Most people who talk about “Folk music” today are really thinking of a mid-century movement in which people who did not grow up with Folk songs per se went out of their way to learn something about Folk songs and their heritage. And they also began singing the songs and writing their own in the same style. Technically, this era was more of a “Folk Revival” than anything else. But it changed the musical landscape of the country (and even other countries), so it’s important to understand.
Now that the term “Folk” is beginning to lose its stigma, I don’t feel bad about calling myself a “Folk singer” when I’m proposing myself to a venue that is open to acoustic-based traditional music. Technically, I’m a product of the “Folk Revival,” as were the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, but if I call myself a “Folk Revival” singer nobody will know what I’m talking about.
Recently, though, I’ve met people who want to consider themselves “Folk musicians” but who lack many basic skills that most “serious” children of the Folk Revival era had picked up in high school. I have actually made enemies by saying things like “G to B7, then Circle of Fifths,” or “It’s a 3-chorder in G,” or “Can somebody sing the upper harmony part?”
Ooops. I realize I was making assumptions. But by and large they’re assumptions you used to be safe making in a room full of Folkies. Yes, I grew up on this stuff, but so did a whole generation. It’s not magic, any more than knowing how to change the oil in my car, or perform long division, or any of those other skills I learned growing up. It’s stuff you learn. If you wanted to be a Folk musician, it’s stuff you wanted to learn. It’s also something you can still learn today if you want to.
In fact, anyone who learned guitar and a significant amount of Folk or Folk Revival songs in the 1960s eventually accumulated certain basic skills that, I’m afraid, are lost to many in subsequent generations – even some who have taken music classes or guitar lessons.
Back in the day, you wouldn’t take your instrument out of the case or even raise your voice in a room full of other Folkies, unless you:
- Could tune by ear while the song was playing.
- Could figure out the chords to any three-chord song in C, G, D, A, or E while playing it for the FIRST time, even if you’d never heard it before.
- Could sing the first, second, or third Carter-style harmony part to any song, by the end of the first chorus.
- Could automatically transpose any 3-chord song among any of the keys listed above without even having to think about it,
- Had a range of guitar (or banjo) playing styles, so you could adapt your guitar (or banjo) playing to the style of just about any song, and
- Much more.
In other words, you learned how to jump into almost any song, sound good doing it, and add something that sounds like it “belongs” in the song, even if you just made it up.
This was actually not that hard for most songs. Even if you got beyond three chords, the fourth and fifth most common chords tended to follow set patterns as well. But acquiring those skills takes learning, practice, and work.
By the way, in case you wonder if ANYONE ever had all of those skills, I’ll point out that the same list of skills pretty much defines the entry level for professional guitar- or mandolin- or banjo-playing musicians in Country, Bluegrass, Folk-Rock, Country-Rock, and most mainstream Rock and Roll as well.
So I have thought about writing a series of introductory lessons on the most critical parts of that topic list above. Then I realized that many people don’t know as much about Folk music in general as they think they do.
So then I figured that I’d start with an introduction to what we often call “Folk music” – Folk Revival music, as practiced by Peter, Paul, and Mary, Ian and Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Judy Collins, the Kingston Trio, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Joan Baez, and even (initially) Bob Dylan, as well as a host of others. Where did it come from, where did it go, and what kind of traces did it leave?
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