Folk music used to be something formidable. A protean power in American culture for decades, folk music not only defined a scene, but an attitude. There was a time when the forces empowering those sounds resonated for millions, often those who didn’t have a seat at the table or a stake in the company. Folk music demanded participation, even from the musically illiterate. It was a sound filled with political power, with moral fortitude, with the heartfelt hope and belief that through the seemingly ordinary experience of standing with others and singing, people could actually transform the world into a better place. Much like a concert experience that plays forward in memory, you had to be there in person for it to matter.
I was there. On April 15 at a gathering of legendary folk music lions at the Kennedy Center to celebrate the life and work of the recently deceased Pete Seeger, 2400 people packed the Concert Hall and lifted their voices. It should be said that Washington DC is a strange city, so there’s probably no other place in the galaxy where a so many Seeger supporters might show up wearing blue blazers, dress slacks, and loafers. But that’s the thing: the folk scene welcomes everyone, and in the thrall of values bigger than recorded hits, songs bigger than pop trends, and the apparently eternal struggle for people to live in harmony, spirits soared.
I was there long ago, too. It’s rare that someone today would come to traditional American folk music without a family guide providing introduction, and I was no exception. It’s largely an art form passed on in person, experienced in real time. From a family deeply involved in civil rights and social action through the 60’s and 70’s (and all the way to the present) one couldn’t help but know the sounds, the sights, and the significance of folk music. I was there since I was young, and the somewhat out-of-place concert at Kennedy Center nonetheless felt like a familiar old flannel shirt, comfy, warm, and easy to wear.
Maybe the folk tradition isn’t your style. Truth be told, it’s doesn’t describe the bulk of my personal playlists either, despite years of occasional, often politically infused exposure. (Folk music is almost always political, and, more immediately, I have a terrible singing voice!) There are plenty of aesthetic aspects that many not sustain, and plenty of social declarations that ultimately fail to tackle some of the practical realities of a complex world. But that analysis would entirely miss the point. Folk music espouses a world that fundamental believes in peaceful coexistence. It regards an innate nobility and value in people—all people. It sings that people without food will be hungry, so, therefore, others ought to feed them no matter how many vowels appear in their family names. It sings that people without educations need a chance to learn and show their mettle no matter where they were born. It sings that war is fundamentally, vitally, critically malignant. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, it’s hard to refute the basic values of the scene.
When the two remaining members of Peter, Paul, and Mary, Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey, led a final singalong in both “If I Had a Hammer” and the magisterial “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land”, time slowed in the room. (If I could, I’d vote for “This Land…” to be the national anthem.) Here was a huge hall of mostly aging idealists, wanting to believe. There on stage were mostly grey haired troubadours, still leaning into the microphones, feeding lines to the crowd a moment before they appeared in the next verse, determined to influence the world by getting people to sing together. It would be hard to believe that anyone would come to such a performance unless already committed to an idealism that, these days, is sadly hard to find.
There is a strange kind of virtuosity that appears in the best folk singers, a kind of transcendent connection they can make with an audience, either by sparkling, emotive notes on a stringed instrument, a deeply felt sincerity in clever, clear lyrical lines, or a few lines of potent conversation between numbers that offer a sense of shared human experience. What’s fascinating is that it works even in a less virtuosic mode, too. Clarity counts. Feeling counts. Honesty counts.
Here’s what doesn’t count: folk music does not translate into modern social media very well. While it IS a profoundly social form of music and storytelling, with networks of musicians and fans deeply intertwined, it requires basic humanity to function. It requires people spending time with people, doing things with people in the real world. Social networking? Screens? Not so much. This is typically not the kind of music that people listen to through headphones. This is the kind of music that people listen to when their own voices mix with the voices of the people next to them.
For many people of disadvantaged socio-economic status, folk music offers opportunity for inclusion and moving experience without pretense or, more practically, resources. You simply sing, and talk, and sing some more. The further up the economic ladder people climb, the more these basic values and accessible pleasures seem to get overwhelmed with other shiny objects: amplification, electronics, computation, markets and strategies, puts and calls, shorts and leverage.
The sometimes goofy earnestness that attends folkies may not feel like something that makes sense in today’s zippy, hyperlinked culture promoting edgy individuals trading tribal identities like gimme caps. And why would a guy who makes high tech media products in the modern, contemporary world care to hang out with singers wearing natural fibers, warbling about flowers and coal miners? I’ll tell you. Even thought shiny objects aplenty fill my days, drive my projects, even pull my attention, they’re not the things that ultimately help people sleep soundly. I care if the environment can be sustained, and I care that refugees are treated with respect. When my neighbors and I have a disagreement, I’d like to think we could meet and talk and figure out a solution rather than revert to lawyers, castles, or worse. I’d like to think that we might find a way to live in harmony, both across the fence, across state lines, and across the globe.
Cue the music. Sing loudly.