I was just listening to a folk compilation and, Sweet Lucy, immediately stood out as a great track. It’s a great example of the satisfaction of a minimally processed recording of good musicians playing music they like, having an unselfconsciously good time.
It also seemed to me to be very much of a time (1975 in this case), and that it would be hard for someone now to do something with exactly that spirit. Which made me think about it’s inclusion on a folk music compilation, which both feels right, and not unequivocal. It isn’t a traditional song, it is clearly influenced by then contemporary pop music (the fantastic vocal harmonies on the chorus feel, to me, like they draw as much from a group like the Lovin’ Spoonfuls as anything else). At the same time, it’s also obvious that the musicians involved have participated in the folk revival, and are actively involved in that musical culture, and that’s important.
Which, indirectly, helped me work out something that has been bothering me for a long time.
I’ve been irritated by this review of a contemporary singer-songwriter, influenced by various forms of traditional music, for a while. The review emphasizes the non-contemporary feel of the music
It opens with this image
Christopher Denny’s voice is not the sort of thing that’s supposed to come out of computer speakers, or an iPod, or, hell, even your 10-year-old CD player. It’s a scratchy, 78 kind of voice, a pre-radio voice, the sort of trembly, old-time gospel tenor meant for revival tent meetings and church picnics.
He may be an anachronism, this guy, but he’s for real about it.
Which seems wrongheaded to me and I think I’ve figured out why.
It seems to me that if the term “folk music” means anything, it has to include the idea that music and musical performances are social, and embedded in a social context. The phrase implies more than that, and there are all sorts of disputes about what constitutes contemporary folk music but that seems like a completely necessary idea, in some form.
This implies that if a musician ever started to think of their own music as “anachronistic” that wouldn’t be folk music. People can try to learn from past sources of music, respect the musical traditions, honor those traditions in some way. But those traditions arrive in the present in some way, and that has to be honored as well. It seems ridiculous to think that someone could try to make “folk music” by cutting themselves off from contemporary musical culture.
There’s no indication that Christopher Denny thinks of his music this way, and I don’t want to make too much out of a short review. As I’ll say over and over again it’s hard to write about music, and the reviewer was trying to communicate something a quality of the music to the reader. But it still seems like a seriously mistaken way to think about the music.
If someone were to listen to a bunch of records from the 30s and decide that they wanted to keep the arrangements, and re-record versions that were as faithful to the original in instrumentation and performance, so that people could hear a recreation of what the songs would have sounded like, without being distracted by scratchy recordings and the characteristics of 30s microphones, that might be admirable, but it wouldn’t be folk music. It would be an interesting archival project, and perhaps an interesting formalist exercise but not “folk music.”
Update: As an aside, can anyone think of groups post-Beatles that use close male vocal harmonies and aren’t boy bands or The Eagles? If the 50s the Everly Brothers are famous for that sound. In the 60s you have bands like the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas in addition to a ton of British Invasion bands, but it’s hard to think of any examples after the early 70s.
Update II: To clarify this post somewhat, at the most basic level I’m arguing that, of course, someone recording in 1975 who is influenced by the Harry Smith collection is going to sound very different from someone in 2005 who also loves the Harry Smith collection. One reason is that they are both going to be influenced by their contemporary music scenes. I think that it is right and appropriate for that to be the case, even when people are trying to work in traditions that go back to the eighteenth century. “Folk music” should sound “of its time.” There are other parts of the argument that I’m still thinking my way through, but that seems simple enough.