Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Picture In Your Head

Over on Maplepost, the Canadian folk music email listserv, there's a conversation going on about the fact that iTunes recently deleted "folk music" from it's list of music genres, choosing instead to use the label "singer-songwriter."

For some people the term "folk music" is, well, corny. They argue that "singer-songwriter" is a term more likely to resonate with younger music fans, and presents a new opportunity for those of us toiling away in the margins of the music industry.

Leaving aside the question where people are supposed to find traditional fiddle music or The Watersons on iTunes now, the move somehow symbolizes the basic identity problem that folk music suffers from in the twenty-first century.

Personally, I can't help but feel disappointed that iTunes did away with the "Folk" category. Call me corny if you want, but I feel like "Folk Music" is the label that best defines what I do.

Yes, I write songs, and I sing, so I guess that makes me a singer-songwriter. But I also feel like I'm a musician connected to a wellspring of music that is part of our common heritage, songs created and shaped by masses of ordinary people passing tunes and words back and forth in an oral tradition. I'm also connected to contemporary musicians who created new music inspired and influenced by that wellspring. I don't know what else to call that wellspring except, "folk music," so I call myself a "folk musician."

But at the same time, there's a dilemma in calling myself a folk musician, which has to do with the picture people get in their head when they hear the term "folk music." And unfortunately, the picture people get in their head doesn't correspond at all with what I know and love about contemporary folk music and the folk tradition. Here's a paraphrase of a conversation I have actually had a few times:

Me: Do you like folk music?
Them: No, I don't like folk music at all. But you know what I really like? Traditional Quebec music, and gospel music, and east coast music, like the fiddle and the step dancing. And I like Bob Dylan a lot.

You get the picture.

So what do I do about this dilemma? Sometimes I call myself a singer-songwriter, and I intersperse terms like "roots music" or "acoustic music" when I'm writing or talking about my music. But frankly, I don't find any of it satisfactory. Mostly, I just wish people got a different picture in their head when they heard the words "folk music."

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