Friday, May 8, 2009

Deer Tick and the Providence Folk-Rock Scene, or Whatever You'd Like to Call It

By the time Deer Tick took to the stage, the crowd had become restless. The room was filled nearly to capacity as people stood on amps and tables just to get a better view of the band. From the first song onward it was obvious that the band played much harder live than on their album, which is both quieter and folksier. The band, along with many males in the crowd, had ripped off their shirts by the time the second song began. Everyone was dancing—everyone—and most people were singing along to every word. If I could describe the whole event in one word it would be ‘passionate.’”

Can you imagine a mixture of Townes Van Zandt and Nirvana? Because that's who John McCauley, lead singer and founder of the band Deer Tick, cited as his two biggest influences in an interview in 2007. And, miraculously, that seems to be almost exactly what I heard each time I saw them play over the past few months.

Deer Tick at Brown University's Spring Weekend.
Note the flannel and the American flag.

Deer Tick are one of the few bands in Providence's rising folk scene to have gained national acclaim, having toured the country, played at SXSW, and received attention from The Rolling Stone and popular music blog the Brooklyn Vegan. Despite becoming somewhat of a national act, though, Deer Tick are still very much involved in what I will call the Providence folk scene, which is why I chose to focus on them in order to learn more about this particular scene. Though the music and style of different bands in this scene can be quite varied, most of it seems to retain some of the defining qualities of folk music: "homemade-type music played mainly by ear, arising out of older traditions but with a meaning for today" (Seeger 5) with simple and often subtle songs and lyrics (185). Deer Tick specifically seems to reflect Burns' description of folk-rock; he describes it as an "amalgamation of folk music and rock music [that] might be regarded as part of an evolutionary process in rock music that started in the late 1960s and early 1970s...this process is ongoing as folk-rock music continues to combine tradition and transformation" (197). For more comparisons between Deer Tick and Providence's folk scene and scholarly definitions of folk, read on here.

In order to learn more about this scene, I, along with Dani, interviewed and talked with participants, attended local shows, and researched what "folk" really was and what it might mean today. We wanted to learn what constituted this scene—who was a part of it, how people interacted, how did it begin, how has it/is it growing, changing, transforming... While some of our original thoughts and theories were supported by what we learned, others were proven wrong or, at the very least, somewhat ignorant. Not only did I somewhat-incorrectly perceive the artists and fans to be hipsters adopting an ironic hillbilly style, but I also underestimated the wide scope of musical genres and styles prevalent in the scene.

First, the aesthetic style—though the proliferation of flannel and mustaches may seem entirely ironic, there seems to be a genuine longing for something that these things represent. Dani interviewed Evan, an involved member of the scene, who commented, "There’s this like championing of like “white trash” or Italian stereotypes...driving pickup trucks, wearing like mustaches and facial hair which is kind of part of a larger thing...and like, specifically like bad tattoos, specifically like American flags and eagles, all these kind of stuff that like whatever is cool but it's not, it's ironic but it's not ironic. That’s not really the point, it’s a genuine yearning for these things, it’s a genuine yearning for this kind of a country boy experience, and I see that in myself and in lots of other people too but it manifests itself in a particular way here." While there may be exceptions, it is very possible that this yearning is tied to the middle class (and often lower-middle class) origins of many of the artists in the scene.

The music itself is much more broad and complicated than I originally anticipated. Whereas I associated the music with simple songs and heavy lyrics, there is more to it than just that. According to Sam, my interviewee, "[M]ost of the bands involved in [the scene] aren't strictly folk. They have rock influences, they have blues influences, they have country influences... there's even some metal influences in there sometimes." When asked to describe the music itself, he said, "It's kind of tricky... I would say that there is a sort of sound to it and it's kind of hard to describe a sound with words, but... for the most part it's definitely folk-inspired—a lot of focus on lyricism more than instrumentals... On the other hand, it's not traditional folk. It's mostly electric, mostly a full band with drums—although there are some performers who just have a guitar." Sam's comments seemed to prove that Providence's folk scene was comparable to other folk revivals that have occurred over the past few decades—folk that is evolving and changing along with other genres as they are mixed and matched, inspiring and inspired. In addition, most musical acts, including Deer Tick, do seem to focus on what I have always thought of as a principle quality of folk music—lyricism, which you can read about in my interview with Sam (check out the link above).

