Pet Peeve

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.

and closes

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.

  1. Wrongshore’s avatar

    Elliott Smith comes to mind as someone who employs a lot of male vocal harmonies, but he’s all by himself. Lots of power-pop bands do it, but I can’t think of any who really rose to great prominence — Teenage Fanclub, The Smithereens maybe.

    That track is great, and you describe what’s great about it really well. “What Made My Hamburger Disappear” is another favorite of course.


  2. NickS’s avatar


    “What Made My Hamburger Disappear” is another favorite of course.

    I haven’t heard that, but will look for it. That track makes me want to track down the album


  3. NickS’s avatar

    Lots of power-pop bands do it, but I can’t think of any who really rose to great prominence

    That’s a good point as well. There are Posies tracks that would qualify.


  4. Wrongshore’s avatar

    It’s all on iTunes. I downloaded a couple of Michael Hurley songs as well. “Hog of the Forsaken” was used in Deadwood to very good effect.


  5. The Modesto Kid’s avatar

    What does the “close” in “close vocal harmony” mean? I can think of some groups with vocal harmony but I don’t know if it’s the right kind.

    Very nice post. I’ve heard similar thoughts from a lot of amateur folk musicians whom I respect, including my dad, that just trying to mimic an old sound doesn’t make folk music.

    Haven’t heard “Sweet Lucy” but I’m looking forward to listening to it. As far as using the Lovin’ Spoonful as a counterpoint to “folk music”, Lovin’ Spoonful was part of the folk revival too…


  6. NickS’s avatar

    As far as using the Lovin’ Spoonful as a counterpoint to “folk music”, Lovin’ Spoonful was part of the folk revival too…

    They’re also in the Rock and Roll hall of fame.

    That actually was part of why I picked the Lovin’ Spoonfuls, because I was thinking about the crossover between “folk” and popular music.

    It’s also true that, when you compare the style on that track to a British invasion band like the Zombies, there is something distinctly American in the sound.


  7. RS’s avatar


    Is Bare Naked Ladies and example of close male harmony?

    I agree with the concept that folk music is something more than a museum piece and relates to it’s current cultural context.

    I also agree that folk music exists in a context of event — but to me that means more than just on stages. I think of folk music existing in the realm of how people live. These quotes speak to some of that:

    This civilization of ours is a fast-moving thing. New inventions and discoveries continually change our ways of living: we move from place to place, and not many of us get to live in the places where our parents spent their childhood. In some ways, the changes are good: distant neighbors are not so distant as they used to be, and we are slowly learning not to be suspicious of people just because they happen to be different in some way from ourselves. But one effect that is not so good is that it is hard for us to see how we are related to our ancestors, whose lives were so different from ours. And this makes it hard for us to say, “I know who I am, and I know where I belong in the world.” In my own case, the study of folk music has made this easier. My ancestors seem more real to me when I learn that they and I have laughed at the same song; and when I sing a song that I learned from my mother, who learned it from her father, who learned it from his father, and so on back for generations. I have a feeling that there is a place for me in the world, because so many people have helped to prepare it for me. Even when I sing new songs, it gives me pleasure to think that it may live to be an old song, and that, in some far-off day, somebody may feel a kinship with me because of it. And, so, I am passing these songs on to you, in the hope that you will enjoy them, that you will make some of them your own songs, and that you may pass them along to future boys and girls who will call you their ancestor.

    One of the most important things about folksongs that makes them different from other kinds of songs is that there is never just one way to do them: everybody can sing them in his own way, and nobody can say that there is any “right” or “wrong” about it. Of course, if a song came from the mountains of Kentucky, and if you weren’t raised in the mountains of Kentucky, when you sing it your way it will no longer be a Kentucky mountain folksong. But it will be your song.

    From Liner Notes For “Whoever Shall Have Some Good Peanuts”
    Sam Hinton

    Folk music has come to have a real function in all our lives. In a vague but real way, “We”, the singers and audience together, form a community of our own. At some time most of us hitch-hiked, sat on floors, read a lot, not read at all, wanted to live away from everybody, and worried about the world, about what the people who run things would mess up next, and about that we might do to improve things. We’re mostly urban people, out of power and nervous. And one of the things we do is use folk music. Most of us have no genuine connection with any folk community, and these songs are not genuine to us in an objective way. In other words, nobody thinks we’re natives, and we don’t have a native music. But since we don’t, we’re free (given a good bit of nerve) to grab whatever music we like and use it. The result is that we end up being just like mountain people, or blues singers, or cowboys, but relative to our own situation: singing in order to stay sane, and stubborn, to have a good time, and to say how we feel.

    From liner notes for “Sandy and Jeanie Darlington”
    Sandy and Jeanie Darlington

    What Is Folk Song?

    Leon Rosselson wrote the following in the notes on That’s Not the Way it’s Got To Be!. He is talking about the songs that he has written.

