Pop as Folk

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

There is an old adage about folk music: “You know it when you hear it.” The saying refers in part to the ubiquity of folksongs in human cultures. Populations throughout the world lay collective claim to a subset of songs that have seemingly been around forever. The saying also hints at the difficulty of defining what is and what is not “music of the people.” Parameters used to separate folk from non-folk allow frequent exceptions: songs with identifiable authors, songs that are “impure” (mixed influences), songs that are not very old, etc. In the end, folk designation has less to do with authenticity (whatever that term means), than with identification. We know it when we hear it because it sounds like us.

A cursory review of folk music definitions highlights the ambiguity of the term. Possibilities include: music transmitted by mouth; music of indigenous peoples; music of the lower classes; music with unknown authorship; music written by a known person but passed on orally; songs interwoven with a national or ethnic group; music long associated with an event or holiday; music that identifies a people; and more.

As is evident from this sample list, no single folksong exhibits all of these elements. Moreover, some of the elements are contradictory (music by a known or unknown source), some are outdated or bigoted (music of indigenous or lower class peoples), and others could refer equally to popular music (holiday songs and songs of group-affiliation).

Let us turn to the latter point. Although it is not fashionable to admit, folk and pop music have much in common. In fact, one could argue that folk music is a type of pop music, and pop music is a type of folk music. In order to appreciate these affinities, we must set aside two classic signifiers of pop: commercialism and artist-centrism. Looking at the basic nature of the songs (melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic material) and their effect on those who cherish them, the distance between the presumably opposite poles of pop and folk is greatly reduced.

Part of what shapes the perception of folk music is a sense of stability and longevity. Folk songbooks and audio collections tend to be homogenous retrospectives: they gather well-known favorites that share certain linguistic, thematic, and stylistic characteristics. A quick listen to any Celtic or Russian folksong anthology makes this point obvious. Because the songs come from the same stock and (ostensibly) emerged from the same collective process, they are more or less interchangeable. The dance songs sound like other dance songs, the lullabies like other lullabies, the meditative songs like other meditative songs, and so on. Even when sonic identifiers are removed, such as regional instruments and performance techniques, strong melodic and structural resemblances remain.

This is perhaps most clearly demonstrated with partner songs: songs that are so melodically and harmonically similar that they can be performed simultaneously. In the library of English-language folksongs, this is accomplished, for example, with the simultaneous singing of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “Three Blind Mice,” “London Bridge,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “The Farmer in the Dell,” and “Here We Go Looby Loo.” The same can be done in the world of pop. For instance, any song built on the common I-V-vi-IV progression can be sung together, including “No Woman, No Cry,” “With or Without You,” “Unconditionally,” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Although they derive from different personages, serve different aims, and fit in different styles, they are as melodically and harmonically homogenous as partner songs from folk sources. All that is lacking is longevity, and the blurred distinctions that come with it.

Just as important is the degree to which pop songs encapsulate and perpetuate mass tastes. As much as individual performers and songwriters strive to give their music a unique stamp, it does not materialize from nothingness. Underlying these songs is a folk-like process, in which the sounds and sentiments of a particular group are harnessed and played back, thus generating a sense of collective ownership. This is not to ignore the creative process of popular artists, but rather to stress that such a process cannot be divorced from its cultural milieu. If we were able to scratch beneath the surface of songs that have come down to us as folk, we would likely discover individual musicians who offered melodies into a cultural pool, and whose individuality was obscured by the forces of time and transmission.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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