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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
Chris Seymour When does Folk = Not political music? (100* d) RE: When does Folk = Not political music? 11 Jan 00

I agree with those who've suggested that there are political implications to many traditional songs that are not obvious to contemporary listeners and singers.

One example: There's a song called "Love has Brought me to Despair" that Cary Fridley (of the Freighthoppers) sings that she got from a traditional singer named Dellie Norton. When I heard a field recording of the song, it seemed one of the (depressingly many) songs about a young woman who is seduced, impregnated and abandoned by her lover -- the woman seemed, to me, a passive victim.

Come to find out, when I heard Cary's intro., that when the woman is seeking for certain flowers, she's actually looking for herbs to, as Cary put it, "bring the baby down" -- ie induce an abortion. The woman -- and the song-- became much more interesting, and I immediately wanted to learn the song and sing it (which I have.)

Other examples abound. Songs about poachers, harpers who fool rich men and kings, Black spirituals that refer to the underground railroad in code -- these are all undeniably traditional songs that are also undeniably political.

Of course nobody is going to force people who aren't interested in leftish politics to listen, and there certainly is an element of preaching to the converted among those of us singers who try to weave political concerns into the music we make. But I find the current split in the folk scene disturbing. I find -- in the US anyway -- that there are three major folkie camps that don't interact much:

1. purist traditionalists who revere the beautiful, haunting old songs (as I do) but are usually not very interested in politics

2. political singers who sing mostly contemporary material -- their own or others' -- and are often uninterested in traditional songs, even though they have political implications

3. apolitical singer-songwriters who sing almost exclusively their own songs with little or no political content.

Personally, I wish there were more folkies who tried to emulate singers like Martin Carthy, Norma Waterson and Peggy Seeger, who are passionately committed both to the great folk tradition and to making the world a better place. Martin once told me that he'd been misquoted by a Boston Globe reporter who'd written an article that attributed to him the idea that all folk music is socialist. "I don't belive that," Martin said. "I think that one strand of it is, and that's the strand I choose to follow."

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