Tag Archives: bob dylan

An Undefinable Genre – A Primer on Folk Music

“If it was never new, and never gets old, then it’s a folk
song.”

Nothing describes the folk genre as well as this line,
uttered by Oscar Isaac’s character in the movie Inside
Llewyn Davis
. If you want to start listening to the genre and need a few
recommendations to get you started, you’ve come to the right place. Keep in
mind that this is specifically contemporary folk, which is typically synonymous with
the term folk nowadays. That being said, the genre doesn’t really have a hard and fast definition. In the wise words of the great Louis Armstrong, “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.” So bearing in mind that these aren’t horses singing, here are a few of my
personal picks for contemporary folk songs that I feel best represent the genre in
different ways:

1) Big Bill Broonzy – Black, Brown, and White

The beauty of a folk song is that it often paints
a picture of the time period in which it was written. Many folk songs are about
the problems the songwriter faced or the tensions plaguing society at the time,
creating a feeling of honesty and truth to the songs. They tend to be simple
songs that can be easily passed down, making them timeless. This song, while also along the lines of blues, is a great example of this. It’s a history lesson in song form. The song was written
and performed by Big Bill Broonzy, a pre-World War II Chicago blues singer. His
song “Black, Brown and White” (sometimes called “Get Back”) is about the experiences and hardships of war vets, who were treated preferentially in relation to their skin color. An honest song for an honest problem.

2) Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A-Changin’

Another example of the times influencing
the music, Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” was written in 1964 as
an anthem for societal change. As relevant now as ever, the song exemplifies
the timeless of a genre. While understanding the context of the time helps to
better understand the motivation for writing, you can play this song behind any
advertisement for social movement and it will never sound out of place. 

It
should also be noted that Bob Dylan was largely responsible for the peak of the
American folk revival in the 1960s, forming the genre we (or at least I) know
and love today. Some other artists to listen to from the revival time period
are Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. There are more, but these are my favorites, and the ones that you’ll hear more often that not.

3) Joe Pug – Hymn #101

This song is an example of the flipside of songwriting
in the folk genre. A modern song, Joe Pug’s “Hymn #101” is written in a way that leaves it open to interpretation. Joe Pug may have written the song with a personal meaning
behind the lyrics, but they’re just that: personal. The lyrics cause you to relate them to your own experiences, making it a unique song for
everyone. In the simplest sense, it’s about the struggles of a human living
life, and we can all relate to that. 

4) The Barr Brothers – Beggar In The Morning

If the singer-songwriter, one-man-and-a-guitar
style of the other songs isn’t for you, The Barr Brothers’ “Beggar In The
Morning” is a great example of more modern-sounding folk music that uses more
than just a guitar. The tone is both haunting and relaxing, with the lyrics
giving insight into the inner demons of the musician. “She said ‘hello, I’m a
monster, too/What poisons me is what poisons you’” is one of my favorite lyrics
from any song. While a short and simple line, it expresses the joy of finding a
companion that can relate to your inner demons, and therefore, you as a whole. Whether
you interpret the woman in the song to be a real woman or music is up to you. The
song is full of such beautifully-written lyrics, and the rest of The Barr Brothers’ music is
much the same way.

5) Corey Chisel and the Wandering Sons – Home In The
Woods

Did I mention that folk singers like to sing
about the peaceful life of the woods? Because they do. The theme permeates
throughout the genre, especially in Americana and Appalachian folk. It brings
you back to the settlement days when the only thing you had to worry about was
keeping your banjo in-tune and defending your loved ones from bears. Corey
Chisel and the Wandering Sons
’ “Home In The Woods” takes inspiration from this
theme, and is about the yearning one has when disconnected from nature. The
“home in the woods in the back of my mind”, if you will. This is a
fantastically catchy song, and a great introduction to the more banjo-y folk
that you’ll hear more often these days.

image
Niles Kyholm



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