    “These songs are not folk songs. They may, it is true, have been influenced by the idiom of folk song. It is true also that without the folk revival and the folk clubs, they would probably not have been written and would certainly not have been sung. And they do, I think, share with folk songs a concern for words–as opposed to the pop world’s preoccupation with sounds, whether it be the sounds of protest, the sounds of poetry, the sounds of sitars rippling in the mystical breezes of transcendental meditation, or the sounds of a million well-fed cash registers playing a Song for Europe.

    “But they are not folk songs. I think the traditionalists are right in wanting to keep the term–if it is to have any meaning at all-to describe the traditional culture of a particular class. These songs are self-conscious rather than class-conscious, self-centered rather than community-centered, personal rather than impersonal. In any case, I don’t believe modern folk songs can grow in the sort of urbanized, fragmented, intensely individualistic and competitive society we live in.”


  8. NickS’s avatar

    RS — I’ve edited the comment to make your quotations easier to read, but thank you very much for the lengthy quotes.


  9. Matthew’s avatar

    prominent male vocal harmonies? yacht rock, man. yacht rock.


  10. Matthew’s avatar

    oh, and a few other harmony driven bands (I assume you’re thinking fairly mainstream, rock/pop and associated genres)

    the Clash, Bad Religion, lots of R&B like Kool & the Gang (does that count as Yacht Rock?), Allman Brothers (bonus for the guitar harmonies), a bunch of 80’s new wavey bands like the cars, duran duran, etc. You didn’t say they had to be interesting harmonies.

    I don’t know if those harmonies are “close”, and no-one sounds like the beach boys, but i can think of lots of bands w/ men where the harmonies are a big part of their sound. if you’re wanting 3+ part harmonies, where the harmonies are forward in the mix, that’s a lot harder.

    fun thing to think about. kept me busy last night when i couldn’t sleep.


  11. NickS’s avatar

    yacht rock, man. yacht rock.

    That’s funny (I hadn’t heard the term before, so it was a surprise to me)

    if you’re wanting 3+ part harmonies, where the harmonies are forward in the mix, that’s a lot harder.

    Either way. I was throwing the question out there because I was enjoying the chorus and wondering “who else sound like that” and was vaguely embarrassed to realize that the Eagles were the closest comparison I could think of.


  12. Matthew’s avatar

    “That’s funny (I hadn’t heard the term before, so it was a surprise to me)”

    I think it was coined by the guys who made that show, but not sure about that. I recommend watching a few episodes, BTW. Amateur for sure, but some funny moments.


  13. ben’s avatar

    went to the Chris Denny link. Listened to the song.

    First impression: his voice sounds pretty contemporary to me.

    Second: In 2008, when I read the phrase “He has simply dropped out of time and into your stereo” in a music review I think: Amy Winehouse. (3 million copies sold), although reviewers do often add “vintage…with a contemporary twist” when reviewing Winehouse.


  14. NickS’s avatar

    Listening to the Christopher Denny now, for the first time in a while, I realize that I like it better on headphones than I did on speakers.

    First impression: his voice sounds pretty contemporary to me.

    I agree. There’s also something in his singing that makes me think he’s listened to a lot of Bob Dylan.

    In a way the idea of “young singer who sounds like the older masters of the genre” makes me think of LeAnn Rimes.

    Second: In 2008, when I read the phrase “He has simply dropped out of time and into your stereo” in a music review I think: Amy Winehouse.

    Hmmm, I should listen to Amy Winehouse. Most of the articles I have read about her mention her tribute to classic soul sounds (e.g., Sasha Frere Jones).

    “Back to Black” is a deft and convincing pastiche of the girl groups of the sixties, the jazz singers of the forties, and a variety of rhythms from the seventies and the nineties. (The eighties get a pass.)


  15. ben’s avatar

    I’m just saying it reminded me of her on first impression.

    The pet peeve in your title was directed toward s the review. When I read it, I thought, “Young, Songwriter, Unusual Voice, Vintage Influences, 2008″, and I thought of Winehouse.

    My point is that the review could be just as much a comment on commercial music circa 2008. And that the clumsy treatment of “old sounding music”, could be a comment as much on a sense that “Retro” sells in 2008, as it is an attempt to define folk music.


  16. NickS’s avatar

    I wasn’t disputing anything you wrote, just responding off the top of my head.

    You’re correct about the Pet Peeve being the review. I haven’t thought about the extent to which “sounds like classic [blank]” is a reviewing standard, rather than specific to that review.

    [T]hat the clumsy treatment of “old sounding music”, could be a comment as much on a sense that “Retro” sells in 2008, as it is an attempt to define folk music.

    I don’t have enough sense of the music business in 2008 to know whether that’s an accurate description, but it certainly seems possible.

    I like the choice of the word “vintage” in your phrase “Young, Songwriter, Unusual Voice, Vintage Influences, 2008.”


  17. CharleyCarp’s avatar

    Thread made me think of a song, which I may or may not have uploaded in usable form. Probably not. Oh well.


  18. NickS’s avatar

    I’m sorry, but I can’t get that to play either.

    But I am happy to have you commenting here. Welcome.


  19. CharleyCarp’s avatar

    Fixed. Sorry to be so inept. Tossed in a bonus for your troubles.

    Thanks, pleasure’s all mine.



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