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Pop Goes Tradition May 11, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Art and Music.

What is a real folk song as opposed to a mere pop song? Is it the authentic voice of a clearly defined ethnic group or community? A song performed without the expectation of being paid for it?  Both definitions have been offered by fans; neither withstands scrutiny, according to Barker and Taylor.

It seems to me that authenticity in music isn’t defined by where it comes from or what its purpose is. It has more to do with the artist’s ability to express (or seeming to express) lived experience. To the extent an artist convinces the informed audience that she is inhabiting the ethical (understood broadly) framework of the song, it is a form of folk music.



1. Nina Rosenstand - May 12, 2007

For a description of the spirit of folk songs, I suggest the concept coined by the historian and philosopher Peter Munz, describing the nature of a classic myth: a concrete universal. The lived experience must be a shared experience, not just experienced authentically, but it must be sufficiently general that others recognize it—or perhaps in the form of true art (I suppose), a very personal (concrete) experience that can be expressed in a way (universal) so that everyone recognizes it on their own personal level (back to the concrete). Here it is of course a good question how far we can stretch the universal experience—given that the song has to be expressed in a language (specific) and in a musical tradition (specific), it may not have true universal appeal—except if we’re including the handful of pop songs that have become globally known in the past 60 + years. I think pop songs can absolutely become folk songs when they strike that special cord. After all, the European folk songs of centuries past weren’t written as “folk songs,” these ballads were the unpretentious popular songs of their day, some for the gentry, and others for the peasants (and sometimes the peasants inherited the gentry songs and dances from the previous generation—which ended up as children’s singing games, a fascinating development). I’d call Dylan’s “The Times They are A-Changing” a folk song just as much as “Green Grow the Lilacs,” or “It Was a Saturday Eve,” from my own Danish tradition. But there is something the authors of the article you mention seem to overlook: What reaches the level of a “classic” folk song generally has to be good! Good tune, good lyrics, transcending the time and place. Which leads to the next question, is that a tautology? What is a good song—one that transcends time and place? So what kind of song transcends time and place? A good song! So, Dwight: What is a good song?

2. Dwight Furrow - May 14, 2007


I agree that most folk songs express a shared lived experience, i.e. the experience of a group of people. However, some contemporary rock songs seem to aim at the expression of a very personal experience, one that the artist doesn’t think of as shared, although it must be general enough to be a recognizable experience I suppose. Since I am prepared to think of some rock music as the folk music of Western, liberal society, I’m not convinced the evocation of shared experience is a necessary condition for something to be a folk song.

I am also not sure what to do with this idea of a universal experience–one that “everyone recognizes on their own personal level.” I grant that great songs often have this kind of appeal. But if by classic we mean “a standard example” or “of enduring worth”, can’t something be a classic folk song without having that sort of unversal appeal? A song can evoke a way of life, even if it cannot be decontexualized and reassimilated in some other time and place, can’t it?

As to your last question, well it is now fourth down and I shall have to punt.

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