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Music Review: Four Decades of Folk Rock

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Four Decades of Folk Rock makes a social/musical statement by kicking things off with Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone". While I don't necessarily think of that song as belonging to the folk rock genre, I can see why it was chosen. Dylan was the touchstone figure in the 1960s insofar as he was the rock star whose roots came from the folk world. For all of the stories about that fateful concert event at Newport, it's the music that remains and that still exerts influence.

So what exactly is folk rock? It's sort of a tricky question. If you look at the early music, it includes rock artists and bands that came out of the folk scene: Dylan, The Byrds, Donovan, The Mamas & The Papas, and others. Combine this with social conscience/statement raising and a dash of singer/songwriter introspection, and you've got decent coverage for most of the 1960's major players. This includes tunes like Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," Barry McGuire's "Eve Of Destruction," and The Stone Ponys' "Different Drum". Disc 1 here tosses in some extra gems like "Season Of The Witch" (Donovan), "Today" (Jefferson Airplane), and The Band's "I Shall Be Released".

Of course, folk rock continued into the 70's. Primary artists in the United States (and on my turntable) included Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Crosby,Stills & Nash, Joan Baez, and the Grateful Dead. Ah, but what about outside of the States? This is where this collection begins to really distinguish itself. Included here are songs by relatively lesser known (but still great) artists: Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Pentangle, and Thin Lizzy. Yes, that Thin Lizzy, who recorded the traditional Iris folk song "Whiskey In A Jar".

Disc three is where things get really interesting. It was the 80s, and the 70s were over. True enough, I was there! Continuing on in the the folk rock tradition, but by no means playing it safe, we get choices such as the great Richard & Linda Thompson ("Wall Of Death"), Dave Alvin ("Fourth of July"), The Jayhawks ("Five Cups of Coffee"), Peter Case ("Put Down The Gun"), and even some R.E.M ("Talk About The Passion"). There are some funny selections as well — contrast the Waterboys' "Fisherman's Blues" and the Pogues' "A Pair Of Brown Eyes" with Dexy's Midnight Runners' "Come On Eileen". I can just about hear the scowls now (p.s. psst… I kind of like that song).

But wait… there's more!

Yes, folk rock was alive and well in the 90s. By that time, nobody was actually thinking of it as folk rock, but the line of influence can easily be drawn back through the decades all the way to Dylan and his precursors: Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin, Billy Bragg, Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, Sarah McLachlan, Son Volt, David Gray, Natalie Merchant, and even Mazzy Star (with, of course, "Fade Into You"). Sure, that's a roster right out of No Depression, but it's still a great one.

All things considered, this is quite a fun and thought provoking collection. While I don't consider much of what's presented beyond the 70s as folk rock, the relationship is easy to see. It's even easier to just enjoy the music.

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About Mark Saleski

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I would definitely call the Jayhawks folk rock, and damn great folk rock at that!

    -Glen

  • http://www.folkcast.co.uk Phil Widdows

    Some interesting comments here on the nature of folk-rock. I find the definition changes between the US and the UK. In the UK, it’s usually either a traditional folk song performed by an electric band (drums, bass and guitars) augmented by more traditional instruments (fiddles, squeezy things, whistles etc), or be a new song that is strongly influenced by traditional music.

    In the USA, folk-rock is often – not always, but often – simply a pop song performed with an acoustic guitar. Are The Jayhawks folk-rock? Only by the US definition. They are a good rock band, who use some acoustic instruments.

    But the whole game of defining music genres is fraught with conflicts. There will always be exceptions to every rule. The best thing is to stop worrying about definitions and just enjoy the music. :-)

    The good news is that folk-rock lives on. Want to hear more? Check out FolkCast – http://www.folkcast.co.uk

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    But the whole game of defining music genres is fraught with conflicts.

    no kidding phil! just come around here and use an inaccurate name for a sub-genre of metal. hooboy!

    Jayhawks: there are a whole bunch of bands that are associated with the “alt.country” thing that seem to fit into the progression of folk rock