Thoughts on a New Folk Music Renaissance

Norman Blake
Green Light on the Southern
[Plectrafone Records (2011)]

Maria Muldaur
Maria Muldaur & Her Garden of Joy
[Stony Plain (2009)]

Norman Blake’s new album, Green Light on the Southern, is a stripped-down, almost solo recording with a homemade feel. But it feels tired, almost exhausted, and reading the liner notes, it’s clear that Blake is burned out on the music industry. As he says in the notes, he retired from touring three years ago to get away from what has become “The Great American Theme Park mentality.” Not sure what that means, but he follows this with a staggering statement:

“I have seen the rural music I loved from childhood grow fainter and farther away in a commercial and urbanized society that seems to care little for the charm of old fashioned Southern string music and its long gone practitioners.”

The one-sided, dismissive nature of this quote inspired me to write this review and to take Blake to task.

The Decemberists (shown here at the Riverside Theater) hit #1 on the Billboard with an album that explores American roots music (Photo by CJ Foekler from the Decemberist's web site.)

A new generation (some would argue two new generations) have whole-heartedly embraced Southern old-time traditions with a fervor not seen since the early days of the folk revival. Banjo-slinging hipsters these days often know more about Southern roots music than many old folkies, and crusty street punks have taken up the traveling folk musician life of old medicine show artists like Uncle Dave Macon. Square dance scenes have sprung up all over the United States; every city has an old-time stringband; and true Appalachian musicians, like Riley Baugus or Dirk Powell, play folk festivals and Hollywood soundtracks alike. Not only are we deep in the middle of a nationwide (perhaps world-wide) renaissance in American old-time music, but rarely before has the American mainstream so embraced the sounds of true old-time music. Obviously, O Brother Where Art Thou was the starting point for this renaissance, but subsequent movies with T-Bone Burnett, like Cold Mountain, have taken the music even further into the mainstream. Major country stars, like Willie Nelson, have returned to their roots, cutting acoustic albums thick with banjos, fiddles, and old-time songs. Even the indie music scene has gotten behind folk music recently. The Decemberists nailed the #1 Billboard spot with their Americana roots album, and their off-shoot group, Black Prairie, lit up the blogosphere with their arrangements of folk-themed melodies. Frank Fairfield won the hearts of indie audiences with his 100% unvarnished old-time singing and playing, and long-gone practitioners of Southern old-time music, like Charlie Poole or Dock Boggs, have seen award-winning box sets that brought their music back to the mainstream. It’s the height of folly to claim that old-time music traditions are dying out in America today, and it’s unfortunate that Blake has argued himself out of this renaissance.

Chris Thile's the Punch Brothers are one of many young groups breathing new life into traditional American music styles—by borrowing liberally from the present. (Photo by Michael Sharps from the Punch Brother's Flickr photostream.)

Many artists get burned out by the ebb-and-flow of their own careers, and the solution to this is usually to go back to their roots to remember why they love this music. Cut an album of your favorite songs, invite a few friends, ignore the advice of your label, and just have fun with the music. I wish Blake had done that with his album. But instead, he retreated further into his inner circle (he and his wife are the only musicians on the album), and released an album that seeks to prove the importance of the old songs he loves. But the love isn’t there. He draws forth some great old songs for this album, but there’s little emotion in the music. The songs don’t stand out, and they just don’t seem to have much life in them. He argues that the songs have enough poetry to sustain us, but without a spark of creativity or joy, the music falls flat. If you want to give up on the industry, that’s fine, but it doesn’t help to release an album that’s so out of step with the times. We’re all tired of the folk superstar treatment, and even superstars like Chris Thile are looking for new ideas and new ways to have fun, as seen with his genuinely entertaining duet album with bluegrass renegade Michael Daves. As Bob Dylan said,

Your old road is rapidly aging
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand

The times have been changing for a while now, and we’ve all been having a helluva lot of fun with these old songs and tunes. Let’s hope Norman Blake will join us soon!

To balance this somewhat grouchy review, here’s an excellent example of a late-life folk album that’s bursting with new energy and ideas. Maria Muldaur, an icon of the 1960s/1970s folk revival, released the album Maria Muldaur & Her Garden of Joy in 2009. It’s a wonderful romp through her jugband past, bringing on old friends like Taj Mahal, David Grisman, and Dan Hicks, but it’s got a fresh vibrancy brought by her “sensational new discovery” Kit Stovepipe. Kit’s a ragtime guitar genius, an old soul trapped in a young body. He started off in the crust punk movement, but moved to jugbands while living in Eugene, Oregon. He collects 78 recordings, loves old B&W cartoons, and always performs with a stovepipe hat and a giant septum piercing. He’s literally one of the best ragtime guitarists of his generation. On a par with the greats of the folk revival. Muldaur saw his promise and snapped him up for her album, featuring him throughout. He lends a raging energy to the album that elevates the music and propels the whole album. Kit’s an eccentric character who’s completely outside of the folk music mainstream. Until recently, the only way to buy his albums was from him personally (no internet allowed!), and they’re all packaged in recycled paper bags. It’s a huge credit to Muldaur that she recognized Kit’s talent and brought him in to the folk mainstream. This is the kind of collaboration we should see more of; this is the kind of collaboration that keeps the music fresh and alive.

