Folk music

“Folk music” is a dense, important, and contested concept. It doesn’t mean any one thing, so you may as well make it mean something that works for you and your songs.

The two best books I’ve read on the concept of folk music are The Old, Weird America by Greil Marcus and How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life by John Fahey. The Marcus book is pretty well known – it’s about Bob Dylan and the Band writing and recording the music that became the Basement Tapes, and tells a convincing story about exactly how certain themes and styles from obscure depression-era performers entered the pop music vernacular through Dylan and the Band.

The Fahey book is a collection of semi-autobiographical vignettes which, taken together, give a clear and complex picture of the guitarist’s relationship to folk music. Assembled from clues sprinkled throughout the book, Fahey’s history of folk music might start with the invention of folk music as an academic project of 19th century Germans and break apart with the ascendance of radio and television, which essentially dismantles the oral culture that the academic song collectors saw as the hallmark of the folk. By the time Fahey is working the folk festival circuit, very few of the performers can qualify as true members of the vaunted folk, attached to a pre-modern, oral culture.

Though Fahey is skeptical about the category of folk music, both as an abstraction borne out of academia and as a commodity marketed to a middle-class audience, he is clear that his own music is grounded in aesthetic concepts closely associated with folk music. One set of these concepts revolve around the guitar, around the importance of playing with a mix of open and fretted strings and, relatedly, the value of playing in a range of tunings to unlock the potential of the instrument. This approach to the guitar is not simply a matter of technique, a neutral way of achieving a pre-determined goal. Rather, it strongly favors certain approaches to harmony – choosing a tuning becomes the most critical step in composition or arrangement, and each tuning contains a certain unique set of possibilities and tendencies.

One implication of this approach is that guitar techniques, rather than being shared among all instrumentalists, are deeply personal – a player might guard his personal tunings and chord shapes jealously, or share them with a select few. For Fahey this secrecy introduces an enduring mystery around the music which shapes its aesthetic impact, and is only enhanced by other trappings of the genre, especially the improbable pseudonyms used to escape record contracts, or in Fahey’s case, to deliberately reproduce that mystery.

There are a lot of interesting things about John Fahey’s music, but to me one of the most interesting is this idiosyncratic relationship to folk music. Taking a step back and thinking about Fahey’s approach to genre in general, we see that this approach – at once self-aware and visceral – might be available in a wide variety of settings and genres. Moving past a superficial understanding of genre is like learning to play in a new tuning – it opens up a new world of creative possibilities.