Jiulliard-trained Oscar Isaac, while breathtaking in his multi-layered performances onscreen and behind the microphone, lacks a well-worn vocality. A resonant gritty edge gleaned only from walking the dusty road of the American narrative described in story-song in every folk ballad ever written. Where his classical-trained execution ends, however, begins the timeless echo of the powerful musical voices of Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk, two similar artists on whom the movie is loosely based, but who enjoyed vastly different artistic outcomes.
The Coen Brothers’ adaptation of music-to-film (or film-to-music?) finds its calling here. Here, among the deep wooden sustain of notes plucked on vintage instruments, which evoke the cigarette-smoke-filled cavern of the Gaslight Cafe. Greenwich Village’s pre-cool, pre-beatnik haunt serves as the backdrop of musical history making in the chronicle of folk music in both the semi-fictitious tale told in the film, and in the real account of the 50s and 60s folk scene.
Some criticize folk in its simplicity. It’s not uncommon to find songs comprised of three chords or less, with monotonous melodies that refrain for centuries. But it’s important to note that often the technical aspect of music itself can certainly both be the story itself, or it can easily get in the way of the story. The songwriter’s challenge is to find the balance. And if folk is in fact “the people’s music,” then it should in no way mimic the classist attitudes and systems that separate us as a society. Notes composed in an ivory tower have often served this purpose through the ages, but folk is the musical journey of every cultural movement that invoked struggle to survive. Indeed, classical training in music theory has for millennia been a hallmark of the aristocracy. Conversely, the musical traditions of history’s poorest are reflected in the untechnical and unclassical songs of the ages, less compositions and more human experience. This is its ruggedness, a grit that serves the ages in its raw truth. Folk music is at its most precious and sacred when it inhabits this quality. Though for many musicians, this is a characteristic that is all too easy to forget.
Everybody knows that folk pre-dated rock, but few realize it pre-dates even jazz. Blues may be a direct cousin of folk music, but folk came before it all. Indeed, American folk is a vestige of the folk musical tradition that grew from the foggy hillsides of the Celts, as well as the trampled mudbath streets of Medieval cities, as well as the colorful landscape of every country in every continent. The nueva cancion movement of Latin America, the creole music of the Caribbean, the silver thumb-pianos of Africa, and the multi-stringed instruments of the Indian subcontinent. Folk is essentially a term for the music of every cultural tradition throughout history.
To most people, these names come to mind at the thought of “folk music,” Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Woodie Guthrie, etc. SOJA lead singer/guitarist Jacob Hemphill, however, has a different perspective. “To me, Rage Against The Machine, Wu -Tang Clan, Sade, Johnny Cash, Bob Marley – they’re all folk artists,” he says. “There’s no difference between Raekwon saying, ‘I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side, where staying alive was no jive,’ to Bob Marley saying, ‘Cold ground was my bed last night and rock was my pillow, too,’ to Johnny Cash saying, ‘I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free, but those people keep on moving (around) and that’s what tortures me.’ Folk is all about storytelling and passing on a legacy. It’s timeless, it’s limitless and it crosses all boundaries.”
With that in mind, the musical boundaries that contain “folk” conceptually begin to broaden widely. Personally, I make the argument that folk encompasses all music that tells allegorical cultural stories. Whether it be Johnny Cash as the Man in Black, who was the voice of the children of the Great Depression, or strolling troubadours from generations ago who tell oral histories in song – or even myself, as I emphatically focus on storytelling in musical form. Any and every singer-songwriter composes in the folk tradition, vast and ancient as it may be. That is the deep richness of folk; it is an inclusive circle of the human voice, with roots buried beneath every hallowed musical tradition, that continues to freely weave parallel and dynamic voices of the human experience.
For a sampler of some of the most revered and notable folk songs in the American narrative, please see the Smithsonian’s Anthology of American Folk Music, curated by the people.
Below is my favorite American folk song since I was a little girl. My mother used to sing it to me, and her father used to sing it to her, and his mother sang it to him, and so on. Sung by the incomparable Judy Garland, a daughter of the vaudeville tradition. Her rendition encapsulates the power of folk: the haunting of the soul.