Monday, August 15, 2011

Process of Writing 19: Folk Music

I own at present one Bruce Springsteen album: We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, a CD of old, old folk songs recorded in honor of the great Pete Seeger. This is a great, great album, which I highly recommend. If you're a rocker or a pop music junkie who knows nothing about folk and its rich traditions, this is a good introduction.

I make no bones about it: I think Bruce has written some immortal songs, and I'm not among the ranks of slavish fans. Honestly, that's because I tend to not be among the ranks of slavish fans, period, for any artist. It is a general condition. I find myself relating to Bruce, with this album, as with others of his I've encountered, more as a fellow musician, more than as a fan. He interests me because he's a songwriter, his music interests me because it contains qualities of roots music that a lot of rock 'n roll does not. But I feel more like a fellow singer, with writers like Bruce, than I do a fan. Bruce himself is a lot more down-to-earth than many in the music business; and those are the types of rockers I relate to. more often than not.

When I approach a songwriter like Bruce Springsteen, I do sing along, but singing along is, like with folk music, how you learn the songs. There's no better way to learn a song than by getting inside it, and sing it from the inside. you sing along, you eventually memorize the song, then you make it your own, sing it your own way, in your own voice, in your own arrangement.

There are more great singers who sing from inside the song in folk music than there are in pop music, or even in rock music. Jazz singers tend to be coolly sophisticated; as much as I respect that, it can also be cerebral rather than gutsy. Although of course that can depend on the moment. Pop music is very polished, and these day it's pretty much over-polished and over-produced to death. Folk music, by contrast, is still music made casually by folks in the kitchen, the living room, the pub, the union hall, the church steps. It tends to be rough-edged. Bruce says it himself, in his commentary for The Seeger Sessions: "This isn't music being played, this is music being made." And he points out the rough edges that make making music a live thing, not a pre-digested and over-produced thing. There are occasional moments when you hear someone counting out the changes, or flubbing a riff.

We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions keeps all those rough live edges. Most of the musicians were standing in a circle in the same living room when they played, a living room in a farm-house. (The horns were in the hall, for a little bit of mix separation. The mixing board was on the kitchen table.) There wasn't a lot of rehearsal. What happened, happened live, for real. Spontaneous arrangements. In improvised music, whether we're playing jazz or folk or whatever, we call that making it up as you go along.

Of course, in folk music, you hang your improvisations on the skeleton of the well-known tune with its well-known chords. It's a way of rediscovering the music each time, of bringing it to life, rough edges and all. You hear a song like "The Water Is Wide" or "Shenandoah" and it comes alive for you all over again in the singing. Music to be made, not merely played. I know some high-power studio session musicians on both coasts; many of these have told me that it doesn't get much better than this sort of living-room session, when the perfectionistic rules of most studio recording sessions are suspended, and you're making music, not playing music for your rent. It can be a special thing.

I unabashedly admit that The Seeger Sessions, just found and purchased, though I'd been looking to buy it for at least a year, since I first heard about it, unblocked some very old musical channel in me, and gave me the ending to the song that I've been working on all week. Pete Seeger is once again to thank, along with Bruce. I was a heavy-duty folkie when I lived back in Ann Arbor, playing and going to concerts on the folk music scene for years and years. This music is deep inside my heart, somewhere. It's in the blood. Whenever I come back to folk music, to roots music, which I do periodically, I am refreshed and recharged. Some part of me which loves the sophisticated avant-garde music that I also grew up listening to, and that I also compose, loves to set aside the sophistication and just play.

I remember interviewing a musician involved in the Midwestern Industrial Music scene once saying to me in an interview: "Industrial is the urban-based banjo-and-fiddle music of the future." She was right, because Industrial in places like dirty downtown Chicago or rusting riverside Detroit (my birthplace) is the folk music of the post-industrial urban dweller, the music made by the folk who live in those environs. It's still folk music, even though its sounds and methods and means are all post-apocalyptic, inspired by the failure and disintegration of the post-industrial rust belt. Folk music of the rusting cities, even if it sounds like steam engines and sheet metal being pounded out on anvils, is still folk music. Folk music is the music that the local folk make.

So folk music is a welcome stream, revisited just now by being re-encountered yet again, that feeds into the new music commission I am writing. That stream of folk music, of rural music, of traditional songs sung by untrained and not-overly-sophisticated folk, is appropriate for my suite of songs about living and growing up gay in the Midwestern heartlands. More and more what I am realizing about this commission, as the work develops and I continue to write, is that this is roots music. It's about our rootedness in the land. It's about how the land, and the lakes, and the rivers, the prairies, the open skies, are as much as part of our character as anything other element, and more than some. The land is part of who we are, here. Even when we leave the Midwest, as many do, we take our memories of place with us, and also our memories of the values we learned in our small-town traditional homes.

