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Friday, July 27, 2018

July 27, 2018: Folk Music Studying: 21st Century Folk

[On July 25th, 1965 Bob Dylan famously—or infamously—plugged in an electric guitar on stage for the first time, as part of the Newport Folk Festival. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that moment and a few other American folk music topics!]
On three artists/groups who are extending the folk legacy into our own moment.
1)      Steve Earle: Earle could be described as part of many musical genres—country, rock, bluegrass, and more—but I’m aware that folk has not generally (or at least not frequently) been one of them. Yet there’s a reason I linked Earle to Woody Guthrie in this post, and it’s not just that specific song in the chorus of which Earle name-checks Woody. If, as this week’s posts have certainly demonstrated, a central component of American folk music is its willingness to ask big questions about and challenge dominant narratives of American culture and identity, then I don’t think any late 20th and early 21st century artist has assumed the mantle of Guthrie and Seeger and Baez and Dylan any more fully or meaningfully than Steve Earle. This isn’t the only thing American folk music can or should do, but it’s at least a clear and persistent thread, and for more than three decades now Steve Earle has been weaving his way into that pattern with humor, thoughtfulness, badass outlaw perspective, and some of our best political and protest music ever.
2)      Aoife O’Donovan: I’m admittedly biased here, as O’Donovan has for most of her career to date been a member of Crooked Still, a Boston-based bluegrass/folk group that also features my high school friend (and MIT grad, and Springsteen Seeger Sessions band member!) Greg Liszt on banjo. But in her own right, and especially as she has moved into her early and evolving career as a solo artist, O’Donovan has woven together a number of threads that comprise significant elements of 21st century American folk music: multi-ethnic influences and legacies (in O’Donovan’s case particularly Irish American ones); the intersections of bluegrass and traditional folk sounds and tropes with more modern singer-songwriter ones; and multi-media contexts such as Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion program (with which O’Donovan has played and toured, well before the #metoo scandals that have since enveloped Keillor). Like any genre or medium, folk music has to evolve in our own moment in order to stay relevant and interesting, and O’Donovan and her blossoming career reflect many of the most promising such evolutions.
3)      case/lang/veirs: Laura Veirs is the most overtly folk member of this new supergroup, which also features country star Neko Case and the utterly unique and genre-busting k.d. lang. As a result, I don’t know that I’d call case/lang/veirs’s overall sound particularly folk-inspired or –influenced, although that’s perhaps an undertone in there (among many others). Instead, I highlight this group (rather than just Veirs herself) to note the simple fact that 21st century American folk music, like most of our artistic genres and media, is likely to rely more and more on collaborations and cross-pollinations in order to survive and prosper. Of course individual artists can still carve a space for their voice and work, as Veirs has begun to do; but it seems clear to me that the more such individuals can also work with others, finding new and bigger venues and audiences and conversations, the more sustained their success can be. Since we need a vibrant American folk music scene now more than ever, I’m all for any and every strategy that can help our folk artists survive and prosper!
July Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Folk music moments or texts you’d highlight?

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