Redefining Folk

Redefining Folk Music: Dan Zanes was Right

by Joe Allonby

I was chuckling to myself while watching the broadcast of this year’s Grammy Awards. I usually find this awards show ridiculous. It glorifies the safe and staid. The furor over Adam Lambert’s “shocking” performance was laughable. Twenty years ago, Lux Interior would have been just warming up. The real punch line for me though came when one of my favorite records of the year won a Grammy. Steve Earle (a Country singer-songwriter) recorded an album of songs by the late Townes Van Zandt (a Country singer-songwriter). In its category, it bested an album by Lucinda Williams who is of course a Country singer-songwriter. It did not win for best Country record. That category belongs to cute teenagers who sing about cheerleaders. Steve Earle is now considered a folk singer.

Let’s put aside for a moment the obvious question of “What the fuck then is Country music?”. A better question is “What are you calling Folk music and why?” The music industry, on its deathbed, may be starting to get it right.

In the mid-eighties, the gritty rock band The Del Fuegos performed in an infamous television commercial for Miller High Life beer. In the commercial, singer Dan Zanes stated “We consider Rock ‘n’ Roll Folk music because it’s for….folks.” He was castigated from all sides. How dare he say that about Folk? How dare he say that about Rock? How dare he take money for a beer commercial? How dare he endorse a bad beer?

Dan was right then and he’s right now.

The music that The Del Fuegos played on their records bore a strong resemblance to the stuff that I played as a young teenager in basements with my friends. We played songs we learned from each other. We played songs we learned from older guys. We copied songs off of records. We played Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly songs. Bob Dylan got thrown into the mix. Remember him? Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker turned up too. Johnny Cash. Then we started altering them. Soon, we were stealing licks and pastiching together our own little collages and calling those songs too. We were making grassroots music from a learned tradition with rules and conventions and expanding on it. We were doing it ourselves for ourselves. Several years later, people started calling this thunderous mongrel noise Punk Rock. I’ll call it what it is: Folk music. And I’m damned proud of it. It’s part of my heritage as an American and I’ll swing a vintage ash-bodied Fender Telecaster at the head of any snob who says otherwise.

You knew I’d get back to Bob Dylan, didn’t you? The Folk singer? The protest singer who knew every single one of the other one-hundred and forty two protest singers in the world personally? Purists booed when he brought The Band on tour in England in 1965. Judas! He committed sacrilege by bringing an electric guitar on stage in Newport. I don’t believe them. They’re liars. Dylan idolized Elvis Presley almost as much as he did Woody Guthrie. Newport was certainly not the first time he played an electric guitar. It wasn’t even the first electric guitar on that stage on that day. What was the problem? Heaven forbid that he should sully Folk music with something as plebian and blue-collar as a Fender without being a black guy from Chicago or the Mississippi Delta. The music he was making had more to do with the true American experience than any college kid with an acoustic guitar whining about Appalachian experiences that she never had and never would. The turncoat protest singer wrote some of the most beautiful love songs in any tradition. Call it Pop. Call it Rock. Call it what you will. I think you know what I’m going to call it.

I heard a lot of that righteous Dylanesque pride and anger when I first heard Public Enemy and later NWA. Horrors! Infectious rhythms and clever word play used to suck you in and then smack you in the face with a message that you might not be willing to listen to otherwise! And kids are listening to it! Right on! In fact, that music has some of the same rebellious spirit as Irish rebel songs. Wouldn’t you rather have kids listening to that than the latest self-satisfied pabulum from Tracy Chapman?

Rap music can still be dangerous and that’s what’s good about it. All over the world, kids are in basements with laptops and microphones stealing samples, mishmashing their own rhythms with improvised lyrics that speak of their own experience. I spoke with up and coming rapper DoShiNe (aka Keith Walker) about how he got started in Gastonia, North Carolina.

“Well, Joe. I started rapping at the age of 12. Just freestyling on the corner. There is no one rapper who inspired me. Therefore I was inspired by a lot of different artists. Anyway, I use my music to get away at times. To express myself. To escape. To get it out. Sometimes people may get the wrong message. But if they relate to it. Know the same story. That’s good. I can reach someone in the process of expressing my pain, my joy, my experience.”

Let’s see. Spontaneous creation of music. Check. Independence from corporate music industry structure. Check. Geographical separation from commercial music industry. Check. Expression of shared cultural experience. Big fucking check. Does this music come from a shared cultural tradition that’s passed down and expanded upon? Chuck D and KRS-One are probably writing books on that subject right now, so I’ll give it a check.

People are making music like this on their own all over the globe. It spreads from hand to hand in underground mix tapes and demos. It’s sold in subway stations and on street corners. It spreads like wildfire over an internet that acts like a Pynchonian W.A.S.T.E. system that The Man can’t control. People carry it around in their pockets on little machines that are like concealed weapons of musical guerilla warfare. The people have taken control. Rap. Hardcore Metal. Irish fiddle tunes played in the corners of urban pubs. Punk rock. Country music that has nothing to do with the Nashville machine. I’m sure that you can see this point coming like a runaway train. It’s all Folk music. As such, these forms deserve the respect that is long overdue them.

Music radio is dead. The music industry is moribund and starting to draw flies. Long live the Music of the People. Now go down to your basement and make some of it.

Joe Allonby and his vintage ash-bodied Fender Telecaster make thunderous Folk Noise in Boston Massachusetts where he lives with his beautiful patient girlfriend.

This entry was posted in Music and tagged Dan Zanes, Folk, Grammy Awards, Joe Allonby.

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