The following article appeared on the Shenzhen Local Music site on June 5th. I’m reblogging it here as I haven’t written anything in five months. Because I am useless.
Blues and Folk: Music of the People
In one word, folk and blues music is history.
In their own way, each of the two genres is the history of a race of people. That history has been challenged, corrupted and co-opted by others over the centuries, but ultimately it is the story of a group of people set to music.
Blues for example has its roots in slavery. One theory goes that the ancient African tradition of dying clothes indigo during mourning was uprooted to fledgling America, and when slaves had to dye cotton in the fields the idea crystallised. “The blues” is more of a feeling than a musical style – the profound world-weariness of the perpetually downtrodden – and this is where the genre’s sentiment comes from. It’s why ‘feeling blue’ means what it means.
Folk music is similar. The word ‘folk’ comes from the German “volk” which literally means ‘people.’ In the past, so much music was in the hands of the few – the composers, the aristocrats, the monarchy; the tiny minority that could afford it basically – that folk was the only music ‘the people’ had. Folk and blues are the musical genres of the non-privileged: while imperial nations enslaved blues-singing African-Americans overseas, they sent their own folk-singing natives into the workhouses of home. Either way, it’s the music of the oppressed, and the music tells their stories.
And what stories.
You cannot mention blues music without a discussion of Robert Johnson. Destitute, dismissed and ignored during his lifetime, he only became successful after death. The story goes that he sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in order to learn the blues, and nowadays every guitarist worth the tiniest speck of salt credits Johnson as one of the most important musicians of all time. Eric Clapton called him “the most important musician that ever lived.”
Blues formed in the early 1900’s in the Deep South, and has gone on to be one of the world’s most enduring musical genres. Artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker helped popularise it in the 1950, before the genre started to seep into rock n’roll. History came full circle when musicians from the country that had done so much to create the blues in the first place (carting half a continent of people halfway across the world has never been Britain’s finest moment) took a weird fusion of blues, rock n’roll and folk and churned out the Beatles. The Fab Four almost single-handedly created modern music, and there would be no Beatles without the blues. Simple as that.
Folk music is a little different. Folk formed out of an amorphous mass of anonymous musicians handing down songs by word-of-mouth. Over centuries. “Trad” is a word you hear a lot in British folk circles (meaning literally “traditional”) and in many recording credits you’ll see this little abbreviation. Basically, no-one remembers who wrote it because the singer is irrelevant, which is lovely as it’s the direct opposite of the celebrity-driven current raft of pop music. The song and story is what matters.
Many folk songs are brutal, telling the stories of common people as they try and eke out a life under the cosh of their psychotic overlords. One “trad” favourite of mine is the ‘Bonnie House of Airlie’ a song about war, rape, pillage and murder in Scotland. Another is “Bruton Town (the Bramble Briar)” which is about two noblemen who murder their sister’s lowborn lover. Death crops up a lot, as death happened to be the defining point of life. Imagine Game of Thrones, only with more acoustic guitars.
Both blues and folk music have changed a lot in the last few decades. Blues went electric, and the styles and techniques the genre spawned are now found in everything from dubstep (no, seriously) to thrash metal. Folk music too has morphed, but somewhat awkwardly, with the term now meaning almost any music played with an acoustic guitar. Mumford and Sons are folk, the Lumineers are folk, Gotye is folk; it’s a bit messy.
Ultimately though, I think it’s the people hammering away at acoustic guitars, whether in the West or in the warrens of Shenzhen, that keeps folk and blues so relevant. At its heart, both genres are music played by people, about people, for people, and therein lies the genres’ most enduring feature.