Wanted: American Folk Music

Warning: To all my friends outside the United States, this is a very U.S.-centric post. You know, just in case the title of this post didn’t spell it out enough for you.

How many of you Americans reading this know the words to the National Anthem? How about “America the Beautiful?” Easy, right? Now what about the words to “My Old Kentucky Home?” Do you even know the tune to that one?

My guesses: 99%, 75%, 10% (for both words and tune.) Bonus points if you know any of the other verses to the “Star-Spangled Banner” (I don’t. I’m a music snob for knowing that other verses exist, but not so much of a music snob that I actually know any of them.)

What I’m (very slowly) getting at is that we’re losing our folk songs. The one genre of music that is unequivocally American is being lost to the sands of time. Rock comes from Jazz, which came from Blues and Ragtime, which came from the mix of European and African cultures in New Orleans. So yes, Rock is American, and could only have come out of the United States, but at its very basic core, it has overseas influences.

Folk music, though? It’s all American only (it’s called “Americana” for a reason, after all,) and we aren’t teaching it to our children.

I think this may be because of a possible stigma against it. Let’s play in the rabbit hole known as CertButt’s Attempts At Logic(tm):

When I was younger, I Hated country music (notice the capital H.) It was all back-water, country bumpkin, cousin-dating hick crap. And, in a fit of “I’m better than you”-ness, I would automatically associate anything that had acoustic guitar with country music, and therefore back-water, countr- ah, you get the idea (nevermind that my parents, and by extension I, listened to Loggins and Messina and James Taylor. We also listened to Huey Lewis and the News, so CLEARLY those other guys didn’t play country music.)

Side note: I forgot how much angrier I was when I was in my “I Know Everything” phase. It was all so simple! Looking back, I’m kinda surprised my parents didn’t strangle me. Heck, I would have strangled me.

Anyway. Over time, my music education has thankfully progressed to the point where I don’t automatically hate country music, I don’t think country music is back-water, country bumpkin, cousin-dating crap, and I also know that not everything that has acoustic guitar is automatically country music. Yet I can understand how some people might not have progressed that far in their music appreciaion, and can still think that anything sung by Burl Ives (for example) is back-water hick crap. Of course, movies like O Brother, Where Art Thou can serve to bring Americana back to the masses, while simultaneously confirming its back-water status (“Wow, we’ve sure come a long way since we thought THIS music was good!”)

In reality, though, folk music is part of our American-ness of being (yes, I just said that. I stand by it.) When I hear music by Bill Monroe or David Bromberg, I certainly do think of cowboys around a campfire playing guitars, but I don’t think of it as back-water. I think of it as history. I think of it as MY history, a suburban wanna-be punk like me. And I’ve heard lots of people much smarter than me say that we should pay attention to history.

Needless to say (but I’m going to say it anyway,) I’m not suggesting that all other music isn’t American, or that we should only listen to folk music. I listen to all kinds of music, from all kinds of musicians, from all kinds of countries. What I am saying is that there is a rich tradition of music that has been passed down from generation to generation through oral and aural methods, and we owe it to generations past to keep the tradition going. Do we let the stigma of back-water hicks poison our history? Only if we let it.

What are your favorite folk songs?

(While I was assembling this post, I stumbled on an amazing collection of music in iTunes. It’s a collection of Bluegrass and Old-Time String Band Music from the Florida Folklife Collection. It appears to be published by the Florida Department of Education. I listened to a couple of songs, and they set me a-giggling. You can find the list of songs here. It’s a great way to cheer yourself up.)


About certbutt

Um, I do stuff.
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