Saturday, March 06, 2010
Political Anthems of a Distant Yesteryear
Folk in America is a three-part BBC documentary mini-series exploring the rise of folk music in North America.
As the film reveals, folk music presented musical stylings that were at once quaint and deeply political. The disaffection felt by the Southern United States following the end of the civil war in time gave way to the disaffection felt by a region depressed by the economic disadvantages it faced comparable to the industrialized Northern states.
The music became particularly popular in mining regions like the Appalachians, where they became protest anthems of a long-lost yesteryear.
The yesteryear that produced the folk musicians spoken of in the film seem all the more distant because they haven't merely been displaced from the current day in terms of time -- it has also been displaced by an economic model that was only beginning to be explored at the time when record companies first began to produce folk music.
The popularization of southern folk music provided a model for the popularization of other regional musical forms. A classic example would be the rise during the 1970s of Reggae music. In time, various regional musical stylings would be deeply incorporated into the genre that we today know as folk music.
Like folk music from the Southern United States, reggae music became popular at a time when the Jamaican economy had little else to offer. In fact, the recording industry was one of the driving forces of the Jamaican economy during the 1970s, and it relied heavily on record exports, as a depressed domestic economy provided fewer opportunities for Jamaican artists to sell their music.
Not that they didn't manage -- Jamaicans were often noted to choose between spending their meagre earnings on necessities of life or on the newest LP by their favourite reggae artist.
But in time as reggae popularized it also commercialized, taking on elements of other popular forms of music. In some cases, this helped give birth to new musical genres like Ska or dancehall reggae. In other cases, it simply resulted in stale or uninspired attempts at reggae.
In the time before the popularization of folk music, and the various regionalized genres that have become incorporated within it, music was cultivated within tightly-woven communities and within the home. This lent a vibrancy to the music that many musical genres lack today.
With the rise of web 2.0 and new options for musicians to produce and market their own music, this model has become partially resurgent. But wherever commercial success is to be found, the desire to mass produce potentially profitable products -- such as music -- will lurk.
And when music is mass-produced, the first thing to suffer is the passion and creativity that lends itself to truly time music -- such as early folk.