In Praise of Music of the Folk...

There are three types of music: Folk, Pop, and Classical

Most people appreciate that classical is good.... but few want to listen to it unless trying to go to sleep. This is not a bash on classical. I appreciate it as something that is good and worthy of admiration, imitation and praise. But to be honest, I don't listen to it much. Unless I am going to sleep.

Pop music, on the other hand is insanely popular... by definition. This type of music encompasses many different types and styles but the underlying factor is that it appeals to large majorities of the population and sells a lot. Examples of this are Michael Jackson, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, Beyonce, and etc. The thing about pop music is that it is extremely fleeting. The music defines a moment in time. The overwhelming amount of pop music stops being meaningful within months of its being released. If anyone holds on to pop music it is the people that were in their teens and early adulthood when it was released. It defines a time so much that we like it to remind us of our youth.

And then there is a third type of music: folk music. Now, when I think of folk music, I usually think of some lame old hippie guy singing anti-war songs on his guitar. So let us call this third type of music: music of the folk. In other words, it is music that - instead of defining a time - defines a type of people... a culture. What types of music fit this category? Much of country music. Gansta Rap, and Mexican Mariachi. This type of music usually tells stories that define a people.

Consider the Hank Williams Jr Song, 'Country Boy Can Survive,'

I can plow a field all day long
I can catch catfish from dusk till dawn (Yeah)
We make our own whiskey and our own smoke too
Ain't too many things these old boys can't do
We grow good ole tomatoes and homemade wine
And a country boy can survive
Country folks can survive

Here he tells a story of a man that takes pride in his rural existence. He plows the field. He fishes for catfish. He makes homemade whiskey and wine and his own food.While pop music tries to appeal to everyone, these are words that resonate with only some of the population. Only those that know the rural life of hunting, plowing, fishing and making your own wine know what he is talking about.

Often music of the folk includes stories about problems endemic to the people the music is speaking to. For example, Jamie Johnson, in his High Cost of Living, sings,

I was just a normal guy
Life was just a nine to five
With bills and pressure
Piled up to the sky
She never asked
She knew I been
Hangin' with my wilder friends
Looking for some other way to fly
And three days straight was no big feat
Could get by with no food or sleep
And crazy was becoming my new norm
I'd pass out on the bedroom floor
And sleep right through the calm before the storm
My life was just an old routine
Every day the same damn thing
I couldn't even tell I was alive
I tell youThe high cost of livin'
Ain't nothing like the cost of livin' high

The addiction that has caused so much damage for so much of Appalachia is typified with these words. There is a resonance of the people in these words.

But country is not the only 'music of the folk,' the best of rap music is music of the folk as well. A very specific form of this type of music was from NWA in the late 1980s. This music spoke to the experiences of the gang life of people living in southern California in that period of time.  For example, in 'Straight Out of Compton,' the members of the rap group take turns bragging about cold blooded violence and sexual license. They speak, in other words, to the terrible and violent world of the late 1980s gang land of LA.

And almost every culture has their folk music. There is folk Italian. Folk French. Folk Spanish. Folk Chinese. Folk African.

Each of these speaks to specific experiences of specific people in specific cultures. Unlike pop that tries to appeal to everyone, folk appeals to relatively few.

For example, are you from Appalachia? Are you from the country? Are you from the projects? Maybe but probably not. Almost all types of folk do not define most people. It is specific and obscure. Foreign to most.

But it also is less generic, less pretentious, and more interesting. Music by specific people speaking to specific cultural experiences provides a reality and depth that more generic pop music just can’t do. Malcolm Gladwell noted that the majority of sad songs are not pop songs but music of specific people. I think this is because an emotion like sadness requires color that can only come from specificity. But I would argue all deep emotions require specificity. John Hodgeman says, “Specificity is the soul of narrative.” And pop music just can’t be soulful in the same way.

But you might respond, aren’t the Beatles better than a Garth Brook? And I would not disagree. Pop is almost by definition likable, fun, and catchy. Sometimes it is brilliant, beautiful, and powerful. But the best of pop can’t be the standard. What should be observed is the giant pile of garbage that is produced every year for every worthwhile work. Further, I would argue that we do not yet know what history will remember. In the history of music, classical and not many jingles or popular tunes.

Final thought: religious music is some of the most “folk” music there is. It speaks to a specific and enduring group of people. And this is why we still sing songs from 1000 years ago. The feelings and emotions of St. Francis are familiar to me. It is a culture I recognize.


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