The Real Folk Music

Thursday , 8, June 2017 45 Comments

This post has nothing whatsoever to do with SF/F. But if you’ll bear with me for a moment …

I’ve always had a vague distaste for the genre officially known as “folk music.” But it didn’t turn into active dislike until a local radio DJ asked me to transfer an old reel-to-reel tape labeled “Woody Guthrie.”

It turned out to be a live show by a former associate of his, performing Guthrie’s songs. It was excruciating. The guitar playing was bad, the singing was worse, and the songs were nothing special. But the worst part was the enthusiastic applause after each song by the audience of pretentious hipsters.

I listened to some old recordings by Guthrie himself, to see what the fuss was about. It wasn’t much better. His guitar playing was clumsy and plodding, he didn’t have much of a voice, and most of his songs were inferior rewrites of traditional songs, replacing the original lyrics with political lyrics. Here’s the original version of his most famous song, recorded in 1933 by the Carter Family.

Woody Guthrie was a mediocrity. Admittedly, he was a major influence on the generation of musicians who appeared after 1960, including authentically great talents like Bruce Springsteen. But it wasn’t because of any special talent on his part. It was because he had the right kind of politics, he was championed by a group of leftist New York intellectuals, and he was in the right place at the right time. Ask yourself if a devoutly religious musician, with equal or greater talent, would have gotten the same kind of support and fame.

Guthrie, at least, lived the life of an authentic folk musician, riding the rails and laboring in the fields and factories. The same can’t be said for that other legend of folk music, Pete Seeger, a party-line Red and unrepentant Stalinist. Seeger wrote exactly one hit song, an awkward and mumbling number with lyrics taken verbatim from Ecclesiastes. It took the arranging genius of The Byrds to make it a hit.

It’s interesting that almost every prominent folk musician post-1950 was a card-carrying Communist, er, I mean, “victim of McCarthyism.” You didn’t get into the club unless you had the right politics. The major exception was the Kingston Trio, who were reviled by the leftist folk establishment for their calculated commercialism and resolutely apolitical lyrics. But even the Kingston Trio was a pale, watered-down imitation of the real thing.

The Carter Family were the biggest superstars of the original, pre-war folk music. They sold millions of records between 1927 and 1956, and profoundly influenced everything that came after them. They’re almost forgotten today. If they’re mentioned at all, they’re classified as “country” or “gospel,” not folk music.

The mainstays of the group were Sara Carter’s melancholy vocals and Maybelle Carter’s innovative guitar playing. They were highly skilled and absolutely authentic at the same time, with none of the artificiality the 1960’s folk revival. Their early recordings are a bit stark; you may prefer the later ones, with three-part harmonies by the Carter daughters. This song is especially lovely.

The Carter Family is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s a whole world of pre-war folk music, untainted by politics and hipsterism, waiting to be rediscovered. You won’t hear it on the radio. The local “folk music” show, beloved by affluent hipsters who donate generously to the station, doesn’t play it. The only time I’ve heard it was on a short-lived show by a college kid who hailed from somewhere in the wilds of Appalachia and grew up listening to it.

While we’re on the subject, look up “Gaelic psalm singing” and unlearn everything you thought you knew about the origins of blues.

To those involved in the Pulp Revolution, the story of American folk music will be hauntingly familiar. Isn’t this exactly what the Left did to SF/F, when they memory-holed entire decades and claimed to have invented the genre themselves?

45 Comments
  • Xavier Basora says:

    Fernis

    Thanks for an interesting post. I suspect that the inferiors were both repelled by the Appalachian/Mississipi Delta people while attracted to their music.So the inferiors coopted the music to serve the cause(tm)

    It would be equally interesting to research the subculture where Spanish and French folk music mixed with aboriginal music.

    I bet that thete are a ton of doctoral dissertations in the making recovering historical memory

  • You’re right. This has nothing to do with gaming or science fiction or anything remotely like it.

    Even though I happen to agree with you, I dislike that you have co-opted this blog purely for political purposes without even the veneer of relation to its purpose. You’ve hijacked it.

    Message fiction–or nonfiction–is still weak and lame when it’s a message we agree with, in an inappropriate place.

    How about no more posts like this.

    • Hooc Ott says:

      “This has nothing to do with gaming or science fiction or anything remotely like it.”

      Folk is fiction set to music.

      Castalia House publishes fiction.

      Also isn’t the founder and owner of it some sort of pop chart topping musician or something?

      “You’ve hijacked it.

      Message fiction–or nonfiction–is still weak and lame when it’s a message we agree with, in an inappropriate place.”

      Are you going to moan like this when Castalia starts publishes Alt-Hero comic books and writes up articles about it on its blog?

    • Blume says:

      Dude just skip it then. It’s not like you are forced to read every article. I skip all the wargame Wednesday stuff.

  • Fenris Wulf says:

    This came out of research for an alt-history novel. I thought the parallels between prewar folk and prewar SF were pretty interesting. I post on rare occasions and you may or may not find it relevant. Personally, I could do without the preponderance of gaming-related articles, but that’s none of my business.

