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May 16th, 2008

the thin line between 'folk' and 'country'

Last night, I moseyed over to the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax here in the fair(ly atrocious) city of Los Angeles to catch a documentary on Harry Smith, the renowned and reclusive Renaissance Man who not only assembled the definitive Anthology of American Folk Music, but was also a writer, experimental filmmaker, and philosopher. The man was a genius – but I’ll save him for another post.

What really got me thinking last night was about the origins of recorded “folk” music and “country” music, and where, how, and maybe why the two styles forked and grew apart from one another. You look at artists like Woody Guthrie, Dock Boggs, Roscoe Holcomb, or the Carter Family and you wonder: they are most certainly the “origins” of critically acknowledged 20th century folk, but they are also the origins of critically acknowledged 20th century country. Is our modern definition of American “folk” simply based on how white bourgeois culture of the 60’s (Dylan, Baez, et al) interpreted the music of artists on the Anthology, and our modern definition of “country” based on how lower income rural white culture interpreted the same ouevre?

You may remember a few weeks ago I posted on Minneapolis singer/songwriter Meg Ashling, whose dusty and road-weary folk/country songs drew influences from all the aforementioned artists. Meg recently said:

“when i think of country, i think of hank williams, sr. and ernest tubb, i don’t think of toby keith and carrie underwood. sure i’m an independent artist, but i wouldn’t necessarily put myself into the “indie” genre. country has always seemed much more fitting to me, but i find that some people are afraid of labeling my music as “country” because people associate the term with all of the overproduced pop crossover garbage and all of the songs about pickup trucks and drinking beer and honkytonk badonkadonks.

i know i’m probably living in a dream world, but i’d really like to bring back the real meaning behind country and honkytonk music and make it relevant to our generation… i want people to know what an important part roots music has played in our history so we can preserve it for the next generations to enjoy. i wouldn’t even be playing music today if i hadn’t grown up listening to my dad and my grandpa playing all those old country songs. the state of music today is very sad and we need to encourage people to stop relying on technology and marketing strategists to write songs and instead write something from the heart!”

What’re your thoughts?

[download] Dock Boggs – “Country Blues


  1. I think that the state of music today is amazing. This site is proof of that. I truly think this is a golden era for folk/country/blues. An era that, in time, will get compared to the folk resurgence in the 60’s. Just give it time. Mainstream music will always suck because it isn’t really MUSIC, it’s entertainment. It is for all the people that don’t really care. Music is a cheap thrill for them. An amusement park that is broadcast into their radios. It will always exist for the fairweather fans,there is no point in fighting that. It is hard for people who feel so strongly about music to understand. There is no point to even try. Just accept. People who truly love music will always find, appreciate, and create true music. Also, arguing over what to label certain types of music is futile. It is what it is. “Folk”, not “folk”. “Country”, not “country”. Who cares? As long as it’s from the heart.

    Comment by Dustin Reid — May 19, 2008 @ 6:27 am
  2. First: thank you. I am ever so thankful and beyond thrilled that I have been exposed to contemporary artists that have spiritually and musically inspired me as much as the artists from the 20’s through 60’s.

    Second, I wasn’t trying to *personally* define what ‘folk’ and ‘country’ is, I’m trying to determine how and most importantly WHY the forking (forking as in the crtical media’s forking of its labeling system for folk and country) took place.

    But yes, even that conversation is futile…but it’s what I spend my day doing so I can’t help it!

    As long as there are people out there who have a hard time communicating themselves with spoken words, great MUSICIANS will always exist. Music doesn’t just entertain them, it sustains them.

    Comment by =tyler= — May 20, 2008 @ 1:37 am
  3. I stumbled onto this site by typing into google:

    “folk is not country”

    I’m frustrated that folk singers (and genuine country singers) get associated with the pop acts of today. Country is not bad and neither is folk.

    As I listen to my Dave Carter, I realize that this music is timeless and genuine.

    Also, please tell me someone still misses Harry Chapin.

    Comment by Darren — February 9, 2009 @ 8:01 pm
  4. I heard Meg Ashling on KFAI radio, Minneapolis, yesterday and fell in love with her voice.

    I hope she can “the real meaning behind country and honkytonk music and make it relevant to our generation.”

    That would be a mitzvah.

    Comment by Hal Davis — August 11, 2010 @ 2:45 pm
  5. I’ve been looking online for more than 6 hours yesterday, and I never saw any type of editorial like this one.
    Fantastic writeup.

    Comment by Stiff for Hours pack — April 25, 2015 @ 9:11 am

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