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The Folk Curmdgeon Review October 2011 by Phil Cooper

I haven’t written a Folk Curmudgeon Review for quite awhile.  But I was looking through an issue of Living Tradition Magazine a few months back, and saw an ad from Greentrax records.  It quoted a review of a band that contained the affirmation that this group was a refreshing change on a scene that was plagued with groups playing “hyphenated folk music.”  That got me to thinking…


I’ve stated before that my definition of folk music is:  if I like it, it’s folk; if I don’t, it’s not.  That is rather simplistic, I know.  However I’m tired to hearing “don’t hear no horses singing it,” or “it’s all folk music.”  And, I’m not buying into traditional versus contemporary.  I may really push the trad end of my repertoire a lot, but I started being interested in playing guitar from listening to “folk scare” songwriters.


My friend Joel Mabus once described what he did as “music generally recognized as folk.”  I always liked that, though it can come off as awkward.  I often wonder why performers in this field try to be dismissive of the phrase “folk music.”  I say, admit that’s what you do.  If you want to add embellishments, do it in a way that respects the music.  Don’t try to put into your music the worst aspects of rock and pop music and think it improves what you’re doing.


I have no quarrel with electronic effects, using modern recording techniques as tools in putting music across, or taking chances.  But does the world need more plotless songs with shark-fin chords and no discernable melody?  And just what is alt-folk anyway?  What has always appealed to me in folk music is the straight-forwardness of the words with recognizable melodies.  I don’t particularly care if I’m immediately dropped into the middle of a good old tragic story, as in a Child Ballad, or some new scenario laid out in crisp imagery.  Abstract language can work, although it needs to be better than “angst, mugs on the wall, desolation” type bad poetry.


My objection to some types of production and effects is when they interfere with the words or the point of the song.  Why impede the listener’s ability to understand what you’re trying to say?  If you don’t care about that basic communication, then admit that you’re a performance artist and not a folksinger.  What has always appealed to me about folk music is a strong story with a strong melody.  When formula takes precedence, the music suffers.


I’m reminded of a live introduction Ben Bedford gave to his song “Lincoln’s Man.”  He said that if the protagonist survives at the end of the song, it’s pop.  If they die, it’s folk.  Although I don’t necessarily agree with that 100% of the time, it reinforces the idea that there’s something special about this music that you won’t usually find anywhere else.  Who decided that music was NOT supposed to make us think and feel?  I thought that was what it was all about in the first place.

The Folk Curmdgeon Review July 2015 by Phil Cooper

I had mentioned in a recent Facebook post my dislike of the term “Covers.”  This has nothing to do with venues, licensing, or anything like that, it's about perception.  I have heard some artists dismissively refer to musicians who play traditional songs as "they're just doing covers."  As someone who plays a lot of trad material and songs by other writers who work in the genre, I think that statement is rather simplistic. Are the trad songs supposed to die with the person who was recorded by the archivists?  If I hear a newer song by a writer that inspires me to learn it, and want to perform it, should I not do that?  I have a lot of friends who play bars and other gigs where they are asked to do covers (in this case the songs people might have heard on the radio like James Taylor, John Lennon, Paul Simon, who are all respectable artists).  I love hearing those songs done by other performers.  If I'm at a place where someone is doing those songs, I actually like to listen to the performance and not be talking to someone.

When people ask Susan and me if we have played at this or that bar, we are the first to admit that we are not a good bar act.  When I've done Irish bar gigs myself, I've been better at the “tears in the beer” material than at the drinkin' and fightin' repertoire.  Most bar patrons probably don't want to listen to a set of that.  I get it and am not cussing anyone out for lack of taste because I'm not an appropriate act for their venue.  But we get to play for audiences who like what we do, and by that measure we're successful at it.  I like to think we're singing songs we like and we are entertaining because we can explain why our audience would like this song, too.  To say I'm merely playing a cover because I am singing “Slieve Gallen Braes,” or Richard Thompson's “Bee’s Wing” is a disservice.  I try to put my own stamp on the arrangement.  So, that's my objection to the term cover.  I do not expect everyone to immediately change their definition to mine.  (I promised that my next post would be a cat picture - and it was.)