk music is inexorably a product of a post-industrial, technologically prolific society. The hype surrounding artists like Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart is a hype which has been predominantly generated through the internet. Music is downloaded, listened to on computers and MP3 players, and subsequently blogged about. In this context, the revival of folk music represents a widespread yearning for the unmistakably human; a return to the fundamental elements of human experiences; the rawness and the risk of live performance. This nostalgia is pin-pointed by Ani Difranco in “Fuel”, when she writes, “People used to make records, as in the record of an event: the event of people making music in a room”.
Newsom was right when she asserted that to call something a movement is to demarcate a beginning and an end. Folk music represents an ideology which speaks to each generation, but the sentiments it expresses are unmistakably intertwined with the concerns of each age. Our current folk revival touches a nerve so deeply because it speaks to a society which feels over-whelmed, over-saturated and distanced from what makes humanity human: the courage of our convictions, and the courage to be fallible.