Scrolling through the Calgary Folk Festival line-up, smiling at the names of musicians I know, YouTubing the ones I'm looking forward to knowing soon, I found myself marvelling at the diversity of all these artists gathered under the folk umbrella. Afro-pop, Scandinavian folk-punk, psychedelic soul-folk, Afro-folk hip hop, country-folk, Americana, indie and roots rock, existentialist anti-folk (I bet you won't find an existentialist anti-metal band at a heavy metal music festival) and singers and musicians, traditional and modern, from all manner of ethnicities, ancestries and cultures. In these dark days of division and closed borders, such inclusivity seems a rare delight. But really that's how a folk festival should be. Folk music is the music of a community and culture in a world full of communities and cultures. As the late folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax said, "Folk music is the map of singing." True, though I've got to admit I'm even fonder of Louis Armstrong's definition: "All music is folk music. I ain't ever heard a horse sing a song."
This got me thinking about the folk music of the country where I was born and raised: Great Britain. In all honesty, I hated British folk music. As a young girl in London at the end of the '60s, folk was just another subject you were taught in school, like algebra. The teacher stood by her desk with a finger in one ear and sang "Green Grow The Rushes-O" and ''Raggle Taggle Gypsy-O" in an exaggerated, rustic, Olde English (or Welsh or Scottish) accent. And there was worse to come: traditional British country dancing. (Search "Morris dancing" and "Yorkshire Long-sword" on YouTube and I think you'll understand.) Anyway, I already knew what British music was: it was the Beatles and the Stones, the music I grew up on. I know now, of course, that there were elements of British and Irish folk in both bands' songs and a great deal more African-American folk music too, but I was a dumb kid who loved electric guitars and pop and rock ‘n’ roll and loathed hopping on one foot over plastic swords.
It was years later, after I left England for America in the late '70s, to write about music for a UK rock magazine, that I started to change my mind about folk. Punk rock was where that started. You mightn't think they'd have much in common but early punk, like early folk, was stripped-down and primitive, didn't require expensive instruments or great musicianship, and had lyrics written from the perspective of the downtrodden and working class. There was a freedom to punk that there hadn't been for some time in mainstream rock music. It wasn't made for the music business (although they did butt in when it looked like it might make money) but for a close-knit community and culture. The punk movement spread across the globe, taken up by people in other communities and cultures, who wrote their own lyrics related to their own country's societal ills. As genres tend to do, punk started fusing with other musics and formed subgenres. In L.A, where I was based, some of my favourite bands fused punk and country -another unlikely mix, given punk's urban anger and alienation and country's rural honkytonks and church. But these bands the music press was calling cowpunk, roots rock and alt. country weren't channeling mainstream Nashville country so much as old country, with its roots firmly in Black and white folk music.
I loved this old American folk music as much as I'd hated old British folk music. I had a collection of albums of old field recordings and prison recordings made by musicologists in the 1930s. Many of those American folk songs had a deep ancestral familiarity. Understandable since, as Elvis Costello put it, many were "cousins, two or three times removed" of the old British and Irish songs we had both been taught. Sometimes they were more like twins separated at birth, one staying put in a quiet pastoral spot on a small, green, rainy island, the other sent on a ship across the ocean, hauled up and down the Appalachians and bumped in wagons through deserts and wild terrains The folk songs I'd found so parochial and unexciting were given new life by that movement through the vast space of America, crossing borders, encountering people who had traveled to America, some as immigrants, others as slaves, all carrying their music inside them. Some carrying instruments. The banjo, an instrument so often associated with European-American folk and country, was an African instrument brought to America on a slave ship. The significance that African-American music has had on not just America but on American music, period, would take much more than an essay to describe.
Fast forward to the '90s. I was back in London, working as reviews editor for the UK magazine MOJO. I noticed a never-ending torrent of new albums turning up released on indie labels. The labels were often based in different parts of Europe but the artists were mostly American, some of them former punks or heavy rockers, now playing acoustic instruments, banjos, mandolins, even musical saws. They were a disparate bunch. You couldn't call them all alt. country, but in some way or other they had roots that led back to early American folk. To find a place to cover them I inaugurated a column in MOJO I called ‘Americana.’ The column's still there and I still write it. Actually one of the first albums I featured in it was by an artist who's playing the Calgary Folk Festival this year.
The credit for making me finally face my British folk phobia goes to David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, the venerable East L.A band. Soon after moving to America I'd seen them play on the punk circuit - their mix of cumbia, norteños, roots, rock’ n’ roll and folk made them outsiders in the mainstream music business, but they fit right in with the punk movement and signed with a punk record label. Hidalgo was talking about the records he heard when he was growing up, and one album he particularly loved was by the Fairport Convention – a '60s British folk band. On the way home, I made a detour down Sunset Blvd to Tower Records. I had a lot of catching up to do. I even became a folk singer.
Sylvie Simmons is an award-winning rock music journalist and the author of a number of bestselling books, including Leonard Cohen's biography I'm Your Man. Her most recent book is the Debbie Harry memoir Face It, and her latest album, on Compass Records, is Blue On Blue. She is also a singer-songwriter.