Devendra Banhart? James Yorkston? Mumford and Sons?! Our indie prof asks who is the folkiest of them all
Is the folk thing finished yet?
Alex Kapranos via Twitter
Folk originates from the German word "volk", meaning people, and therefore a fairly inclusive term. The word most commonly used by a culture to refer to itself is "people". But as the meanings of words change, folk came to be associated with the "common people". Currently, the use of "folk" is deeply enmeshed in American political discourse. It is a way for politicians to express affiliation with the American working and middle classes. In the US, the imagined middle class is conceived as the common people. In music, folk was initially used to describe traditional song and dance. The originator of the work was unknown and therefore it became the property of the folk, along with stories and other forms of intellectual property.
This "folk thing" hardly refers to traditional music, so it must concern a more recent trend. My first thought was Mumford and Sons, broadly described as a British folk band. Also, because one of my favourite questions was: "If marooned at sea, which member of Mumford and Sons would you eat last?" I asked some musician friends what they thought "folk" means. Lou Barlow said: "Does he mean freak folk like Devendra Banhart? Or someone like James Yorkston?" I speculated that modern folk meant having lots of interesting instruments and lots of members, but I was overruled because Arcade Fire have lots of interesting instruments and no one was willing to call them folk. The person who said "it has a banjo" was booed.
I thought it could be useful to use SXSW to check the status of the "folk thing". As the festival could be considered a snapshot of emerging artists attempting to get a foothold in the industry, it is an apt location to consider the health of various musical styles. In applying to play a showcase, artists are given a set of genres they must choose from that includes folk, but does not include subgenres such as chillwave or sadcore. Other options are country and alt-country. Yet, there is only the category of rock, no alt-rock or indie. Perhaps because alt-rock/indie has become so ubiquitous it is the assumed association of rock. If so, you'd need to develop some retro nomenclature for the few rock bands culture pundits feel free to vilify such as Nickelback and Train. Maybe the genre of "uncool rock", although I'd be interested to see if anyone would dare use it.
So here is a breakdown of the genres chosen by the 2,000 bands playing official showcases. SXSW features hundreds more bands playing parties, special performances and marquee events. None of these artists are required to categorise themselves. So Bruce Springsteen doesn't have a genre under his name.
Latin rock .93%
Now what this data tells us is questionable. On one hand, it is clear that less than 5% of performers at SXSW consider themselves to be folk musicians, not a particularly significant number. Additionally, while many have claimed rock is dead, the majority of performers coming to Austin aspire to success in rock, more than double the closest rival in hip-hop/rap. Yet, this also demonstrates the shortcomings of self-classification. After all, the Ting Tings have classified themselves as punk and the Magnetic Fields as pop, which might not be unreasonable ways to think about their music after all.