  • Cassie says:

    Fascinating!

    I was especially amused by the comments on the first video repeating “Far Cry 5”. Maybe some video gamers will become interested in historical music thanks to YouTube.

  • Xavier Basora says:

    Fernis

    What explains this parallel? Marxism? Greed? Jealousy? Or something else?

    xavier

    • Fenris Wulf says:

      They want to associate themselves with Science and The Common Man by taking over SF and folk music respectively, and burying anything they can’t take credit for.

  • John Dougan says:

    You probably won’t like them either, but The Limelighters were also probably not leftists, having done the song “Harry Pollitt” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIaRyaQw4N0

  • JonM says:

    Hold on, here, Fenris. NPR has repeatedly informed me that Bill Monroe invented folk music in 1955!

  • Jill says:

    I always liked Melanie Safka’s pop folk style of the 60s and 70s, but otherwise, yeah, a lot of the folk music of that era was just pretending.

  • ” You’re right. This has nothing to do with gaming or science fiction or anything remotely like it.”

    It is customary and polite to read all the way to the end of a column before commenting on it.

    I, for one, thought this the best column here in weeks. I finally see exactly why the hipster sjws usurping sci fi both say they love the genre, and know nothing about it. The parallel shown here makes that clear.

  • castaliahouse says:

    It might be worth noting that in addition to being a Castalia House author, Fenris Wulf is an accomplished producer in the music industry. I didn’t read this so much as a post about politics per se, but more as a historical observation that the pattern laid out in Appendix N, which is quite often discussed here, is not a phenomenon unique to science fiction.

    I agree that this should not be a political blog. Jeffro has done a good job of keeping the politics to a minimum. But as we have a number of subject matter experts contributing to this blog, I do think it would be a loss if they did not occasionally share insights from their various worlds. And, in this case, the development of the folk music industry does appear to be analogous to what we’re seeing in the SF/F publishing industry.

    Which, of course, raises the larger question. What happened to folk, and will SF/F follow suit?

    • Fenris Wulf says:

      I wouldn’t call myself “accomplished”! I know something about recording rock music, but I drew on the experiences of more successful people for my writing.

  • Brian Renninger says:

    Whelp, I have mixed feelings about this one. The premise is true, “folk” musicians coopted the music of common people in the service of socialism. And, Woodie Guthrie never was an amazing musician. And yet still this is the same thing that has been done to science fiction and literature in general. But, Woodie did have a verve to him that was infectious and made simple presentation of songs enjoyable in a way few could/can do. If he produced nothing else he made the Workin Hard Blues which any man who’s ever tried to impress a woman can relate to.

    • Fenris Wulf says:

      That’s a darn good song! Overall, my impression of Guthrie’s recordings is that he’s a decent folk musician, but he’s kind of dull and bland. There were any number of folk musicians from the same era who would have made better ambassadors.

  • Salamandyr says:

    I would ask, what separates true folk music from country and bluegrass? Is there a difference?

    • Fenris Wulf says:

      According to more knowledgeable people than I, there was a time when the lines between country, blues, folk, gospel, and R&B were a lot less defined and there was considerable overlap between genres.

    • Blume says:

      From what I learned folk is traditional and generally the other genres grew out of the various races and ethnicities traditions. So folk is the mother of all genres except pop.

    • Terry Sanders says:

      Well, bluegrass was largely rhe application of modern music theory to back-country (especially Appalachian) music. The old songs were largely modal, with simple chording and simple instrumentation. Bill Monroe and his buddies added more complex harmonies and picking styles, while leaving the songs themselves largely alone.

      Country was largely the result of the radio. “Folk” slowly migrating toward blues and jazz and “big band” as it became more commercial.

  • kᴴᶻ says:

    The insight is fantastic. The parallel strongly supports the argument made repeatedly on this site.

    I appreciate the opportunity to read about it.

  • Gamera977 says:

    I’ve always thought of folk as bluegrass for hippies.

  • H.P. says:

    You can have crazy politics and still be a brilliant songwriter. See: James McMurtry. Or Billy Joe Shaver.

    I just saw Rhiannon Giddens labeled as folk, so there is at least one brilliant folk artist. Of course I would prefer we keep her labeled as Old Time.

    • Anthony says:

      Or creator generally. As resident Miyazaki buff my understanding is that the man was at least Marxist sympathizer all the way up to the 90’s, and is a notorious anti-capitalist.

  • VD says:

    “I could do without the preponderance of gaming-related articles.”

    I SMELL HERESY!

    Someone, burn him!

  • Alex says:

    European Martial Neo-Folk is best folk, followed by the odd eastern European folk albums that black metal bands put out in between black metal albums.

    BRB, think I’m gonna go listen to some Drudkh interspersed with some Rome and Death in June.

  • Xavier Basora says:

    This article also reminded me of other countries. How
    Eastern European countries are recuperating their historical memory from communism. Or Spain and other regions of the world

  • Morgan says:

    Robert E. Howard had a great interest in folk songs. He wrote a fantastic Civil War tale around the song “For the Love of Barbara Allen.”

