Folk & Blues
From “The Rock Primer” edited by John Collins published by Penguin Handbooks in 1980
The Folk & Blues chapter was written by Dave Laing
Before the 1950s, folk music in Britain was generally associated with a small band of people anxious to preserve what they saw as the remains of a dying tradition of rural music. Most agreed with the greatest of the early folk song collectors, Cecil Sharp, in wishing to see the music transplanted ‘from the country pub to the school classroom. Sharp himself believed that exposure to folk songs would make a child a ‘better citizen and a truer patriot’.
By the early 1960s, folk music ‘had taken on quite a different meaning. There were now hundreds of folk clubs, held in pub rooms, where a bewildering variety of sounds could be heard. On anyone evening there might be a group singing sea shanties with acoustic guitars, a jug band, a. blues guitarist, a girl singing ballads after the style of Joan Baez and a nervous songwriter trying out his or her compositions in public.
Not much of this found favour with the modern counterparts of Cecil Sharp. To them songs had to be unquestionably ‘traditional’ and not composed by an urban teenager. What they had in common with the easy-going attitudes of the folk clubs was an antipathy to the pop music of the time and what it stood for. The difference between folk and pop, wrote one champion of folk music, was ‘between something made for love, fun or pleasure and something made for money’.
The folk ideal was anti-commercial, and in the United States it took on political connotations as folk-singers identified themselves with first the union movement of the 1930s and then the civil rights agitation of the 1960s. The term ‘folk’, then, has come to mean both certain kinds of music that developed before or apart from the mainstream of popular music, and a medium for expressing radical views. These two meanings are combined in the work of many folk-singers, especially in America, where Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez are well-known examples. There is also a third aspect of’ folk’, which came to light in the 1960s in particular, and which arose from the freedom to experiment that the folk scene allowed to musicians, a freedom not available in the competitive, commercial world of pop. This was probably the most important reason why figures as diverse as Bob Dylan and David Bowie started out in folk before taking their new ideas into rock music.
In the record list which follows, the main emphasis is on the musicians and kinds of music which have had some contact with, and influence on, rock music itself. By far the greatest influence has been that of the blues, both in its folk form, the country blues, and in the modem city rhythm & blues, which is covered in Chapter 3.
The country blues took shape among black people in the southern states of America in the years after the abolition of slavery. Although he wasn’t much better off, the black field hand was now free to sit on his back porch and pick his guitar, composing songs about his life and hard times.
The classic form of the blues is the twelve-bar, divided into three-line verses, the first line of which is repeated while the third is different but rhyming. The blues, guitarist will also fill in each line with a little phrase in response to the words. The twelve-bar system may seem restrictive and repetitive, but in the hands of a master musician it is simply a frame inside which any kind of picture can be painted.
Blues styles varied from state to state, but the one which attracted the most white and black guitarists of later generations was the urgent, compelling sound of the Mississippi Delta blues. The essence of blues guitar playing is to make the instrument sound like a second voice, and the voice of the Delta blues is one of extremes, mostly pain, sadness or loneliness, sometimes joy or pleasure. This effect was achieved mainly through the use of a bottleneck on the left hand, which gave a sharper, more piercing quality to the sound.
During the Second World War, when many blacks left the land for the cities, very little country blues was recorded. The revival of interest in the 1960s was due to white folk enthusiasts who sought out heroes they knew only from poorly recorded sides of the 1930s. In this way, men like Skip James and Fred McDowell were able to record again.
Although the blues is undoubtedly the most artistically distinguished of American folk musics, the folk revival in America concentrated more on its white heritage, which it found most of all in the songs of the Carter Family. and Woody Guthrie. The blues, however much it had been developed by generations of black slaves in the southern states – had its roots in Africa, whereas the white tradition (which developed into
music) was Celtic in origin.
The Carters came from the isolated Appalachian mountain region, where Cecil Sharp had found people singing the same songs their ancestors had brought with them from Britain two centuries earlier. Woody Guthrie was steeped in that tradition too, but his main contribution lay in his own compositions about contemporary events. Through these songs he put his stamp on the folk song revival of the 1960s, though he could not take an active part in it because of an incurable wasting disease, Huntington’s Chorea, which condemned him to hospital for the last part of his life and from which he died in 1967. Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs and, in Britain, Donovan: a generation of songwriters began, their careers in music by following his blueprint for simple, hard-hitting songs.
In England, there were no great figures like Woody or Leadbelly to embody the tradition of folk music, For a long time, the presentation of English folk songs was unnecessarily solemn, more suited to a museum than a club. But as soon as pioneers like Martin Carthy and Davey Graham began to put guitar accompaniments to the old songs, things began to change, especially when the influence of Pete Seeger and Joan Baez began to reach across the Atlantic.
The next stage was the growth of the experimental mood in the folk clubs, and the realization that, through the Beatles and the ‘underground’ bands, something worth-while was at last happening in rock music. The attraction of a more open-minded rock scene was that it provided a larger audience and therefore more money.
Two sorts of musicians made the move away from the folk clubs at this point: the more individual songwriters like the Incredible String Band and Roy Harper, and the ‘electric folk’ groups. The electric folk idea was based on the notion that while traditional songs themselves had a timeless quality about them, they could be served today through a presentation that made use of modem musical techniques, with amplified instruments.
The history of electric folk in England has been chaotic and controversial, with groups plagued either by lack of funds or by accusations of ‘selling out’. But the idea has survived and along the way has given birth to some very fine records, by Hedgehog Pie, Jack the Lad and most recently the Albion Band, as well as the examples listed below.
The one area in which English folk musicians have undoubtedly excelled in the last fifteen years has been acoustic guitar playing. As well as the more specialized areas like ragtime and blues, two new styles have grown up in that period, associated most of all with Martin Carthy and Davey Graham. Carthy, from whom both Bob Dylan and Paul Simon learnt English tunes that they later used in their own work, developed an accompaniment whose ‘English’ tone fitted traditional words and melodies. Davey Graham was the great mixer of guitar music, creating the ‘folk baroque’ style as well as introducing all kinds of exotic sounds to younger players.
The heyday of the English and American folk revivals was in the 1960s. The 1970s have belonged to the Celts, and especially to the Irish. Traditional music never died out in Ireland, but for a long time it was polarized between the respectable ‘part of the national heritage’ notion, involving competitions and formal concerts, and the rather debased boisterous boozy image of groups like the Dubliners. But recently, a new generation has arrived with the intention of making traditional music which has the impact and excitement of the rock it heard on the radio as it grew up. The number and variety of the new bands shows that the new folk music of Ireland will have a lot more to offer in the 1980s. Apart from the immaculate Planxty, there are the rockated Horslips, the instrumental verve of the Bothy Band and the softer Clannad, They are all proof of the fact that, despite the many gloomy predictions of the imminent death of folk music during this century, it is alive and well. As Bob Dylan once said: ‘There’s nobody that’s gonna kill traditional music. All those songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels – they’re not going to die.’
There were no list of Folk & Blues singles in “The Rock Primer” and since the LPs mentioned are now merely for collectors (like myself) I see no reason to list them as new and probably better material are now to be found on CDs – Ted