Disregarding the music, the scene was interesting in and of itself. It continues to grow almost entirely through word of mouth. Not only that, but its core members seem to be related not through their music (though I'm sure that does help), but through friendships. Though Evan described the scene musically as "country music played by people with tattoos," he also said that "this is more sort of a group of friends at this point," something I realized when, at a semi-secret Deer Tick show, friends were invited to stay afterwards and seemed to make up a large part of the crowd. The artists themselves are also fans and friends of each other. John McCauley, in several interviews, has mentioned his interest in Chris Paddock and Diego Perez, two other Providence musicians, as well as quite a few other artists and bands, but just going to a few shows, watching YouTube videos, and reading up the various MySpaces has shown me that their relationship goes much deeper than just similar music tastes--they are quite obviously good friends. Chris travelled with Deer Tick during their last tour, ostensibly as their manager, but more as a friend. Both he and Diego often play on stage with Deer Tick at their shows, especially when playing a show in Providence. Each time I see the band, Chris has made an appearance for the song "These Old Shoes," a song of his which Deer Tick covered that has since become one of their biggest hits.

While Deer Tick and the Providence folk-scene proved to be an interesting case study, I'm interested in learning more about similar folk scenes in other locales and how they are all related to each other, if they even are. Do they all share this same longing for "American" ideals? How does class play into the involvement of people in the scene? How do the musical styles compare? Are other scenes also based more on relationships than on musical similarities? I would also like to get in contact with John McCauley (something that I did once but was then unable to do again) and talk with him more about the origins of Deer Tick and his early involvement in the scene. How has it changed since he first became a part of it? Where does he see it going in the future? It seems like the possibilities for this scene are endless, and we can only wait, watch, and listen for what will emerge from it next.

Pictures from Deer Tick's recent show at Lupo's in Providence

Word Count: 1347


Alarik, Scott. Deep Community: Adventures in the Modern Folk Underground. Cambridge, MA: Black Wolf Press, 2003.

Burns, Robert G. H. "Continuity, Variation, and Authenticity in the English Folk-Rock Movement." Folk Music Journal. 2007.

Cohen, Ronald D. Folk Music: The Basics. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Lornell, Kip. Introducing American Folk Music. Madison, WI: Brown and Benchmark, 1993.

Seeger, Pete. The Incolpeat Folksinger. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Elijah Wald's "Polka Contrabandista"

In this article, Wald discusses corridos, ballads which seem to be a Latin waltz or polka (quite the interesting mix), and their social and political role in communities surrounding the Mexican-American border. I was especially surprised by their significance in the drug trade. Though the songs were ostensibly just about news stories, many of the songs not only mentioned drug trafficking and use but seemed to support it. Apparently some bands would even accept money or equipment from drug lords in exchange for writing a song about that person. This brings in some of the issues we've seen in such genres as rap and metal.

Discussion question: Do you think this type of music inspires violence or crime, like some have suggested rap and metal do? If so, what should be done? Should it be banned or censored, even though it is conveying the truth (more or less) of life for this particular culture?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Duany's "Popular Music in Puerto Rico: Toward an Anthropology of Salsa"

In his article, Duany traces not only the musical history of salsa music but also the anthropological one. He discusses that, due to the various interracial relationships in Puerto Rico that began centuries ago, Puerto Rico, like many other islands in that area, experienced a great amount of transculturation that brought about new features and traditions of the culture, including salsa. Though salsa may be a distinctly Puerto Rican form of song and dance, its roots are in such cultures as Spanish (the seis) and African (the bomba). From this reading, it seems that salsa especially thrived because Puerto Ricans living in New York used it as a form of identification with their heritage, even though it was not necessarily something their ancestors did--a phenomenon also witnessed in the study of bhangra and several other genres of music.

Discussion Question: Why do you think there seems to be a phenomenon in which people (especially those part of a diaspora) seem to relate a music to their heritage even when that music is relatively modern or not necessarily a product of their original culture (that of the "home country")?

Field Notes 4/13

After going over my interview with Sam and the excerpts from Dani’s interview with Evan, I noticed that something that stuck out in both of them was the issue of naming this particular scene we chose to study. While Dani and I felt comfortable defining it as folk, or folk-rock, or indie-folk, both of our interviewees seemed to feel that this may not be an entirely adequate description (you may read or listen to Dani’s interview with Evan here). I decided to do some academic research to learn about some of the definitions of “folk” and see how those related to my current understanding of this Providence scene.

