Folk Music the Evolution of Folk Music Essay

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Folk Music

The Evolution of Folk Music Vocals

By its definition, folk music technically refers to indigenous forms of music created by local, regional or native populations as a way of engaging in cultural expression. This means that at its core, folk music is not intended to command a commercial value nor is it necessarily folk music by definition once a form has been co-opted by an outside culture. However, this is also a definition for folk which has long been rendered obsolete by the aesthetic and vocal qualities that listeners tend to associate with the genre today. This is because the most historically significant instances in which folk music converged with the commercial zeitgeist would come to produce a highly distinctive set of sounds.

Indeed, when we think of folk music, one tends instantly to conjure image of a young Bob Dylan with harmonica rack and guitar, wheezing his half-singing, half-speaking vocal style in Greenwich Village. This iconic vision from the Folk Revival of the 1960s is probably the best bridge that we have to folk influences like the socialist activists of the Almanac Singers and the Weavers, like Delta country folk singers like Mississippi John Hurt or Josh White, or like bluegrass innovators such as the Carter Family. Indeed, Nelson (2010) tells that figures such as "Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and John and Alan Lomax, made a huge impact on folk music in America, one which is still felt today. It is likely that their joint efforts with each other and many others fostered that sense of community which is still present in modern folk music circles." (Nelson, 1)

Together, these figures conveyed a style of folk music that was inherently rustic, accompanied by acoustic guitar and self-consciously unadorned. Vocals were plainspoken, clearly pronounced and rarely reflective of professional polish. These were the voices aimed at representing the proletariat. So as the Cold War veered into the Vietnam War, the swelling protest movement found this clear and lyrically driven style the proper outlet for its anti-war message. Two core archetypes developed in the Folk Revival that continue to define the form's core sound today. One archetype was the simple vocal harmonizing spearheaded by the Kinston Trio. As Jacobs (2006) tells, the Trio kicked off the revival by dusting off old American and Irish traditionals and, "by 1962, The Trio had grossed $1.7 million in total earnings." (Jacobs, p. 1)

As to the second archetype, which drew its inspiration from the Guthrie model, figures such as Ramblin' Jack Elliot and Dave Van Ronk took on the mantle of the lone folk warrior. With guitar, vocals and perhaps a harmonica, these figures broke ground for the next generation of protest leaders. Specifically, Bob Dylan became the most visible representative of this approach, using old forms to mold new messages such as those heard in "Blowin' in the Wind" and "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall." As with the Kingston Trio, Dylan also showed that unpolished vocals could be seen as a serious commercial counterpoint to the teen dance music coming out of Phil Spector's Brill Building. (Jacobs, p. 1)

In spite of their commercial success, the commitment of 60s musicians to certain ideals was a critical part of their musical approach. According to Holden, "because they shared a sense of mission that transcended personal celebrity, the ties bonding the early '60s folkies were unusually strong. There was intense competition, to be sure, but it was offset by a sense of solidarity and purpose, along with a determination not to 'sell out' to the pop mainstream." (Holden, p. 1)

This determination was lived out in the commitment that many of the leading folk purveyors made to their vocal approach, if not their resistance to commercial attainment. The three-part vocal harmonies of the Kingston Trio proved especially important to the works thereafter by Peter Paul and Mary, the Turtles and the Byrds. This influence…

Sources Used in Documents:

Works Cited:

EW. (2013). The Great Folk Rock Revival: how bands like Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers are leading a global phenomenon. Entertainment Weekly.

Holden, S. (2013). When They Hammered Out Justice in the '60s. The New York Times.

Jacobs, P. (2006). Bringing It All Back Home -- The Folk Music Revival. Rewind the Fifties.

McCormick, N. (2011). Folk Music: A Quiet Revolution. The Telegraph.

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