Let's talk about modern folk music, and why it's weird and silly for the most part.

What’s up with modern folk music?

It seems that something happened to folk music at some point where it became a) specifically “grad school”-ish, with a sort of affluent “NPR sensibility” b) kind of silly and novelty-obsessed, and c) incredibly slick and nonthreatening.

A lot of this seems to be centered around the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, where the Joni clones (Dar Williams, Richard Shindell, Erin McKeown, etc.) and the novelty boppers (the Nields, Girlyman, Moxy Fruvous, Eddie from Ohio, etc.) come together to fellate each other for a few days.

What’s going on? How did we get from Woodie Guthrie to a band called the Gourds doing a novelty cover of “Gin and Juice” to an audience of politely tittering grad students?

It didn’t - it got from Woodie Guthrie to the likes of:

No safe house in Birmingham, I found no peace in Skye
The green fields of Derry - just another lie
Wrap the barbed wire round me, say I don’t belong
Kick me till I couldn’t move then tell me to move on

(The Deserter - Oysterband)

Yeah, a lot of today’s folk is slick and non-threatening, but there is plenty of emotional and political stuff out there if you know where to look.

Yeah, I think the OP’s cherry-picking a little bit. There’s plenty of smart, literate, and/or controversial folk around.

Just off the top of my head I can think of Billy Bragg, John Wesley Harding, Ron Sexsmith, and Hayden.

I actually like Moxy Fruvous, and wouldn’t consider them a folk band despite the fact that they do a lot of four-part acapella-style harmonies. They have a lot of silly novelty songs, but they’re talented multi-instrumentalists as well, so I think of them more as a “quirky” band like They Might Be Giants. And the Gourds are a bluegrass band that just happened to have a surprise hit with the “Gin and Juice” cover. I never thought of bluegrass as serious or political or likely to change the world, though.

I recently heard a song called “Japan” by a new group called CocoRosie, that is supposedly the new indie-hipster darlings, and also a folk act of sorts. It was one of the worst things I ever heard – sounded like Bjork (who I also despise) recorded a children’s album.

I’ll advance the argument that modern folk music is very much in line with Woody Guthrie’s sensibilities. To wit:

Meanwhile, Woody Guthrie has many insightful political lyrics like:


I reckon people busking or roaming from town to town playing for people have to catch listener’s ears with the silly songs so they’ll stick around for the more political or protest bits. It’s the funny songs that get picked up for compilation records or for Morning Edition but I don’t think they’re indicative of the whole genre of modern folk music.

Why don’t we first throw out the notion that folk music was once monolithic and political and contained no singers of innoucous tunes? As soon as we do that, the rest of the question disappears into smoke.

I know next to nothing about the current folk scene, and I have no worthy input regarding the OP’s question. But this seems like a good time to plug one of my favorite musicians working today: Greg Brown.

Funny story about him:

His Wikipedia page says, “His ‘Iowa Waltz’ has been (unsuccessfully) proposed to replace the state song of Iowa.” I know the guys who proposed this. They’re a couple of extremely cool old professors, one of agriculture and one of math, and they’ve been after the governor(s) for a long time about this.

One of them told me that, when they first decided to try to get the song named the State Song of Iowa, they approached Mr. Brown (a native Iowan) about it after one of his concerts, to make sure it was cool with him.

He listened carefully as they told him in detail what they hoped to do. Then, after a few moments of deep reflection, he looked up at them.

“Are you sure I wrote that song?” he said.

OK, hijack over.

Been that way since white bread college kids hijacked folk music during the folk music fad of the early 60s hasn’t it?

Sort of a from-the-top-down approach to the music instead of from-the-bottom-up (as nature intended).

I also don’t see the universality of either the political importance of folk music of the 60s and 70s or the banality of the folk music of today.

I will say that part of the “NPR” sensibility probably has to do with the fact that a lot of original fans of 60s and 70s folk music are those very same people who listen to NPR; NPR is targeted very much at aging hippies and their ilk.

I sort of agree with the spirit of your rant. Except that The Gourds aren’t folkies (or a bluegrass band), they’re an actual rock band from Austin, and their audiences aren’t politely tittering grad students at folk festivals, but a pretty typical alt-country crowd in bars. And that Falcon Ridge doesn’t seem like a huge cultural icon to me (and I don’t live that far from there). And the fact (as others have pointed out) that whatever gets called “folk music” has pretty much always contained a healthy strand of sanitized, slicked-up versions of traditional music played for and by educated non-Southern white folk. You’re essentially clucking your tongue at Modern Rock radio and feeling nostalgia for the glory days of the 60s when the radio was all about the Velvet Underground and the Fugs. So you don’t actually know what you’re talking about. Interesting that “grad school” and “NPR” are now insults, though.