First I looked at Introducing American Folk Music, which outlined six general characteristics of “folk” (p 11-12):
  1. It varies greatly over space but relatively little over time.
  2. It emanates from a specific, identifiable community.
  3. The authorship or origins of folk songs and tunes are generally unknown.
  4. It is usually disseminated by word of mouth, aurally, or through informal apprenticeships within a community.
  5. It is often performed by nonprofessionals. Only a few people make their living by playing folk music; in fact, the distinctions between listener and performer can be very indistinct.
  6. Short forms and predictable patterns are fundamental.

While the first and third did not seem to apply to the type of folk Dani and I are studying (referring to folk of cultural traditions rather than folk as a musical genre), the other characteristics seemed to be at least somewhat applicable. The community, in this case, is made up of the group of friends (including fans who have become friends) who compromise the core of this scene, most of them coming from Providence or the surrounding area, though there are connections to people and similar scenes in other cities. Also, through my own experience as well as what I gained through my interview with Sam, it seems that much of this scene, including music and information about bands and shows, is spread by word of mouth rather than by forms of mass media. Because of its small, rather tight-knit composition, made up mainly of performers who still work a “day job,” this scene lends itself well to a blurred line between listener and performer. Many of the bands are fans of and support each other. Some, such as Chris Paddock and Deer Tick, even cover each other’s material. Finally, the sixth characteristic may not be very applicable, but it might be related to the fact that oftentimes the music, while pretty and often melodic, is not necessarily groundbreaking. The focus is usually put on the lyrics. However, this analysis may be a bit of a stretch, so I would say that this scene that we have designated as “folk” meets half of the characteristics outlined in this book. This book also helped to explain why the “folk” scene can be hard to define. Because folk is part of the roots of many genres—including rhythm and blues, rockabilly, early rock ‘n’ roll, Motown and soul, and rap—it’s understandable that the music of this scene could evolve into a variety of different genres while still retaining some of the folk characteristics.

In Ronald D. Cohen’s Folk Music: The Basics, he discusses the history of folk music and its evolving definition. According to him, folk music took on much broader meaning during the twentieth century as it came to represent much more than traditional ballads and folklore. It became associated with popular songs, singer-songwriters, gospel songs, blues, and more. The instrumental accompaniment also became more varied, with instruments like electric guitars, brass, and drums joining the more traditional acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle, harmonica, etc (p 1-3). At the end of the twentieth century, he posits that folk music is associated mainly with singer-songwriters, including Bob Dylan, Donovan, and Jewel. Though the newer songs are not necessarily protest songs like the folk music that was dominant in the 1960’s, most still share the “subtlety and simplicity” used to discuss issues through the songs (p 185). This thought clearly resonates with what Sam said about politics and folk music in our interview (listen here). Cohen also acknowledged the fact that technology allowed for a much different dissemination of folk music. Instead of being passed down by word of mouth, it seems that knowledge of bands and songs is shared by word of mouth while the music itself (speaking here of songs or albums) can usually be heard online or shared through a CD. While it may seem that what I have called the Providence folk scene may not best be defined with folk, it seems to fit with the characteristics of this evolving definition of folk. This should not be too surprising—most genres feature some sort of evolution over the years (like the multiple waves of ska).

Finally I looked at Pete Seeger’s The Incompleat Folksinger [sic]. I figured that this would be a valuable source because I knew that he was prominent in the folk movement in the mid-twentieth century. In the book’s introduction, he discusses the use of the term “folk music”: “The term ‘folk-music’ was invented by nineteenth-century scholars to describe the music of the peasantry, age-old and anonymous. Nowadays it means homemade-type music played mainly by ear, arising out of older traditions but with a meaning for today” (p 5). I found this to be a great definition of folk music today because it was both broad and flexible enough to evolve alongside evolving folk music over time. He goes on later, “One of the best things about this kind of music is that there is no high priest who knows all the answers” (p 6). There is not necessarily a definite line between what is folk and what isn’t. It is a broad term, and I think, from the research I’ve done, one that may be applied to the Providence scene Dani and I have chosen to study, if only for the fact that it is the best description we currently have.

Works Cited:

Cohen, Ronald D. Folk Music: The Basics. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Lornell, Kip. Introducing American Folk Music. Madison, WI: Brown and Benchmark, 1993.