Playing and singing folk music makes me feel social. And what's more social than singing in a chorus, or playing music with friends in the living room? It's good for me to be social, as I am alone too often. That's not a bad thing, I need a lot of solitude daily in order to keep my equilibrium; too much noise and fury and I get overstimulated. I need solitude and silence for writing my music. But music is also the thing I have in common with people I have nothing else in common with; music brings me together in harmony with people I might not otherwise have anything to say to. Even when there isn't a conversation, there can be music. For me, music is the sacred prayerful glue that holds it all together.

That's why I'm a musician, and not a writer: A writer is someone who responds to life by writing about it; a musician is someone who responds to life by making music. Of course a songwriter does both of these things; but most honest songwriters would tell you that music can stand without needing words, whereas words in songs need the music to be fulfilled and brought to life. So songwriters who are wordsmiths, even poets, still tend to refer to themselves as musicians rather than poets. Like myself. It's the folk way to keep a little humility to hand, even when it doesn't seem essential in the moment.

The song for the commission song cycle that I am currently writing is a sort of a folk song. I've deliberately left it a bit rough around the edges, a bit simple in terms of chords and melodies, so it's easy to sing, and keeps it life. It has a complex alternating rhythm of 6/8 divided duple alternating with 6/8 divided triple (3+3 + 2+2+2)—but that sounds more complex than the music sounds itself. When you get into the swing of the rhythm it becomes very natural, very self-sustaining. Once you get the feel of the rhythm, you don't need to count it anymore. Counting rhythms is sometimes required in more sophisticated music; in folk music, you just go with the feel.

i've got most of the lyrics for this song, now. I am coming to the end of this writing. Suddenly, after feeling like I was fighting an uphill struggle to write, after cleaning out my ears with some serious folk playing courtesy of Bruce Springsteen and friends, courtesy of the influence of Pete Seeger, I am feeling enlivened and charged. Words come easily when they had to be fought for, before. It all falls into place, with the acknowledgment that this is really a kind of folk song.

it's the angry lover kind of folk song. It's in the tradition of spurned, questioning, forlorn, angry love songs. Why can't you love me? Why won't you let love you? In old folk songs, which are often full of death and crime and the harsher realities of life, sometimes the lover is talking to a ghost, sometimes confessing to a murder. Love gone wrong. All the way from Olde England to Patsy Cline and johnny Cash.

So much for the philosophy of writing folk song lyrics. I'll put off posting the current song's lyrics here, except in small part, as, just as in the case of a good folk song, they sound better with the music than they do just by themselves. Here's a bit, though:

Can you love me enough to let me go?

Here we are in this sky full of lightning
Striking around us as we fight for our lives.
Can you still say we're nothing but comrades
When we made love all night? I know your heart.

Did you want to love me or did you just love yourself too much?
Can you ever love someone who loves you or are you too proud
To see who loves you who can always love you no matter what?
Can you make up your mind, just love me and let go, let go now?

. . .

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Folk music. It’s one of those terms you think you understand. Until you move to a foreign country. Carrie has a great love of folk music at least she thought she did until she came here and we don’t play any of the songs she grew up with or revere any of the musicians she does in the way she does. It’s a whole different ball game here. I knew of Pete Seeger before Carrie but I couldn’t have told you anything he’d done. The only American folk singers I was familiar with were the likes of Dylan and Baez, and if it weren’t for Dylan I’d never have known Baez.

As far as Springsteen goes I am a bit of a fan but basically there are only two tracks I’d include of the soundtrack to my life, ‘The River’ and ‘Born in the USA’ although I do have to give him credit for his part in ‘Because the Night’; like him I prefer her version to his.

When it comes to American ‘folk’ music (in the broadest sense) my own preference is for bluegrass perhaps because it has its roots in British traditional music but it’s not something I care to overanalyse. One of my prized possessions actually is an CD by Luther Wright and the Wrongs called Rebuild the Wall a fabulous bluegrass/country version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. There are a few tracks on YouTube if you’ve never heard of them:

Another Brick In The Wall Parts 1 & 2
Comfortably Numb
Thin Ice

Actually Carrie and I have just had a great talk about the subtle (and not so subtle) distinctions between bluegrass, folk, country, country-rock and country and western. I think the one thing she’s taken to since came here that it’s unlikely she would have heard much of in the States is Celtic music, certainly the Scottish end of it. There’s an occasional show on BBC4 that we sometimes catch called Transatlantic Sessions that mixes up American, Scottish and Irish musicians to good effect.