  • Morgan says:

    Manly Wade Wellman was another with his John the Balladeer stories that intertwined fantasy and fold music.

    • Nathan says:

      Manly Wade Wellman wrote some of the music used in his stories. “Vandy, Vandy”, for instance, although some of the better known arrangements stray considerably from his original.

  • Blume says:

    Poul anderson also wrote folk music for his books. World with out Stars centers on the song maggie o’malley. He says one of the greatest achievements he had was finding the appellation traditional under song writer for maggie o’malley.

    • Fenris Wulf says:

      I hit upon the idea of portraying the dialect and values of an alt-history America through their folk songs. Good to know I’m not in entirely uncharted territory.

      I can’t write a lick of music, but I’m a decent lyricist. The trick is to focus on sound and rhythm. It’s not the same as poetry. English poetry is notoriously un-euphonic.

  • Fenris Wulf says:

    Gmail is telling me that Camestros Felapton’s post contains a suspicious link that was used to steal people’s personal information, so I spammed it.

    This creature of unknown gender and species points out that leftists were involved in folk music well before 1940. This is true. But even back then, most of their songs were uncredited rewrites of older and better songs.

  • Perhaps I should have expanded on my original concern with the post, and explained my reasoning, since I seem to have ruffled some feathers.

    In past conversations with Vox, he’s said the that the CH blog, as opposed to his personal one, should not be primarily political. Sure, Castalia is conservative, and that will color the subtext. That’s expected.

    But there are a lot of people who are less conservative who nevertheless follow this blog. In fact, my own fan base, my author newsletter list of over 10K subscribers, probably run the gamut from far right to center left, because my books, broadly speaking, are written from a center right perspective with a lot of anti-tyranny libertarianism thrown in.

    Because Vox and Castalia recently made a push to get authors with newsletters like mine to pitch the CH blog to their fans, by offering some free ebooks, I did it. Vox said there were more than 400 new subscriptions on the day of my newsletter pitch.

    I pitched the CH blog with confidence because of what I’d seen in the past from Jeffro and others. In essence, I vouched for it to my fan base. I’m therefore invested in it even more directly than simply being a Castalia author.

    Posts like this one are great in the right venue. I enjoyed the post. I disagreed with nothing except its placement here in the CH blog.

    But when posts like this end up in my fan base’s inboxes, and can be viewed as inappropriate to the expected topic matter–in essence, a bait and switch that may make me look like a dupe–I want to make sure to express my viewpoint early.

    Vox gives us a lot of leeway, and I appreciate that, but I’m first and foremost a businessman making a living. I’m associated with the Castalia name and so I have a stake in its brand. I’ve recommended and shared many of its posts, especially to some of my friends who are more left-leaning, specifically to try to introduce them to SFF viewpoints different from their own.

    They’ll happily read things that Venn across via the commonality of SFF and geek culture. There are geeks on the left and geeks on the right. It behooves us to educate them and woo them to our viewpoints, not drive them away.

    That means not having posts that are both off topic, and which appear to be directly attacking the very people we’d like to convince of our viewpoint. That double whammy is counterproductive, both to a reasonable discussion, and to maintaining good business relationships with people who put money in our pockets.

    The best way to destroy your opponents is to make them your friends–or at least your customers–and keep them that way. IMO posts like this which merely play to the base, especially if more of them keep coming, risk losing customers and/or those friends who have not yet been radicalized by the extreme left.

    • Fenris Wulf says:

      I’ve noted the non-political tone of the blog and I’m careful to respect it.

      In this case, the parallels were so striking and relevant that I had to share it. I could have done a better job with the writing. My point is that when artists are elevated for political loyalty rather than talent, once-popular genres become boring and irrelevant.

      One example of great folk music with a liberal bent is Springsteen’s “Nebraska” album. My objection to Guthrie and Seeger isn’t their politics, but the fact that Guthrie is mediocre and Seeger is flat-out horrible and pretentious to boot. The people who idolize them tend to be activists rather than music fans.

      I’m determined to keep politics out of my current alt-history project, so thanks for the feedback.

    • Lastredoubt says:

      David. Thanks for elaborating.

      I still disagree that this was, given the parallels of what happened to pulp, and with supposedly well read critics not understanding that the genre history they rail against and think is so just ain’t even as recently as this century, inappropriate

      That said, always glad to see a comment of yours. Loved Starship liberator, enjoying the hell out of the sequel, and ditto all the plague wars books I’ve read so far. You’ve given me more than fair entertainment for my dollar and stuff to think about besides.

  • Vlad James says:

    Fantastic article!

    Your passion for music as well as music history strongly came through in Loki’s Child and it does in this article as well.

    I had long harbored suspicions on why the hell the most famous folk singers then (Guthrie, Seeger, Joan Baez) were such extreme leftists/communists in an era when that was much, much rarer in the entertainment industries.

    Well now we have our answer. The leftists simply rewrote the history.

  • Sam says:

    I appreciated the article. I’m not a folk music person, but the soundtrack to Oh Brother Where Art Thou…. with ACTUAL folk music… I really love.

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