That’s All, Folk!

To be a lover of a genre feels easy, expansive. You can find more and more intricacies in music you’re familiar with, knowledgeable of who’s who and does what. Getting into a new one, though, can be daunting. It can feel like you’re drowning in possibilities, like each sub-genre could be your calling but there’s simply too much content to be able to focus on anything. Luckily, there are a multitude of strategies to swiftly dive into music you don’t know much about. The combination of local performance, curated playlists, and collaborative creation can speed up the process of feeling warm and cozy listening to a genre of music. 

Folk music is quite the gift to humanity. It is a genre of open arms, of leaning your head back to belt from the diaphragm: raspy, wailing, and crisp. For generations, folk music has brought communities together, celebrated culture, joy, and sadness, and brought out the greatest potential in classic country instruments. Folk has been interpreted and passed down in countless ways by countless cultures. The name literally comes from the German word ‘volk,’ which means people. The term originated in the 19th century, but folk music has been treasured between families long before then. Folk music has gone through multiple phases, bringing us the wide family tree of folk music styles and traditions. There were two American folk revivals in the thirties and the sixties, which has led into the contemporary folk we see today. 

There are multiple sub genres of folk music. They each blend into one another, at least somewhat, but there are steady icons for every pocket of folk. Classic folk names such as Woody Guthrie and Joni Mitchell characterized the movements of the twentieth century. They helped many people fall in love with the buoyant truth that is so well-caroled by folk artists. Nina Simone pioneered folk among r&b, blues, and jazz, proving that these genres and where they come from help to shape one another, and that blending the lines can bring out the best art. Folk rock blends intense instruments and screaming emotion with the classic sway of folk, mastered by Tracy Chapman and explored through the eras of the band Big Thief. Lead singer Adrienne Lenker lets wild words loose over a vast array of sound across their five studio albums. Bluegrass is a loving relative of folk, tending to bring heartache. Black fiddler and guitarist Arnold Schultz was fundamental in the formation of Bluegrass, inspiring names like Dolly Parton, a superstar of honest, soulful country. Country rock combines much of the above, with strong roots in folk. Willie Nelson is a classic name in the genre, and Lil Nas X represents the culmination of these sounds and his modern black queer experience. Known for their bold personal and political beliefs, these artists have a passion for authenticity that has shined through their records for decades.

Tracy Chapman by John Stoddart, 1989

In order to try out different artists in folk, all in one place, streaming services like Spotify curate genre-based playlists. Folk & Acoustic Mix on Spotify has a beautiful blend of known folk such as “Pageant Material” by Kacey Musgraves, but keeps it fresh with up and coming artists such as Kevin Morby, with “Piss River.” This playlist is always changing, so it can be consistently referenced for new music. Folk is all around our physical world, too. Soft superstar Sufjan Stevens’ popularity skyrocketed after his standout place on the Call Me By Your Name soundtrack with “Mystery of Love,” but his album Carrie & Lowell is a legendary example of heartfelt folk.

Different cultures have different takes on folk music, which is valuable to explore when getting into a new genre becuase the unique blends of instruments could pique different interests. Nepali folk legend Nanveet Aditya Waiba and her brother/manager Satya Aditya Waiba are the only Nepali folk artists who use traditional Nepali intruments and folk sounds. Their mother, Hira Devi Waiba, is hailed as the trailblazer of Nepali folk songs. With hits such as “Phariya Lyaaidiyechan,” her daughter Nanveet carries on her instrumental legacy with the melodic Tungna.

Nanveet Aditya Waiba via Twitter

As the people’s genre, the greatest way to connect with folk is locally. Whether it be a lone blues player in the park one afternoon or a folk festival in a city near you this summer, experiencing the music in person is worthwhile. Luckily, there is a fierce lineup of festivals and tours this upcoming season, happening all over the country. This month, Summer Camp is being held May 25-28th in Chillicothe, Illinois. The lineup is huge, including big names but more exclusively smaller artists on the up and up, including Formerly the Fox, Moontricks, Dirtwire and Armchair Boogie. Over in California at the same time, the Strawberry Music Festival will be from May 25-29th, featuring a more curated lineup with names like Mr. Sun and Broken Compass Bluegrass. In June, from the 14-18th, the Bonnaroo festival will be in Manchester, Tennessee, featuring a range of genres but spotlighting on wonderful folk artists such as Rainbow Kitten Surprise and Sheryl Crow, as well as Tyler Childers. Beach Road Weekend, presented by The Black Dog, will be in August, in Tisbury, Massachusetts, from the 25-27th. This festival has a wild lineup of superstars, including Patti Smith, Bon Iver, and Japanese Breakfast. Visit Jambase to explore more festivals near you. Make sure to support your local musicians, especially your neighbors doing the work to keep familial folk alive.

Kacey Musgraves and Willie Nelson performing “Rainbow Connection” at the Country Music Awards, 2019. Photo byTerry Wyatt, via Getty Images.

Arguably, the best way to find new music is via duets and collaborations between artists. It demonstrates common sounds and creates a validating relationship between the artists, where loving one of them introduces someone to the other. This happens often with singles, such as “Here We Go Again,” by Ray Charles and Norah Jones, where the two pros serenade at once. The “Other Side” by modern icon Waxahatchee and 80s icon Wynonna Judd is another example. The duo brings a sturdy culmination of the old and the new in folk. These songs serve as bridges between the musician’s individual styles and a concoction of entirely new things, born from great minds at work on something collective. Sometimes, even, one song is just not enough. Artists also collaborate to make full records and bands as well, like Waxahatchee and Jess Williamson’s rocking duo ,Plains, who put out I Walked With You A Ways last fall. Both songwriters have a distinct, metaphoric wit. Instead of clashing, this led to a spark between the women, producing divine music. 

Further, many artists ask upon other respected musicians to team up and rework their own music. “Ever New,” by Beverly Glen-Copeland, was reworked by folk masters Bon Iver and Flock of Dimes to create a shimmering track full of realization and release. “Girl from the North Country,” by Bob Dylan, was later joined by Johnny Cash, bringing the song to its fuller, richer potential. Collaborations can also be great introductions into independent artists whose talents were recognized by someone big. Uwade vocalized on “Wading in Waist-High Water,” the Fleet Foxes’ most popular track, and ended up touring with the band as their opener last summer, which largely expanded her fanbase. At their Detroit concert last June, Uwade recognized being an unfamiliar face or seeming like a small act next to such a well known group. Once she began to sing, however, the entire crowd seemed to feel like they knew her all along. Instantly, she created a sense of intimacy, opening up through her songs and letting listeners in on the truly personal. In combination with the astounding force and flow of her voice, the entire room was silent, just so they didn’t miss one single thing. 

Uwade covering Fleet Foxes’ “Featherweight”

Folk and independent artists go hand in hand. As an open-armed genre, people feel they are able to tell their stories through their music and are inspired by the rest of the folk community to do so. By listening to folk, you not only tap into a sea of talent, but you also access the reciprocity of music. Curated playlists, community shows, and collaborating artists are three easy ways to up your folk intake and revel in it. Its magic, its humanness, and how those become one.

Learn more about the origins of certain genres in order to get more comfortable branching out here. To get inspired, check out the radio stations below for some of the artists covered above!

Haven Capone Author
I love listening to folk and laughing until I cry.
Haven Capone Author
I love listening to folk and laughing until I cry.

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