The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #2224   Message #2263258
Posted By: Brian Peters
15-Feb-08 - 01:04 PM
Thread Name: What is a Folk Song?
Subject: RE: What is a Folk Song?
>> If the distinctive characteristics of a folk song are a beautiful melody, poetic lyrics, realism and emotional resonance, it follows that all songs displaying these characteristics are folk songs. It really is that simple.... it's called logic! <<

There is a basic logical flaw in the above. It's like saying that, because a cat has four legs and a tail, it follows that all creatures with four legs and a tail are cats. My neighbour's dog, however, still goes bow-wow and prefers bones to fish. Those characteristics are not the whole story.

At the risk of repeating what others have pointed out on various previous Mudcat threads, the word 'folksong' has changed its meaning substantially since 1954. It *used to* describe the 'songs of the folk', which were the result of certain definable processes of transmission and evolution. From the 1960s onwards, it became used commonly to describe the compositions of songwriters (Dylan, Seeger, Paxton, insert your choice of name here) writing in a genre approximating to a particular kind of North American tradition-based style. Through common usage, the term 'folksong' and 'folksinger' became so associated with what we now call 'singer-songwriters' that its definition became forever blurred, if not changed out of all recognition. Nothing intrinsically wrong about that - popular usage the way language evolves. But it did make it more difficult to talk about the thing which had previously owned exclusive rights to the term 'folksong' - which is why people started calling *that* kind of song 'traditional' instead. Just so other people would know what they were talking about.

>> We define all other musical genres primarily by what they sound like <<

Even if we are to ignore the importance of 'folk process', the songs of Dylan, of Ewan MacColl, of Jez Lowe, of George Papavgeris and all the other talented writers out there, don't actually sound very much like the songs that (for example) Cecil Sharp collected in either Somerset or the Appalachian Mountains, if you listen to them at all carefully. New and old songs can both have beautiful melodies or engaging lyrics, but they're different kinds of melodies and lyrics. Two different things, that by historical accident have co-existed (often quite happily) on the stages of folk clubs for fifty years. And to differentiate between them is not to pronounce a value judgement.