Granted, iTunes isn’t the most reliable source. But when it labels Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Jolie Holland and Joanna Newsom all under the folk genre, it’s hard not to tilt your head slightly to the left and giggle at the thought of all three on stage with acoustic guitars singing “This Land is Your Land” in three-part harmony. Then again, Newsom’s early albums Walnut Whales and Yarn and Glue are actually labeled “rock,” and to further discredit this genre business: iTunes claims that Regina Spektor is both folk and anti-folk. Damn, talk about versatility- you know a musician is impressive if she can be both the thing itself and its opposition.
All contradictions aside, the more interesting problem with this iTunes genre business (or whoever rocks the Gracenote CDDB database) is that the walls defining the genre of folk have become so thin that even a wailing harpist can squeeze in. This is because modern use of the word “folk” in regards to music has almost completely evolved into an adjectival role. Folk as one of many descriptions, folk as an influence, folk/blues/jazz or even folky or folkish instead of just plain folk music.
This doesn’t mean that folk music is dead, and this isn’t an implication that today’s “folk” musicians are less deserving of this label than early-20th-century musicians like the Carolina Tar Heels. And it’s not catastrophic that the iTunes folk genre is so blatantly misleading. Yes, it would be more accurate for Gracenote to describe Newsom’s new album as folk/alternative/indie, or something of the like, instead of making a one-word generalization, but the strangeness in its conception of the folk genre is far too interesting to become indignant about.
Today, folk is casually attached to acoustic music that tells a discernable story, but before and during the romantic period, folk music was categorized as music created by and for the common people; it’s association with the lower class was especially prevalent during the 19th century. As American folk music (primarily from the Appalachian mountains) became popularized in the mid-20th century with musicians like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, it also became a tool of activism while remaining rooted in its traditional forms. What’s unique about folk music is the anonymity of the authors and composers; with less emphasis on who actually wrote the song and more emphasis on passing the music down from generation to generation, folk music isn’t so much a genre as it is an oral tradition.
Although most of today’s musicians who boast the word folk in their biographies and reviews are far from this original definition, there are still a few who relish and thrive in the traditions of folk music, taking classic melodies and feeding them to youthful audiences whose only knowledge of Joan Baez is her song on the The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. While most critics would consider Boston’s Crooked Still to be folk/bluegrass/country, their renditions of traditional tunes such as “Darling Corey,” “Shady Grove” and numerous others establish them as one of the few groups who remain devoted to their roots. Last winter, when I had the pleasure of seeing them at The Ark, I was not only stunned by Aoife O’Donovan’s delicate voice and Rushad Eggleston’s outrageous and uncontrollable cello playing, but also completely in awe of their ability to retain the authenticity of Appalachian folk music without allowing the its stigmatisms to hinder their original interpretations and alternative approaches to the age-old tradition.
Groups like Crooked Still beg us, as musicians, scholars of music and listeners of music, to approach today’s redefinition and reappropriation of the folk music genre with a certain degree of caution. Joanna Newsom’s music certainly has folk influences, and using folk as an adjective to describe her music seems completely appropriate, but there is something jarring about her and musicians like Jolie Holland and Bonnie “Prince” Billy being thrown into the same iTunes genre simply because their music includes storytelling or finger-picking.
Yes, genres in general are limiting and mildly unnecessary, but looking aside from this, we still resort to them in an attempt to organize and classify something so unmistakably unclassifiable – which is probably the best genre option iTune’s offers – and thanks to alphabetical order, it conveniently falls right in between “