What Is Folk? Gina Kaufmann And Experts Attempt To Answer An Impossible Question

Feb 18, 2015

Beau Bledsoe
Credit Jeff Evrard

As the second Folk Alliance International conference kicks off in Kansas City this week, Central Standard explored the question: “What is folk music today?” Listening to some examples with host Gina Kaufmann were three guests:

  • Beau Bledsoe, musician
  • Daniel Atkinson, ethnomusicologist and assistant director of the Kansas African Studies Center at the University of Kansas
  • Chuck Haddix, host of KCUR’s Fish Fry and director of the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City

What follows was edited for length and clarity (hear the entire conversation by clicking on the "Listen" arrow above).

Kaufmann: Beau Bledsoe, prior to Folk Alliance International establishing itself in Kansas City, would you have labeled yourself a folk musician?

Bledsoe: I consider myself an avid folklorist in playing folkloric music from other cultures. I was educated in universities as a classical musician, with a really deep interest in cultural anthropology. I love to go to different places, live there for a while, study the music and come back and impose that on all of my friends.

Kaufmann: How would each of you define folk music?

Bledsoe: Briefly I would say anything that is outside of that conservatory, academic tradition, what we call classical music.

Haddix: Acoustic music that tells a story that’s passed from generation to generation. It’s communal. You have the hoolies in the Irish tradition where you have a big sing-along. Back in the 60s we had the shindigs, the sing-alongs, the hootenannies.

Atkinson: Basically anything that’s performed by a group of people in a communal setting, where it defines, expands or creates meaning in a way that verifies who they are. And something they can do going forward with their community, that they can pass from hand to hand, mouth to mouth, mouth to ear, in order to make sense of the world.

Kaufmann: Daniel Atkinson, tell me more about your experience with folk music.

Atkinson: I used to work for the Northwest Folk Life festival in Seattle – 25 stages, 8,500 performers, a quarter of a million people. Everything from contra to pirate metal to 8-bit music to subversive square dancers, which are people who throw away the gender-specific identities in square dancing and identify male by holding a handkerchief in their hand and dancing to Madonna records.

Kaufmann: Did the question of what qualifies as folk music come up in that setting?

Atkinson: Oh yes. In the early 1980s there were black gospel choirs who weren’t allowed to perform because it wasn’t fiddles and banjos. So a woman named Pastor Pat was very subversive in how she got her point across: She just showed up and made a spectacle. And she was so entertaining and compelling, people stopped what they were doing to come see her. So they had to let her in.

Kaufmann: I’ve thought about how to define folk. What do you think of this: It emerges not from a known individual musician but from a community. It’s music that a community owns and shares.

Atkinson: I try to stay away from definitive statements when it comes to things like that, because as soon as you declare something is a certain thing, something comes along and bursts your bubble. I used to have to fight to get hip hop into the folk festival where I worked. People didn’t understand the value system or the place that it held in its community. Once we brought it in, we saw how people came out, and they all knew the music and they all derived meaning from it.

Kaufmann: Do you think uplift is part of it?

Atkinson: I think it is. In the black tradition, when you can’t deal with the thing that is oppressing you institutionally, you’re liberated by recognizing it with people who you can share the experience with and shed it.

Bledsoe: It’s also cathartic. You see a lot of healing that happens. In flamenco there’s an expression called quejío, the ability of the performer to really complain, and impart that feeling to the listener. And the audience and the performer are often considered one and the same.

Haddix: I think it’s communal in that it’s a shared tradition. Take the song “Goodnight Irene.” Lead Belly began performing it in about 1908. He learned it from two uncles. It’s based on an earlier theme from 1886, and that’s based on an earlier theme that was lost. Lead Belly recorded it in 1934 for the Library of Congress. A year after he died, in 1950, the Weavers recorded it and they had a Number One hit on the pop charts. But they had to sanitize the lyrics because he talks about how he’s going to jump in the river and drown, and take morphine and die, and it’s a song about a woman other than his wife.