Woody Guthrie was always a pretty fringy act, and the “folk revival” boom didn’t include very many people like him and Leadbelly. Music that rough around the edges tends to get lumped into alt-country these days – someone like Johnny Dowd, say, will be more likely playing the same places rock/alternative acts do than a folk festival. I probably wouldn’t want to sit through a whole day of acts like those at Falcon Ridge, but I don’t begrudge the people who prefer politesse to the studied obscurity of a showcase at CMJ.

I went to see some folk music being played in an old church a while back.

These tattooed hipsters who work in coffee shops were singing songs about riding the rails and unionizing, very sincerely.

Very strange.

That is an astute observation.

Translation of the OP: VCO3, a person whose tolerance for diversity is so hair-trigger that he can be driven into a homicidal fury by the kind of shoes worn with jeans, doesn’t like modern folk music. Oh, woe. I’m not convinced that VCO3 has the chops to be cultural arbiter of what music I can like or not like.
So, what exactly do you want Falcon Ridge Folk festival to be? A bunch of mostly affluent middle-class people gathered around listening to protest songs about starving Okies and napalm falling on babies? What a fun day in the country that would be!

I have been to Falcon Ridge many times and have never, alas, seen the mass fellation of which VC03 speaks. I have heard quite a few topical songs concerning our various foreign adventures and our beloved Commander-in-Chief. Not surprisingly, there’s a fairly strong liberal/left-leaning contigent at most folk festivals. Speaking of folk festivals, Falcon Ridge is just one of many, and is not all that influential. Philly is bigger. Kerrville is vastly more influential.

Since when are Dar Williams, Richard Shindell and Erin McKeown “Joni clones”? They’re singer/songwriters, and they’re mostly acoustic, but that’s about where the resemblance ends. Although I’m having trouble seeing where being compared to Joni Mitchell, one of the most talented song writer/singers of the past 50 years, would be a * bad * thing.

Don’t know when “grad schoolish” became a bad thing either. Unless you have trouble following intelligent lyrics.

Huh. For someone who once called Passim Coffee House my home away from home, and being old enough to have lived through all of Joni’s changes (having seen her many times), I’d just have to say that many of these people embody her spirit. In fact, they have reinvigorated the genre for me and for many others.

Others you may wish to avoid: Patty Griffin. Anyone from the first Respond CD (Jonatha Brooke, Jennifer Kimball, Jess Klein, Catie Curtis, Lori McKenna, Kris Delmhorst, et.al.). Meg Hutchinson. Anne Heaton. Antje Duvekot. Anais Mitchell. Deb Talan. Edie Carey. Christine Kane. Rose Polenzani. The list goes on. And on. And will continue to go on.

I’m only looking out for you here, you know. However, should you be feeling self-destructive some day, you could listen online to wumb.org (Folk Radio) for their broadcast, or choose one of their preprogrammed streams.

Nor does he usually return to defend these potshots of his.

In that spirit, there are so many, many artists and styles of folk music to avoid:

KT Tunstall, Beth Orton, The Espers, Loreena McKennitt, James McMurtry, Greg Brown, Kate Rusby, Bruce Cockburn, Circulus, Kim Richey, Faun, Dougie Maclean, Nanci Griffith, Shawn Colvin, The Poozies, Medieval Babes, Damian Rice, Belle & Sebastian, The Waifs, Nickel Creek, Joanna Newsom*

*You wanted threatening? I think her voice might be registered with the FBI. :wink:

I don’t believe Pete Seeger was ever any more convincing as a workingman. Nor should he be. He’s a folk singer.

I’ve never heard Nickel Creek described as “folk” music (unless you count bluegrass as a sub-genre of folk… but then where do you put bluegrass and folk relative to country*?) and I’m pretty sure Belle & Sebastian are not “folk” either, except for the fact that they’re whiny. The Medieval Babes… do they still have any of their original members? Regardless, I think of them as a novelty act more than a folk band.

Oh, and Beth Orton is just too cool for me to let you bash in a drive-by. Stop it, you brute!

    • A: Far, far away.

Here’s where I mention something that’s bugged me for a few weeks: I haven’t heard anything by this artist, but I always, always read the name as “K T Uninstall”

Ok, hold on. The OP began by lumping way too many things (i.e. today’s “folk” music) together, and now koeeoaddi is doing the same thing - How can you possibly lump the wonderful Nanci Griffith (not to mention the talented Bruce Cockburn and Dougie Maclean) in with the gimmickry of Joanna Newsom? Obviously YMMV and all that, but random lumping is just…random.