The history of folk music is often associated with an overt political stance and didactic intellectual sentiments. Yet its renaissance in recent years which has permeated mainstream charts with pseudo-folk music in a guise which is devoid of such tropes. The social protest songs of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan feel long done, and one wonders how such monolithic figures would view self-fashioned folk bands such as Mumford and Sons. Would they see them as contemptibly contrived, or somehow retaining the essence of their past music? Exploring such a question can have its merits.
Bob Dylan described his attraction to folk music, and what compelled him to write such songs, as being found in the fact that folk music was “more of a serious type of thing. The songs were filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings”. He was drawn into it as he felt that it interacted with the listener on an sentimental and intellectual plain, rather than the rock ‘n’ roll of the time which he saw as simply Hedonism that held “great catch phrases and driving pulse rhythms” at its core. Through these “great catch phrases”, Dylan notes how the rock ‘n’ roll music of the 1960s was construed to capture public support, but actively revolted against such consumerism, and felt – or rather may have wanted to feel – that “I had no songs in my repertoire for commercial radio”.
Yet this music which strived to forge a more private relationship with the listener, also paradoxically believed music to have the potential for important wide-reaching social change. Indeed, one of Dylan’s compatriots in the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, Joan Baez, fervently expressed her belief that “action is the antidote to despair”, through her music. At a march for civil rights in Washington in August 1963, the pair – Dylan’s reputation not yet cemented – performed in front of the thousands of protesters, and from henceforward were linked to the plights and protests of such Americans. A large number of their most seminal recordings are such ‘protest-songs’, and songs such as “The times they are a-changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” are formative members of the western canon.
And here we come to those singers and groups that are branded ‘folk’ by sometimes themselves, sometimes critics, and sometimes by listeners, yet they precipitate a number of questions: have they redefined the genre? Or has the very term ‘folk’ been so bounded around that it retains only a semblance of what it previously defined?
Artists that fall under this ambiguous genre of ‘folk’ such as Noah and the Whale and Mumford and Sons, seem to have in many respects retrograded the tropes the genre has hitherto held dear. Instead of the reserved and often poignant songs of Neil Daimond or Dylan, these artists reveal at best contrived sentiment, and at worst unashamed frivolity. But the public devouring of such releases is clear in impressive chart sales.
In addition, songs by these artists – indeed, whole albums – are embarrassingly self-absorbent, a far cry from the aforementioned politically motivated singer-songwriters. Of course it can be posited that all art is self-absorbed, but these recent neo-folk releases seem to be entirely divorced from the social context they are written in. Sentimentalists will defend them as “timeless expressions of the human condition” or some other tosh, but they undeniably not in keeping with the socially minded folk music of the 1950’s/60’s/70’s.
The problem may lie in the critical mis-classification of these new artists, more than any damning criticisms of their artistic merits, or lack thereof. Yet my real contention rises from their elevating to a pedestal of what should be celebrated as some of the most powerful of twentieth century music. Donning an archaic waistcoat and growing a beard, or having a violin in one’s band does not constitute replicating one of peaks in popular music.