—Devon Leger (Shoreline, WA)

6 comments on “Thoughts on a New Folk Music Renaissance

  1. Given Norman Blake’s extensive background as a terrifically talented musician and purveyor of traditional southern (U.S.) music it seems that Devon Leger might have shown him the curtesy of asking him to more fully explain his remarks before accusing him of not being on-board with today’s younger players and recording an album “so out of step with the times”
    Lest Mr. Leger forget, Norman Blake has been one of the artists that have provided inspiration and chops for many of the current crop of “banjo swinging hipsters”

    • Thank you. The ‘one sided and dismissive nature’ of Devon Leger’s essay is just too apparent. He seems claim some ‘blogger credential’ of insight. Nothing at all wrong with change, but there is little new under the sun. For me, lesser talents head to fusion more because of their limitations than some sense of art. Norman Blake’s credentials need no explanation. His disdain for commercial music, and airplane travel for that matter, represent to me the depth behind what he does and remaining true to how he feels about the music and people who inspire him. This essay is irrelevant.

  2. While norm has 9 years on me, some of what he is saying carries a note of truth. I can also recall something similar voiced by a few of the old timers who influenced our generation during the revivals of the 50’s, 60’s seventies and eighties. This roots music thing, particularly that part of it that grew out of the rural American, pre-television and hard scrabble blue collar back porch and barn dance tradition is now like the trains in Norman Blake’s Green Light on The Southern reference in his title, the era that my generation saw in large measure fade off into the sunset. Norman’s songs and those of many of the great musician songwriters he worked with are the documentation of that changing of the country and the shift in thinking that came along with it. The kind of shift in straight forward philosophy earned by callouses and bruises and scrapes to that absorbed vicariously. It’s not something I can describe so well in words but maybe it’s well enough said in another song of Norman’s “The Last Train from Poor Valley.” which is a favorite cut of mine off the Album he did by that name with Tony Rice.
    This said, I hear both sides of the argument here and know where both come from. I spent a lot of years around the traditionalists of folk music and around the younger set as well, thanks to having a son in the current mix. But to put it all in perspective Norman Blake has earned his chops and the right to lament the passing of the era that spawned him and the others of the folk music heyday. I can’t think of another Musician that comes close to the multiplicity of Norm’s talent in the folk music field nor his originality not only in playing style, but in the music and lyrics he has written. Nothing Norm can say in a cover note can take that away. The music isn’t dying, but what may well be is the originality of what gets the airplay and what the commercial side of Music that grew fat on the era that Norman laments is pedaling these days. I have faith though and maybe I see a spark of it because I know from my own witness that the spark is still alive and the embers will burn on. Just maybe the will be more relevant to a new audience, the same way Norman’s and his fellows were to my own in our youth. But under it all the thing that will give them the power will be built on the works of trail blazing writers and musicians of earlier generations reaching back to the dawn of humanity built, and in no small way to Norman Blake and other the other innovators he worked with in his long career.
    I want to add this, in particular to Norm, if he’s listening, Keep the faith, Brother, there’s a new generation on the rails you helped build and the trains are on a comeback..

    Steve Patton

  3. “I have seen the rural music I loved from childhood grow fainter and farther away in a commercial and urbanized society that seems to care little for the charm of old fashioned Southern string music and its long gone practitioners.”

    He’s right. The circumstances that made that music possible (economy, regions, class, race) have disappeared. In many ways, those changes are for the good: racism is no longer condoned, the social safety net put in place by the New Deal is not (yet) completely eroded, infant mortality and poverty-associated disease are down, etc.

    But there is no denying that the circumstances which made the music possible are gone. And the majority of the artists Devon Leger cites, while making good music, are not making the music Norman is talking about. To say nothing of the fact that they are full participants in precisely the mass-marketing machine Norman himself is taking to task.

    Jonathan Swift said “no one ever erected a statue to a critic.” Swift was right as well.

  4. […] and the duo helped spawn an army of folk revivalists and immitators from those two generations Devon Leger mentioned in his editorial on Monday. Some people were disappointed by Soul Journey, but it’s still packed with songs many […]

  5. What I’ve seen of the ‘new folk revival’ is a group of middle class people who are in love with the romance of a rural music tradition. Blake, who is an actual rural person who learned the music more organically than some of his slightly younger peers (David Grisman, David Bromberg), is indeed a relict of a past age.

    There are places where the folk tradition has been unbroken (maritime Canada comes to mind) that produces musicians who update the past, but the lion’s share of the new stuff consists of people who are bringing honest reverence to the tradition and can’t help adding a cosmopolitan knowingness that sounds good to other middle class folks, but may seem like dilution to actual inheritors of a vernacular music.

    The new folk people are a bit like the 70s originators of “new-grass” in that their enthusiasm for the original music becomes conflated with the general enthusiasm for music and produces a hybrid sound that has a broader appeal. There are plenty of listeners who heard new grass and wondered where it came from and went back and discovered the “real” stuff. Just like the minority of kids who heard Led Zeppelin and the rumors that they “ripped off” the blues went back and listened to Willie Dixon.

    Blake is playing for this minority. Frankly I don’t know what percentage of an audience is genaological in this way anymore. Do people really care about origins anymore? It seems like some musicians do, but to get the 21st century kids off their butts they might need to do a little more proselytizing than Page and Plant had to do.

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