Seeger, Pete. The Incolpeat Folksinger. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Dudrah's "Drum'n'dhol"

In this article (featuring a quite fantastic title), Dudrah discusses how British bhangra music relates to Asian youth in Britain. Because it uses traditional instruments and, sometimes, even traditional songs combined with more modern Western styles, bhangra music seems to reflect the identities of these British Asian youth. It allows them to connect with their heritage in a way that is still true to the urban reality they know. I did find it interesting that bhangra music was somewhat similar to rap; it is clearly male-dominated, often with lyrics that are disparaging towards women, but listeners often overlook that because they enjoy the beat or are too busy dancing to notice.

Discussion question: It seems that a number of parallels can be drawn between bhangra and hip-hop, including the importance and prevalance of traditional songs and, at least for bhangra, instruments. Do you think these connections to each culture's heritage is related to their minority status, or is this something that is true for most genres?

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

First Interview

I interviewed Sam Eilertsen, a 19-year-old participator in the Providence folk-scene from North Kingstown, RI. Talking with him, I realized just how tight-knit this scene seems to be, not only among the audience but also among the audience and the bands. He also discussed how "folk" may not be the best word to describe the scene because many of the bands incorporate so many different genres into their musical style. However, the general quality all of the bands and performers seemed to possess was a focus on lyricism--the very quality that, according to Sam, seems to draw most of the members to this scene. Here is an excerpt from our interview, followed by a link to a sound recording of the interview in full.

[after Sam describes his music taste, which includes blues, jazz, folk, rock, rap, and classical]
Me: Do you think that that's typical of members of this scene or do you think that everyone else has differing music tastes from that of yourself?
Sam: ...A lot of my friends who are into that scene have similar music tastes to myself... You refer to it as a "folk" scene, but most of the bands involved in it aren't strictly folk. They have rock influences, they have blues influences, they have country influences... there's even some metal influences in there sometimes. So, I would say that it generally would attract a crowd with a wide range of music tastes.

Me: Going on with that--you were saying how it had lots of different influences--can you try to describe at all the music itself, like what that sounds like? [Considering that there] is such a broad [range] of genres included in this one scene, is there any one quality that you think a band has to have to be a part of it?
Sam: It's kind of tricky... I would say that there is a sort of sound to it and it's kind of hard to describe a sound with words, but... for the most part it's definitely folk-inspired--a lot of focus on lyricism more than instrumentals... On the other hand, it's not traditional folk. It's mostly electric, mostly a full band with drums--although there are some performers who just have a guitar.

Me: Going more back towards the scene then, do you think you could describe a typical member of the scene?
Sam: Well, I'd say it's mostly high school and college kids with some older people, but it's very rare to find someone over thirty at one of these shows... a lot of general music aficionados, but also a lot of the intellectual types. But there's also a certain element of a kind of social rebellion involved in the whole thing... There's certain ways people into this scene often dress, like you always see them wearing flannel shirts, often tighter jeans then you normally see on men... a lot of facial hair.

[Later in the interview]

Me: Why do you think that people are attracted to indie-folk and folk-rock?
Sam: For me, it's always been a focus on the lyricism. A lot of rock songs...the lyrics don't really mean that much... Folk songs often are very poetic, following [the old folk tradition] and also some of the newer stuff like Bob Dylan, who really brought it into the mainstream... So it has that element which I think attracts definitely a more intellectual crowd. It's also more critical of society in a more thoughtful way I think than a lot of modern, mainstream music--rap or rock or whatever. It's kind of all cliche what they have to say, for the most part, whereas I think folk still has originality to it. I think the scene in Providence--the way the artists have blended a lot of different genres and the songs they have written I think have kind of a new sound to them... it has kind of a freshness to it that accompanies the creation of a new musical genre or subgenre.

audio recording

Monday, March 30, 2009

Deena Weinstein's Digging the Music: Proud Pariahs

I thought Weinstein's chapter gave great and in depth insight into the culture not only of the metal fans but also of the music itself. What I found most interesting about her article was the relationship between females and the music and, for that matter, with other members of this musical youth culture. Women were either viewed as objects of males or as "just one of the guys," adapting many of the style choices and attitudes of male metal fans. This might not be surprising considering that metal seems to have become intrinsically tied to masculinity. There seem to be very few instances, at least at the time this was written, that women were able to have a creative role in this scene and actually be subjects.

Discussion question: Since a similar issue with females' participation in scenes has come up before (especially during our I <3 Hip-Hop in Morocco discussion), can anyone suggest what steps should be taken to change this social norm, if indeed it should be changed?