First I looked at Introducing American Folk Music, which outlined six general characteristics of “folk” (p 11-12):
- It varies greatly over space but relatively little over time.
- It emanates from a specific, identifiable community.
- The authorship or origins of folk songs and tunes are generally unknown.
- It is usually disseminated by word of mouth, aurally, or through informal apprenticeships within a community.
- 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.
- 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.
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.