RARA-AVIS: OT: Folking Around

From: Kevin Burton Smith (kvnsmith@sbcglobal.net)
Date: 16 Sep 2009

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    Patrick wrote:

    > A folk singer is one who sings folk songs, i.e. songs of
    > undetermined origin passed by word of mouth through families and
    > communities. Dylan became famous for singing songs he had written
    > himself, sometimes 20 minutes before he performed them. He also sang
    > songs by Woody Guthrie and Guthrie's contemporaries, songs no more
    > than 20 years old when Dylan recorded them, their origins clearly
    > delineated. Very seldom did Dylan ever, in those early days, sing
    > folk songs. Nonetheless, Time Magazine insisted he was a folk
    > singer. He played an acoustic guitar, you see, and that makes one a
    > folk singer.

    All music is folk music. I never saw no horse play a guitar.

    Big Bill Broonzy said that.


    Or maybe it was Louis Armstrong.

    But it's a common enough definition to have slipped into common usage.

    That's the thing with the folk process. Stuff gets picked up and adapted and passed on. Sometimes who said it first gets blurred. But someone, somewhere first said it.

    I'm looking at a partial set list from a 1962 Dylan concert, released a few years ago on CD. 10 songs, including four "originals," but the other six ("Barbara Allen," "Handsome Molly," "The Cuckoo," etc.) are all listed as traditional songs. And by all accounts, this was not an atypical set.

    BOB DYLAN, his first album, also from 1962, includes another four songs (including "Man of Constant Sorrow" and "Pretty Peggy O') credited to "Anonymous" or "Public Domain," as well as only two originals. The rest have songwriting credits, although several of them would probably be considered folk songs by most folks.

    So, do songs like "Barbara Allen," "Handsome Molly," "The Cuckoo" or
    "Pretty Peggy-O" qualify as folk songs? They're all "songs of undetermined origin passed by word of mouth through families and communities," and all regularly performed by Dylan early in his career.

    Does the disappearance of a songwriting credit suddenly give a song folk credentials? Are "Jesse James" or "Camptown Races" not folk songs because we know who wrote them, even though they've been passed down from generation to generation for well over a hundred years?

    So your suggestion that Dylan "seldom" sang folk songs in his early career is just plain wrong, even by any hidebound, antiquated 1962 definition of folk music. They were a large and obviously very influential part of his repertoire.

    By the way, it would take some strong rhetorical footwork and some churlish hairsplitting to suggest that Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind," as originally performed, is not a folk song -- as most folks understand the term -- simply because we know who wrote it. Or that, in the ensuing years, it hasn't, indeed, become a folk song.

    I said that.

    (but I digress....)

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