Authenticity in Folk Music Critical discussion of commercial intentions within folk music and the ‘true’ folk ethos
It was a crucial day in rock music history on July 25 in 1965. The day that Dylan went electric, he took the stage at the Newport Music Festival, dressed up all in black holding a Fender Stratocaster instead of an acoustic guitar in his hands, and by having a five man rock band backup he was going to demonstrate what it means when the ‘times they are a-changing’. It must have been a brutal shock for many traditional Dylan fans, when the band started to play in a dirty boogie style; electric, thriving, loud and so far away from the dylanesk acoustic folk they were expecting to hear. After Dylan and the band finished this song, the reaction of the audience gave fascinating and conflicting impressions: a nervous restlessness was spreading in the audience, with some of the people cheering, many people booing, others crying and certainly some people being simply astonished by the happenings on stage. After only three songs Dylan left the stage due to the sizzling and negative atmosphere. Backstage he borrowed an acoustic guitar, to give a last farewell to the traditional folk fans. All in all, that gig at the Newport Music Festival made Dylan a ‘pioneering artist defying the rules and damn the consequences’ (Wald, 2015). Many traditional folkies turned away from him, condemning him as being a part of the establishment now, as being accepted. In other words, for them Dylan committed a mortal sin, he betrayed their ideals ("Bob Dylan - Live at the Newport Folk Festival", 2016).
For those fans, it was not possible to combine commercial intentions and folk ethos and still be a ‘true’ folk musician. Why? Were those people ‘stuck in the dying past’ (Wald, 2015) of traditional folk music, trapped in ideological obstinacy of being anti-establishment and not ready for something new to come? Can you say Dylan freed himself from the chains that the anti-establishment folk establishment was putting him in? Or was Dylan selling their ideals for commercial success, becoming just another product of the greedy music industry? There are many versions of that night, but what can be stated for sure, is that it marked a turning point in artist perception in pop and rock music history.
In the end, the all-embracing question must be the one of authenticity in music, a very complex issue in rock and pop music. To understand the reaction of the audience, it is crucial to examine the roots of folk music, to comprehend its relationship with social change during the 60’s and to point out where the glorified importance of ‘being authentic’ in folk music came from. Having collected such information, it shall be possible to have a balanced view on the statement in the headline.
But first of all, we need to define what is meant by folk music in this essay. Folk music, in a very historical sense, is ‘music, usually of simple character and anonymous authorship, handed down among the common people by oral tradition’ (“the definition of folk music”, 2016). Examples of ‘true’ folk songs would be sea shanties or camp-meeting songs (Barker & Taylor, 2007). These roots in traditional storytelling are of big importance, because, for unlike pop music, folk for the young adults in the 1950s-60s was held up as ‘the authentic voice of the people’ (Barker & Taylor, 2007). So what is it in particular that created the impression that folk music is so much more authentic than pop music?
Examining the roots of American folk music it can be stated that ‘as late as 1910, most Americans would have been surprised to hear that America had any folk music’ (Filene, 2000). For rural musicians, there was no need to think in categories like that. But with the upcoming of jazz and swing music, the hunger of early folklorists for a more authentic ‘old time’ music matched perfectly with the rawness and simplicity of songs like ‘Frankie’ of John Hurt. The folkies despised Jazz and Swing as commercial dance music, which, in their opinion, was played for the use of entertainment only. The notion of an ‘unself-conscious, unmediated, and wholly uncommercial mode of musical expression’ (Filene, 2000), forms the fertile soil for the strong ideal of authenticity in folk music. When it comes to the ethos of folk music, it is important to distinguish between the early folklorists who were on driven by the search for the ‘American soul’ in folk music and the folk revivalists in the 1950s-60s, who emphasized the lyrical integrity and the representation of social change in folk music – for reasons which shall be addressed later. But what the early folklorists and the revivalists had in common was the reluctance against commercial, popular music. Provocatively, one could argue that in the core of the folk ethos lies a big misunderstanding of the relationship between popular music and folk music.
This gets clearer when taking a look at legendary performers, such as John Hurt or Robert Johnson, both heroes for folk and blues friends, would have never thought of writing an authentic folk song. In fact, the whole idea of this was entirely foreign to them. Their songs were performed by entertainers at formal dances; they were performed by street singers in the hope for some pedestrian’s change. Thus, those songs were performed as ‘the Southern equivalent of pop songs’, but they were labeled folk songs later (Barker & Taylor, 2007). This is a very interesting pattern, revealing the big misunderstanding amongst folk fanatics, which was mentioned above: For instance, a very racist part of folk fans (e.g. people like John Powell, organizer of the White Top Folk Festival between 1928 and 1924) thought the ‘pure’ American sound can only be found in Anglo-Saxon folk songs. What they completely blocked out, was the fact that the songs that they were worshipping may have been hundreds of years old, but to say it in more casual terms, back then they were ‘the pop junk of urban Britain’ (Tosches, 1996). Therefore it can be stated that a ‘pop’ song has the potential to become a ‘folk’ song, which means in conclusion that folk songs basically are old pop songs (Barker & Taylor, 2007). This has interesting implications for the commerciality issues of the folklorists and revivalists: Going back as far as the middle ages, musicians (e.g. pipers or ballad vendors) who performed on street corners, market places or taverns, ‘were as ‘commercial’ as their societies would permit them to be’ (Malone, 1993). It is impossible and as well not important to state which musicians were more ‘folky’ than others. One can conclude that except the categories of playground songs or field hollers, folk music today cannot exist without pop music and in fact, most folk songs are either pop music, equivalent to it, or formerly were pop songs (Barker & Taylor, 2007).
Examples like this make clear that a rigid definition of folk music, which totally rejects commerciality and demands unrealistic purity is especially illusory, when we apply it to the 20th century, as in the times of mass media, all musicians are somehow influenced by others (Filene, 2000). Furthermore it must be said that the decision if something was ‘folk’ or not, rose mainly of cultural decisions (for some folkies folk could only be ‘white’, for others only ‘black’ music; and more importantly, the people who were deciding if something was folk or not were all male and white), had an arbitrary character and therefore entailed some strange consequences.
A good example of how the folk revivalists actually commercialized an artist can be found in the story of John Hurt. Rediscovering old blues players was quite en vogue in the 1960s. In Hurt’s special case, his discovery revived his completely dead career, as he had stopped playing live and doing records since more than 30 years. Nevertheless, as Hurt totally corresponded to the transfigured image of an old black isolated man sitting in his one room house and playing his guitar after a long day of hard work, he became hyped by the folkies. In consequence, Hurt played his first major gig at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival (Barker & Taylor, 2007). After his appearance, Time magazine called him ‘the most important rediscovered folk singer to come out if Mississippi’s Delta country’ (as cited in Barker & Taylor, 2007). In fact, Hurt lived in Carroll County, which was predominantly white. In the aftermath of the Newport Festival Hurt was playing in TV shows, further festivals, university campuses etc. His artist name was complemented by his record company through the telling word Mississippi, so the illusion of the ‘authentic’ black blues/folk singer Mississippi John Hurt was perfect. As Hurt was professionally marketed back then, and he definitely was commercially successful, a musician who failed in the 1920s, because his music was too traditional, who can tell the difference to the pop music business, were marketing functions the same way? As this example is in fact questioning the practicability of the folk ethos, there is a need to go further and even say that this ethos comes from dubious origin, with ignorance, hypocrisy and racism leading to the answer of the fundamental question, what ‘folk’ was and what not. In other words, what for them was ‘real’ music and what was ‘fake’ music.