In short, folk music is music that is representative of communities, played on the available instruments, and more often than not, many people in the respective communities can play it. Folk music has never been about displaying virtuosity and skill, to this day, that carries on in the easy acoustic chords and the cracked and raw vocals in Western folk.
Contrary to popular belief, folk music isn’t all banjos, moonshine and rickey American front porches; the original storytelling genre is so much more than the Western sum of it. In fact, Botswana in Sub-Saharan Africa has one of the most prolific and unique folk cultures; their instruments of choice are mouth bows and handclaps, instead of mandolins and accordions.
As with many genres, the definition of folk has evolved with the times and not necessarily at the same pace across the continents. Folk started as a reflection of present modernity, for example, folk songs were used to protest slavery and as a socialist tool during pivotal eras of unionism.
Interestingly, one of the world’s most infamous rock n roll stars, Keith Richards, of the Rolling Stones gave a poignant view on the importance of folk, which extends far beyond the folk genre. During an interview, he claimed that there is only one song, and Adam and Eve wrote it, the rest are just variations. The metaphorical statement may not immediately sit nicely with the impious. But what he was really getting at was that songs written today have the music of yesterday to thank as much as the creative mind penning them.
What is Folk Music?
There is no one size fits all mould for folk music across the continents – just compare the Nordic neofolk outfit Heilung to Bob Dylan or the hooky songs of Frank Turner to the melancholic Chinese ballads of Yu Boya. However, there are a few general rules of folk. Such as the use of instruments that are not used in your typical pop or rock band and the tendency for folk to be written and recorded on acoustic instruments.
To understand folk, it is best to stop primarily thinking about the sonic signifiers and contemplate folk music’s role in society. Inherently, *true* folk music is passed down from generation to generation as a form of storytelling. As time goes on, the verses in the songs change to reflect the cultural shifts.
The question of what is folk music? becomes even more confusing with the consideration of new sub-genres of folk, such as murder folk. Award-winning artists, such as Nick Cave and Amigo the Devil use darkly macabre imagery and tone, but they still carry traditional folk hallmarks. They tell a story through the narrative lyrics; the only difference is that in murder folk, the lyrical tales are fictional. Yet, the dark themes that often explore outlier sensibility and mental instability are still resonant to the fans who can relate.
The best folk music blogs recognise the importance of folk music as much as its international versatility. At A&R Factory, we have provided a platform to folk artists from all across the globe and we are always looking for the next big storyteller.