Worlds of Difference: the Folk Festival Scene in Perspective

Just what is folk music anyway these days? Who defines the term? Who decides what's fittin' for a "folk festival"? This summer's Old Songs and Falcon Ridge folk festivals got me thinking about what one might expect when one enters the sometimes unreal world of a folk festival.

There are all kinds of music festivals these days. Bluegrass, "Roots Music", and the ever-nebulous folk festival. Given the range of musical tastes, this is a very good thing. Whatever, and wherever the festival, you'll likely find music which is familiar (otherwise, why would you be there?) and something new. When you walk through the festival gates, you are entering someone's musical world.

A comparison of the Old Songs & Falcon Ridge festivals highlights two distinct kinds of "folk festivals". They present different music, attract different audiences, and one may leave with dramatically different experiences. Both have concerts, both have dancing, both have special performance & activity areas for kids. But the real difference is found in the performers which the festival organizers wish to recognize as "folk music." Old Songs presents a well rounded tour of music from a variety of traditions. Falcon Ridge offers up some of the hottest new singer songwriters. There's a place for, and value in both presentations. In my mind, the contrast between "traditional singers" and "folk singers" defines the difference in these "Folk Music" experiences.

So here's the rub - it seems to me that the new folk singer movement is in danger of taking the folk experience out of folk music. OK, I can hear you saying, "What about Dylan, what about Woody? They were singer songwriters? Wasn't that folk?" It's not the song writing that's doing it - it's the cult of the songwriter. The folks who come to the folk singer folk festival seem less likely to join in; they're there to be sung to. They want to hear the lyrics of Ani DeFranco the same way a different generation needed to hear the lyrics of John Lennon. They're not taking part, not learning songs for themselves, not singing as a group.

A Scottish tradition bearer, Norman Kennedy, once said that these folk singer songs won't last the test of time. He may be right. In a world of singer songwriters, each one is singing their own songs. In a world of traditional song, all of us might be singing each others songs. "Folk" can, perhaps should, be much more than modern music performed acoustically. "Folk" is the power of a tune, a lyric, a set of dance moves carried by hundreds of voices - maybe over hundreds of years. "Folk" is a process - music and dance which lasts because it's meaning carries on.

Your comments, or rebuttals, are welcome, for this or any other article.

(Pamela Goddard)

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