Most people think of modern folk music as inherently coupled with the singer-songwriter movement. And it is true that, once upon a time, those who would grow up to become the folk troubadors of their own tomorrows learned their songs the traditional way, at the knees of their elders, that they, too, might pass old songs on to a new generation, and tell their own stories in familiar forms.
But the primary instruments of folk music turn out to be more versatile than the folk tradition would suggest. And though many modern musicians surely came to folk the old-fashioned way, through listening and picking, plenty others have grown up in modern home environments and schools where formal lessons are a norm. Today's radio dial speaks in a variety of tongues and timbres. And a parent's treasured record collection allows for a broad base of source material far richer than that which can be learned from the old folkie or bluesman next door.
The result has been a world in which the potential for early imitation can come from almost anywhere, and does. And as the ways we listen, store, pass along and learn our music change, so does the method by which musicians gain their craft, and stretch it out. It is a world of crossover, in which classical cellist Yo Yo Ma sits in with James Taylor in concert, The Kronos Quartet plays the hell out of Robert Johnson's Crossroads, and bluegrass musicians like Bela Fleck cut entire albums of classical music. And, since all these remain the music of the folk, for the folk, and by the folk, when the sound comes together just right, it's still folk music if we want it to be.
On one level, then, like indiefolk, folk rock, and Celtic Punk, the inclusion of classical music in the folk musician's repertoire is just another example of the hyphenate hybridization of genre which is so common in the world of modern music. But on another level, I think there is reason to celebrate this phenomenon as something very special.
For one thing, the ability to interpret classical themes and motifs effectively is not something that all kinds of folk musicians are even capable of. Doing so calls upon a kind of technical adeptness that is anathema to the strum patterns so prevalent in folk musicians who have learned their trade from blues or rock.
On an even grander scale, making classical music "come out" as folk collapses an exceptional historical dichotomy which presents classical music as the exact opposite of folk music. To take a form which its composers and its audiences have long maintained is so complex, so rarified, that it can only be fully appreciated after years of careful listening and quiet appreciation, and put it in the hands of musicians and instruments which are, by definition, "jus' folk", is a revolutionary act on a scale far beyond that of any other folk hybrid form.
In other words: it takes both skill and guts to do this. And perhaps this is why, though the passage of melody and theme from the commonfolk to the highbrow has been a common theme in classical music for over a century, from Bartok to Copeland, it remains rare to hear serious application of classical music to the instrumentation of folk, at least in the hands of musicians who themselves identify as coming from the folk tradition.
Today's coversongs involve neither songwriting nor singing, for the most part. Instead, here's a surprisingly diverse set of genuine classical music played on acoustic guitars, banjos, mandolins, fiddles, and other rude country noisemakers by a set of musicians from many folk traditions: contradance, "true" folk, flamenco, Klezmer, the bluegrass and appalachian camps. One hand, this is nothing more than another example of the same phenomenon that makes electronic folk a legitimate (albeit still very fuzzy) term in the hands of promoters and artists. On another level, this is more folk than anything else, a set of adept artists bravely trading on their popular cache to bring cake to the breadline. Relax, and enjoy.
- Bela Fleck, Sonata In C, "La Caccia" (Scarlatti)
- Bela Fleck, Presto #1 In G Minor After Bach (Brahms)
- Bela Fleck, 2 Part Invention #13 In A Minor (J.S. Bach)
- Chris Thile and Mike Marshall, The Goldberg Variations, No. 1 (J.S. Bach)
- David Wilcox, Burgundy Heart-Shaped Medallion (Wilcox/Bach)
- Brooks Williams, Joyful Joyful (Beethoven)
- Romero, Jesu Joy Of Man's Desiring (J.S. Bach)
- Shirim, Kozatsky 'til you Dropsky (Tchaikovsky)
- Carlo Aonzo and Beppe Gambetta, Oh, Mio Babbino Caro (Puccini)
- Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, Bonaparte's Retreat Hoedown: Rodeo / Bonapate's Retreat / Miss McLeod's Reel (Stepp/Copeland)
- Shawn Colvin, Close Your Eyes (Brahms)
An amazing intro set from banjo wizard Bela Fleck's classical album Perpetual Motion.
Thile and Marshall make this crisp mandolin and guitar take on Bach sound effortless. From their collaborative effort Into the Cauldron.
A tiny original lovepoem and a sweet Bach fragment makes a meditative start to Wilcox' second album How Did You Find Me Here.
Pure, rich fingerplucking folks up the Beethoven on Brooks Williams' Little Lion.
Fun post-modern flamenco from Bolero Records compilation Bolero Gypsies New Flamenco, Vol. 2.
Shirim's swingin' klezmer take on a tune you'll recognize. From Klezmer Nutcracker, via The Late Greats Xmas mix 2006.
Aonzo's masterful mandolin and Gambetta's harp guitar sparkle on Traversata, one of many broad-ranging, world-changing products from David "Dawg" Grisman's Acoustic Disk label.
Versatile contradance couple Jay Ungar and Molly Mason take on American composer Copeland and his source material on Harvest Home.
Cover Lay Down fave Shawn Colvin does a sweet traditional English version of Brahms' Lullaby on Holiday Songs and Lullabies.
As always here on Cover Lay Down, all song and artist links above go direct to label and artist websites, where you can and should purchase these and other incredible soundscapes. Because while buying your music instead of downloading it might be a classical model, supporting artists without the middlemen is most definitely folk.