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“.
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 . . .