Small ‘F’ Folk Hour with Greg

Written by on June 21, 2020

Louis Armstrong famously said “All music is folk music”, citing the fact that he’d never seen a horse sing a song as evidence for the hypothesis. It is as good a definition as any, and one I’m going to stick with for now.

Folk music (with a capital ‘F’) typically refers to music from a specific cultural heritage, passed down through generations orally. While not included in this playlist as such, many of the artists you will hear have taken influence directly from these traditions: Donovan Leitch, Fairport Convention, and Incredible String Band draw very consciously from their Gaelic past, while Lead Belly’s blues is rooted in African and African-American slave music, as well as being a folk tradition in itself as exemplified in the storytelling preamble to Rock Island Line. Rodriguez’s cheeky A Most Disgusting Song shows that folk might just provide a melodic vehicle to tell a story, with less interest in crafting the perfect song.

Nonetheless, perfect songs abound in this playlist. You’ll notice the pickings are exclusively 20th century, with an emphasis on late 60s and early 70s popular artists. The decade approximately spanning 1965-1975 saw the rise of Donovans and Dylans, Joans, Johnnys, and Jonis. It was an era when the ‘old’ (folk, blues, minstrel, gospel, the list goes on) left their parental homes and travelled with only a backpack and tin of cheap tobacco to join rock bands in San Francisco, pop stars in New York, and psychonauts in London. A new form of country music emerged that dispensed with wheat fields and broken hearts and somehow allowed bands like CSNY (a Canadian, a Brit, and two Americans) to find immense fame and popularity with mainstream audiences. English boys like John Mayall and Eric Clapton became blues stars. It was an age when cultural appropriation was celebrated, and disparate traditions grew organically together in a rapidly globalising world.

My own love of folk music started with the few records my mother had kept from her childhood. Cat Stevens was a staple and American Pie was the first song I taught myself on guitar. Neil Young’s Harvest was on repeat in the car (alongside Paul Simon, The Stones, and Dire Straits) and its opening track inspired me to pick up the harmonica. Bowie, great chameleon and love of my musical life, heralded a triumphant and genre-defying oeuvre with two very different folk albums (London Boys, Space Oddity) that would barely hint at the twists and turns to come only a few years later.

The music of my listening lifetime (let’s say anything from 1990 onwards) has evolved in countless directions without diminishing the enduring appeal of folk. If Ed Sheeran can play to 20,000 screaming adolescent girls with only a microphone and guitar, there’s hope yet for the singer-songwriter. [Trigger warning: no Ed Sheeran will appear on this playlist]. I have selected some greater or lesser known proponents of the craft who I feel exemplify the beauty and simplicity of folk. Radiohead’s Present Tense is a tense waltz infused with an amorphous pain (Yorke’s signature). All The Reaching Trims from Canadian polymath Daniel Romano hails from his brilliant album Finally Free, my favourite work of folk for at least a decade. Holly Throsby is an Australian singer-songwriter and her contribution, We’re Good People but Why Don’t We Show It, has an irresistible delicacy and sadness. Bonnie Prince Billy is by far the most prolific artist on the playlist yet remains relatively obscure. Probably because he is a Christian werewolf living in Kentucky.

The final two tracks have special significance. Johnny Cash and Scott Walker, two deservedly venerated singer-songwriters, show us how song and style can be dramatically reinvented in the hands of a master. Johnny Cash’s version of U2’s One, recorded in the last few years of his life, voice quavering with age, makes the 90s classic something both new and old. Timelessness of the ‘song’ is the perhaps the ubiquitous factor unites folk music into something of a loose genre.

Finally, Scott Walker’s Farmer In The City, from his prescient album Tilt, is a reinvention of the very concept of ‘song’ and paves the way for more recent offerings from the likes of Radiohead, Bowie, and others.

I hope you enjoy these treasures as much as I have.

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