Singer/Songwiter?

I’ve been enjoying the year end music posts by the multi-talented Reinvigorated Programmer (and, if you’ve missed my writing I wrote a couple of long comments on his third post in the series).

But something in his wrap-up post caught my attention, he observes

Looking at the list, I am immediately struck that eight of the ten are folk music of one sort or another, with the only exceptions being the prog rock of The Incident at #3 and the Beatles’ Help! at #7. Of course it may be that this tells us only what a broad church “folk music” is, encompassing the jazz-folk of Joni Mitchell, the country-folk of Richard Shindell, and so on.

I’ve written before about the trickiness of the label “folk music” (and there are a number of good quotations about the nature of folk music posted by RS in the comments for that post). Personally I tend to be somewhat conservative in how I use the term “folk music” and prefer “singer/songwriter” as the broader term for people who write and sing music that has some degree of personal or social significance. I accept, however, that most people use “folk music” as an broader term than I do which refers to a genre of music, rather than some connection to a specific folk culture. I have no interest in policing that, even if I may grumble about it from time to time. When it comes to definitional debates I tend to be a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist, figuring that it’s generally more useful to have a sense of how phrases used than to try to preserve a more technical definition.

But, all of a sudden, I’m curious. How do people define “folk music” as a genre term? I always assumed that it was close to how I would use the term “singer/songwriter” but now I’m not sure. So, in the interest of clarifying, here are five songs which are, somewhere in the universe of singer/songwriter and I’m curious, for any or all of the songs, would you include them under a broad definition of “folk music” and if so why or why not? Leave your answers in comments, I have no opinions except to think that I wouldn’t expect all of them to be considered “folk music” but I’m not sure where the line should be drawn. We have:

1) On of Gil-Scott Heron’s more singer/songwriter songs (with a jazz backing) Lady Day & John Coltrane“.

2) A Joe Jackson song imagining that it would take a deal with the Devil to write anything as perfect as a classic folk song The Man Who Wrote Danny Boy“.

3) Amy Rigby on “The Summer Of [Her] Wasted Youth“.

4) A live acoustic version of I May Hate You Sometimes” by the Posies (album version discussed here).

5) Dave Alvin’s “Harlan County Line” from his latest album. Dave Alvin has said. “There are two types of folk music: quiet folk music and loud folk music. I play both.” This would be an example of the latter.

Fire away . . .

  1. Josh K-sky’s avatar

    I wrote a paper on this very question for a Cultural Studies class 17 years ago. The assignment was to do a “keyword” in Raymond Williams fashion and I chose “folk music.” It wasn’t a very good paper–I remember something about mandolins–but the changing definition and assorted associations have been bugging me for a long time.

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