On Folk Music

Call me corny, but I really do like folk music.

...Right, now that I've been summarily pelted with corn, let me explain myself. Unless anyone reading this is a folk and protest music aficionado, or even has a passing interest (which I guess is very few of you), you probably think of folk music as someone strumming three out-of-tune chords and making a mockery of singing, while wailing about some lost woman or cow.

Let me disabuse you of these illusions. Yes, there are some folk singers who can't sing or play - a terrible recording of bagpipe music comes to mind. But folk traditions are rich and the repertoire is varied, with much room for personal interpretation and improvisation. Some of my favourite folk songs aren't the ones you might hear bawled out a couple of painful times a year, but the ones that few people hear - ones about rakes in debt, or people leaving their loved ones, or sailors abandoning beautiful women, or cautionary tales about getting pregnant. Folk songs were about everything, and there's a world out there to explore. It doesn't hurt that some of the melodies are hauntingly beautiful, and as songs with stories to tell there's a great deal of emotion and expression involved - far more than you get in your average formulaic piece of auto-tuned crap (seriously, if I can work out what's going on in the chords and lyrics, you know your song's shit). That said, it's a balance - I dislike technically accomplished but lifeless performances, but I also like folk musicians to have some...well...some musicianship.

While folk music allows for a range of arrangements (including ones using an entire orchestra, I believe), quite a lot of them are simple, relying mostly on vocalists to carry the song. This does, of course, introduce the problem of idiots who think being able to struggle through three chords makes them musicians.

What I would say to that is that simple instrumentation can be made up for with relatively complex and thoughtful lyrics. These songs aren't chart fodder; they tell stories, and the way in which these stories are told demands respect. After all, lyrics are a relatively compressed form of writing and in an age where we tend to write more in great, sprawling prose, or in meaningless strings of words, trying to write songs about narratives or ideas - which are generally written in prose because it's a form that allows for developing arguments and plotlines more easily - is very difficult. So hats off to the lyrics.

And I just like to listen to it to relax and think, sometimes.