Kaufmann: Here’s what a lot people would think of as folk music. Pete Seeger’s “Oh! Susanna”

This is about as pure a folk music in most people’s minds as folk can get. Do you disagree with that, that this is the stereotypical idea of folk music, Daniel?

Atkinson: This is where you start treading in odd water, where the idea of something is more important than the reality. This is a Stephen Foster song, which was a pop song a hundred years earlier. So it just depends on how it was presented. Guys like Pete Seeger would popularize tunes out of context and people saw that and they took it for what it was and then the definition was fixed. And that became a problem when people wanted to be themselves.

Kaufmann: Do you think that revolt and protest are part of folk music?

Haddix: I think it’s part of music in general. If you look at the time of the popularity of American folk music in the 60s it was a very volatile time – you had the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War. So folk music became a vehicle for protest, of making a statement.

Bledsoe: I made a really interesting discovery last year which would be the opposite. In Lisbon, everyone over 50 just can’t even listen to Portuguese Fado, which is their folk music, because of its association with the Salazar regime. It was a folk music wedded to a fascist government, which is only being saved by very young people who don’t have that memory.

Kaufmann: Here’s some Fado music. Can you tell us more to help us understand?

Bledsoe:  Fado roughly translates into fate. It’s one of the only folkloric traditions that comes out of an urban style. Usually it’s the reverse – the tradition goes from rural areas into cities. It’s songs of nostalgia and seafaring people, love and loss, same stuff.

Kaufmann: Chuck, you’ve brought “John Henry” performed by Josh White. I would say this is an iconic story of American folk music.

What do we need to understand about folk music when we hear this?

Haddix: It’s the eternal theme, man against machine and how he triumphed in the end, although he died.

Atkinson: One important thing about John Henry is that it’s about a black man who beats a white invention with just his two hands and a hammer. It’s an affirming story and it became very popular which was a point of pride, but it also seeds certain stereotypes about black strength and brutishness.

Kaufmann: You brought in some examples of African-American folk music. Tell us about The Dixie Hummingbirds.

Atkinson: The Dixie Hummingbirds are a Tidewater style gospel quartet, usually four to eight members, they all have specific roles with a clear leader. Someone who’s in the bass, someone who’s in the top, and people who create and release tension in the middle. It’s what you hear in the black churches from 30s through 60s, when people know they are less than human six days of the week, but are coming to the church to have a collective experience one day of the week. This is “Ezekial Saw the Wheel.”

Again, it’s about deriving meaning. They could tell a bible story in a couple of minutes. It doesn’t matter whether you could read or write – these things could be easily remembered and repeated. With this particular tune, there’s a great example of this where Dan Rather was interviewing the Blind Boys of Alabama. He grew up in Texas, so he says, ‘There’s a tune you do that I absolutely love,’ and he starts singing ‘Ezekial Saw the Wheel’ and then they all do it together. Even though they were not raised together, they all know it because they have a shared culture that goes back farther than their parents.

Kaufmann: Beau, we’re going to play some flamenco by Camarón de la Isla. As someone who has worked in folk musics, plural, are there interesting through-lines connecting different types of folk music throughout the world?

Bledsoe: They’re usually standing on a whole lot of tradition and form. One of the highest compliments you’ll hear about Camarón de la Isla: He received the Golden Key Award of Song. There have only been about three or four people who’ve won this prize, because they’ve managed to learn all the tunes.

Kaufmann: Daniel, you brought Pharis and Jason Romero, “Waiting for the Evening Mail.”

Atkinson: They fit into the accepted definition of what folk is, but they live and breathe the culture. They make their own banjos and guitars, they cut their own wood.

Kaufmann: Daniel, we’ve got jail, we’ve got feeling like an outsider. What do you hear thematically that puts a big exclamation point on everything?

Atkinson: They’re just singing about life.