There’s a school of art that’s known as “Primitive Art,” “Naïve Art,” or “Outsider Art.” Actually these are all slightly different subsets of the same genre, which, in a nutshell, includes only those artists without any formal training or what we generally recognize as conventional, serious talent. It’s art that arises out of nothing but the artist’s Elvis-given need to express him/herself. Grandma Moses is the usual example, but in truth I think she’s got far too much of an artist’s eye for light and color to really be considered naïve. Maud Lewis, I think, is a better example of the kind of art I’m talking about.
Actually, both of these women say a lot in their work about the culture and traditions in which they live, which makes them overlap into another subset, “Folk Art.” Folk Art is what I want to talk about today, because what we usually think of as “folk music” is not folk art. Not anymore. And for that reason, I think it’s time for it to lose that banner.
You know, when it comes down to it I don’t even know if America ever had folk music. Are we old enough? Were there any songs or other pieces of music that were indigenous to American culture and society? Well, yes, actually, but all of it is Native American—chants and dance songs and such. And it’s hard to be sure that the people who concocted that music wouldn’t be recognized as having serious, professional-caliber talent today. We certainly know that the American Indian musicians who played it were carefully trained.
But the stuff we generally think of as our folk music (those of us who descend from immigrants, slaves, pilgrims, what-have-you) mostly dates back to the Minstrel shows that started in the 1830s. The funny thing about the Minstrel Shows is that their conceit was that it was music of the folks, of the common man: that’s why they had black performers and whites dressed as blacks. Blacks in America were considered the epitome of the primitive, ignorant class who were incapable of having talent or any craft that required more nuance than stacking bricks or hammering horseshoes.
What’s funny about it is that, although we know much better today, we still buy into that conceit so much that we consider the professionally created material they performed back then to be folk forms today! The music of Stephen Foster, for example: “Oh Susannah,” “Camptown Ladies,” “My Old Kentucky Home.” Or the tall tales, Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed. Or jokes like “Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?” and “Why do firemen wear red suspenders?” They’re so engrained in America that you usually see them notated as “Traditional” anymore, which is a euphemism for “folk.” But what we’re talking about here is actually the beginning of pop culture.
See, the minstrel shows were the first form of traveling entertainment in America. It had a toe in the waters of real folk music, in that white songwriters would hear slave songs, then take a basic idea and sculpt and polish it into serious craft. But the composers and performers would pass it off as crude “Negro music” by arranging and playing it on instruments that were stereotyped as Negro instruments—like the banjo. (Meantime black performers were setting up Shakespearean acting troupes, but that’s beside the point.) And because the minstrel shows traveled on a circuit that encompassed the entire country—such as it was in the mid-nineteenth century—it did what the phonograph and the radio would later do: teach the same jokes and stories and songs to audiences from everywhere in America. Mass communication in its infancy!
On the other hand…well, I think maybe I spoke too soon when I earlier said that all folk music was Native American. There were forms that may very well have been American folk music coming out of the plantations: the slaves. Work songs, call-and-response chants, field hollers. All of them with deep roots in Africa, but also uniquely American.
This kind of crossbreeding is what makes it hard to call any American music “folk music.” You know, European and Asian and African folk musics are those that stretch so far back in the past that there’s no way to find the origins. They may very well have been composed by genius musical craftsmen, but they’ve been handed down and mutated and exaggerated for so many centuries that they also may not bear much resemblance to the original compositions: they now belong to the people. That’s what folk music is.
But American music came around at a time when records could, and were, taken scrupulously. Not always intentionally, but the records are there: if some wealthy white man scribbled down in his diary that he heard a slave singing this song or that, well, we have a record. And we have a printing press that can maintain that record in perpetuity, not to mention telegraphs and recorded sound, broadcasting and journalism and the Internet, to make sure that that information now travels across the world in a millisecond.
After the phonograph and radio came the blues (slave songs and African folk music developed in America and wrought into high-quality professional music) and country (poor white work songs and British and European folk musics developed in America and wrought into high-quality professional music), which, because they came from poor and marginalized classes, also came to be thought of as “folk music.” (The rosetta stone of American folk, Harry Smith and the Smithsonian Institution’s six-record Anthology of American Folk Music, is almost exclusively blues and country music.)
Then came Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan: a new tradition of wandering musical poets—yes, I believe you could call them “minstrels“— who sang songs of modern-day folk heroes like Tom Dooley and Jesse James and Joe Hill, Tom Joad and Eugene Debs and Medgar Evers. Folk heroes, yes, but with very complex wordplay and melodies (even if the musical accompaniment was self-consciously simple chords). Is anyone going to argue that Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan were just regular people playing music for the simple joy of self-expression? Or were they extremely talented musicians, perhaps?
That’s the lineage that all modern “folk music” is based on. Almost none of the modern-day folkies actually bother to play traditional music—even the high-gloss tunes that managed to get passed off as traditional music over the years—throwing all their efforts into writing their own songs, and losing the last possible vestige of genuine “folk” claims. Nobody even makes the explorations into the bizarre realms of the faux-folk past that, say, Dylan did with The Basement Tapes. And could your average blue-collar worker sit down in an afternoon with a guitar and write the same song that Tracy Chapman does? Folk music isn’t music about the folks. It’s music by the folks, of the folks, for the folks. The truest form of musical democracy. But now we defer it to those who have musical talent.
There’s nothing wrong with that. And there may be real folk music out there, performed by people who really haven’t a clue what they’re doing but just want to make music. You probably won’t hear much of it, though, unless it’s in the form of weirdo novelty albums like The Shaggs, or Wild Man Fischer…people who are completely incompetent, make music anyway, and are objects of fun for it.
So maybe we can stop this silly pretense that “folk music” is the same thing as folk music? It’s not primitive, it’s not outsider, and it’s certainly not naïve.