I don’t have a lot of folk music – too much music out there, not enough time and nowhere near enough money – Eliza Carthy, Karine Polwart, Kate Rusby, Loreena McKennitt, Richard Thompson – it’s an area like jazz: I know what I like when I hear it but I’m not always so sure who I like.

4:01 AM  
Anonymous Swanee said...

Great piece. But nothing "late" about Pete Seeger; he's still very much alive, writing, and chopping his own wood at 91. And if you haven't read his book "The Incompleat Folksinger," drop everything and do so; I quote from it all the time. (Might even have an extra copy I can send you.)

5:03 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


Actually I'm very familiar with British folk music, since it is after all the roots of Appalachian and other folk musics in the USA. I've actually done a study of the Childe Ballads, including digging up the sources in the library years ago, and reading Childe's collections. I've got lots of vinyl that I need to convert to digital, and a lot of it is now-obscure Welsh, Irish, and Scots folk groups. Especially Irish, which is one half of my own ancestry, and Welsh, which I just like.

You'd be surprised at just how much Celtic music you can acquire in the US, and not just by the best-known artists. It's a major trend, and has been for going on 30 years. It also comes to the US via Canada, with the Celtic immigrant traditions from there, as well as those that came here directly.

I knew about Luther Wright, yes. I have a special fondness for inappropriate bluegrass covers of music from other genres. The Austin Lounge Lizards do that, too. I have had an ambition for some years to someday do Bizet's opera Carmen in bluegrass.

Baez is one of the greats. Her albums "Diamonds and Rust" and "Gulf Winds" are top notch, among those I keep returning to. I'm going to hunt down more Springsteen now, I think, perhaps starting with "Darkness of the Edge of Town," which I've heard a lot about lately. I gather there's a new documentary.

A lot of the American folk genres are rooted in Appalachian immigrant origins. A lot of that stuff came from there. I did a whole historical study of it in grad school, and found many threads that tie things together. It's a fascinating story to see where it began and where it ends up.

And how there are new hybrids that are really good, like the "Appalachian Waltz" albums done together by Edgar Meyer, Mark O'Connor and Yo-Yo Ma.

9:07 AM  
Blogger David-Glen Smith said...

First a comment on Jim's comment: at first I said to myself: Pink Floyd as bluegrass? Then I realized it should work. Thanks for pointing that out. I will have to dig it up.

Art: admired your comment: "This music is deep inside my heart, somewhere. It's in the blood. Whenever I come back to folk music, to roots music, which I do periodically, I am refreshed and recharged." This type of music always sparks a new look at a creative problem.

During my English Lit course I always use British/Irish folk ballads as an introduction to poetry. Child's collection of ballads have been a godsend.

Likewise, I knew of Springsteen's versions of Seeger-- seems a natural leap. I will check that out as well.

9:07 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


Thanks for the correction, which I made in the body of the piece. Changed "late" to "great."

I haven't run across "The Incompleat Folksinger" as yet, but I'm sure I would like to someday. Thanks for the recommendation.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


You'd be amazed just how well Pink Floyd works as bluegrass. And then there's the band Dread Zepellin, which does Led Zep songs in reggae style, which also works. It's disturbing, it's funny, and it works. I love hybridizations.

I completely agree that the music sparks new looks are creative problems. It has that effect on me, whenever I go back to it. I'm going to keep some Heartlands CD out, for now, while I'm working on the Heartlands commission, in case I need to get sparked. Thanks.

Glad you know about Child. I think that stuff remains essential. It remains as the underpinnings even of younger great folk artists like Carol Noonan, who I also recommend. All those stories in the Child ballads are so archetypal, they just keep coming back around again, in one form or another.

9:12 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

And don't forget Hayseed Dixie - Their AC/DC covers are great as is much of their other stuff. I bought my daughter Let There Be Rockgrass a few years ago.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

And then don't forget Boiled in Lead, the band from Minneapolis that combines world music, folk music, heavy metal, and punk into their own unique brew. On their album "Antler Dance" they do a cover of Springsteen's "State Trooper" that's amazing.

11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that a great song/piece of music just "works" in different contexts or musical styles. Sign of a great song really....

Tori Amos in her "girl + piano" phase playing Whole lotta love or Smells like teen spirit has always gien me goosebumps. And Senor Coconut + his orchestra doing Latin versions of Kraftwerk or the Leningrad Cowboys paying coverswith the Red Army Mens Choir are great great fun!

Best regards

Thomas Simon

4:26 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thomas, that is indeed a sign of a great song, that it can be redone again and again in many different ways, in changed contexts, and it still endures. The classic songs in the so-called "American Songbook" contain many such examples. I never tire of new versions of "Unchained Melody," for example.

9:09 PM  

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