By Jordan Russell
Our generation has a wealth of musical options to explore when developing personal taste. However, in the quest for the band or genre that will help shape our identity, we tend to dismiss the centuries-old tradition that has impacted countless generations before us: folk music.
But what is meant by “folk music”? It is a broad term that, having survived decades without a firm definition, encompasses a diverse array of music, from traditional Scottish ballads to slave songs and cowboy tunes to railroad work chants. As bluesman Big Bill Broonzy famously said: “It’s all folk music; I never heard a horse sing it.”
Despite its breadth, folk music is united by its inseparable bond to the human condition. Folk is the music of the people, by the people and for the people. It is the music of those who had no money for food much less music lessons; who were disenfranchised and dismissed by society; who suffered at the hands of a harsh capitalist system and a government that denied them basic rights.
Although much of what is labeled “traditional” or “old-time” music is rough with the sounds of untrained vocals and homemade instruments, it is an art form unto itself that preserves the stories of those that came before us and ensures that their struggles are not forgotten.
Through folk songs, we remember the hardship of coal mining families from Harlan County, Kentucky, where mass blacklisting of union members led Aunt Molly Jackson to sing her “Hungry Ragged Blues.” We remember the pastures of plenty on the West Coast, worked by migrants living in one-room shacks, and the freedom fighters of the South who joined their hands and voices against the abuses of Jim Crow.
Folk music provides an outlet for individuals across boundaries of race, class and location to express their highest joys and their deepest sorrows. Classical music is often heralded for its stirring emotion, yet only a select number of fortunate individuals have access to the instruments and training required to play and compose the music. Folk requires no formal training, no sound engineering and no instrument. It only requires that an individual has something to say.
Whether it is the longing for an end to earthly suffering or the jubilation of being freed from chains (literal or figurative), many folk songs lay bare the core of human emotion. These songs are stripped raw of the glosses our ears are accustomed to. Their brutally honest expressions of the hopes and struggles of humanity have the power to forge emotional connections better than any Chopin nocturne or Puccini aria ever could.
In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass described the power of songs sung by slaves as they worked. He wrote: “ … they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.”
While our generation is largely removed from the hardships faced by our ancestors, we must recognize that folk songs transcend specific experiences and instead convey universal ideas that we can all relate to. The frustration of not having enough money to pay the rent, the heartache of unrequited love and the desire to speak out against injustice remain a part of our lives.
From the days of slavery to 1960s Greenwich Village, folk songs have given voice to the voiceless and preserved elements of American culture that would otherwise be lost in the overwhelming annals of history. Without the likes of Roscoe Holcomb, folk icons such as poor Omie Wise, who was allegedly drowned by her wealthy lover after becoming pregnant with his child, may have ended up just another headstone in a North Carolina graveyard. Without Bessie Jones, the Gullah culture of the Georgia Sea Islands may have died with the former slaves who inhabited them.
These individuals were not trained ethnologists. They did not set out with the intention to keep a record of their culture. Their songs were passed down to them through family and community; they are songs sung on back porches and in church services, in picket lines and basement cafes. They are constantly evolving, howled by Leadbelly in one year and harmonized by The Weavers in the next. When woven together, these songs create a vivid tapestry of the human experience. They serve to remind us of the long road we’ve traveled and give us strength for the journey ahead.
Jordan Russell studies political science. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.