An exploration of Folk music and the artists concealed within it.
Too often I have conversations with young people of color and somewhere into the dialogue we discuss musical tastes. I usually get a response along the lines of, “I like everything, but Country music!” It seems that has become the packaged response for young and urbane citizens of the Western world. Jazz, for instance, is a genre that receives a great deal of prestige, but few are able to define it, yet it still manages to be a symbol of class. However, in dismissing an entire category, we miss out on a wealth of unique sounds and potential interests.
The boldly constructive sounds of Country music, range as far back as the 19th century and as distant as the cool shores of Ireland. Modern day folk rock and country music all find their roots in folklore music that has origins on every continent. Prior to written language, scribes would tell extemporaneous or memorized stories in the form of song and even act has historians or early journalists, accounting for the events of the time period. That means country styles are the musical remnants of our ancestors and their traditions; so much history accompanies this often ignored art form.
Country music, which is a rich and diverse American style of music, is based in rural styles of instrumentation and intonation that contrast from the hullaballoo of big cities. Folk music is generally associated with White youths from such cities and suburbs seeking peaceful revolution. We see the greatest following of such music in the 1960s and1970s, primarily with American folk legends Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Carole King, and Harry Chapin. Their voices were that of reason in a very turbulent America; whether it was civil rights, war, domestic issues, or addiction, these pioneers fused country, rock, and blues to form an honest expression of man, his vices as well as his weaknesses.
Today, modern folk styles have clearly overlapped with pop, country, and soul genres. Irish artists, Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan as well as American country trio, Dixie Chicks have clearly invested Folk principles into their craft, while maintaining contemporary appeals. Nonetheless, artists like James Taylor and Bob Dylan remain exceedingly popular, crossing generational gaps with an ever-growing fan base.
Nowadays, popular country music glares with a pop sheen. Stars like Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, and cross genre star, Miley Cyrus dominate the capitalistic industry that promotes typical Hollywood glamour. Mass culture has used the sounds of such teen idols to create a unified sense of consumerism, through commercials and still ads.
But what about other artists who sang with the sinuous undertones of pain and the delicate kisses of joy? Within the unturned sides of sweet music is a tradition of exclusion and elitism. Grammy award winning singer/songwriter/musician, Tracy Chapman has been known by an underground market as a dreadlocked folk artist known for her graceful strumming, bluesy tones, and pertinent lyrics. Her songs feature romance, politics, grief and a multitude of other expressions that illustrate the human experience without words, just sounds. These sounds were harmonic chants, narrative baselines, and stories free from social demarcation. Despite the undeniable talent, musicianship and dedication, she is often relegated to the misconstrued and underrated alternative/other category. Even though she has been active for over 20 years, she has yet to fall among the ranks of other geniuses of her genre.
Though her artistic success and personal integrity have gone unrecognized, this Black female has persisted in her musical pursuits despite the definitions of femininity and Blackness. Her music is not restrained by racial or feminine themes, making her a more transcendent artist. However, has the industry defined Black artists as excessively sexual or overly bitter? Whatever the case maybe, it is apparent that artists of color have been ascribed to a sole function; thankfully this songstress has made it even clearer that she will perfect her craft in spite of the critics and the throng of skeptics that tell her otherwise.