Folk, Rock & Other Four-Letter Words
THERE HAS BEEN a great increase recently in the number of popular artists whose songs are influenced by or taken from American folk music–both traditional and modern. The paranoiac need of modern man for a label for anything that comes near him resulted, in this case, in the term "folk-rock" to signify pop music with strong folk influences. Originally "folk-rock" meant pop music that used actual folk material; later, anything folk-influenced that retained a heavy beat, and still later, anything having anything to do with folk that happened to sell in the pop market.
The term "folk-rock" is a silly one, and has grown sillier over the months. It would be just another in an endless parade of silly terms, however, were it not that the press and the music trade have, because of the word "folk-rock," chosen to believe that folk mixed with rock 'n' roll is the big new trend. There are a lot of "Folk-rock is a way of life" articles appearing hither and yon, signed by the same old bunch of interpreters who really believe that if you speak the language of the teenager you understand him. The mass media are currently explaining to the mass audience how Bob Dylan, the new pied piper, with his electric flute, is leading the youth of America out of the coffeehouses and into the echo chambers of plugged-in music. Hogwash!
In point of fact, nobody is leading anyone, the overall nature of the pop music field has not changed too significantly, folk influences have always been significant, and "folk-rock" is nothing but an undefined term carelessly applied to a certain ancient style of rock 'n' roll which happens to be getting better, and thus more popular, at the moment.
The difference between pop music (rock 'n' roll if you will) and folk music, if there is a difference, it is that folk music is what the folk feel like writing at a given time, and pop music is what the folk (in general) feel like listening to. If they happen to overlap a little, and 'Sounds of Silence' sells a million records and 'Turn, Turn, Turn' 800,000, be happy that the free hand and the free ear have agreed for once. But don't try to say that the one is absorbing the other. If tomorrow the non-professionals of the nation feel like singing about surfboards, while Tin Pan Alley works overtime feeding a national taste for songs of the open road, the former will still be creating folk music, the latter pop music. And if the two should influence each other, rejoice at the occasion. But don't speak of folk and rock as though folk were something filed in the Library of Congress of sleeping in Bob Dylan's breast, and rock a beast that cannot borrow from something without devouring it. Folk is folk and rock is rock, and if the twain should meet, and exchange note, fine. But that's no reason to try to unite them forever, folk-rock, a marriage of brothers. "Folk-rock" is a deception, and the sooner the American press defines its terms and realizes it has deceived itself, the better.
Three Short Reviews
'What Does It Get You?', Carolyn Hester, Dot 16800
'I'll Keep It With Mine', Judy Collins, Elektra 45601
Carolyn Hester and Judy Collins are both popular female folksingers, thought of by some as second-rate Baezes, by others as first-rate Baezes. Fortunately, they are neither. Unlike Baez, both these women have style and empathy. Both of them also have recently released 45s to their credit; one of them even has a potential hit.
Carolyn Hester is easily my favorite of the two as a performer and a folksinger. However, the only thing that will interest anyone in the Top 40 field about 'What Does It Get You?' is the fact that it was produced by Normal Petty (all right, so you don't remember the Buddy Holly days. I remember the Buddy Holly days!). The song is pleasant, nicely sung, and unexciting. It is not successfully pop-oriented, it is not catchy, it is not very good.
Judy Collins, on the other hand, has made a recording which is damn good and should, with exposure, be a Top 10 hit. The arrangement is excellent, the singing is intense and surprisingly well recorded, and the accompaniment is a good pop sound. The song is by Bob Dylan; the words are nice but ambiguous and the song ends very inconclusively, as though Dylan really didn't have anything to say, just a nice tune to play around with. But it's a fine song; it may not be much to dance to, but just try to get it out of your head once you've heard it.
Of course, the music business geniuses will probably look at the charts, note how poorly Dylan's own single is doing, and announce: "Don't play it, the Dylan trend is over, instrumentals based on TV commercials are the new trend." I've never seen a group of prophets so utterly unable to see the trees for the forest.
'Set You Free This Time' & 'It Won't Be Wrong', the Byrds, Columbia 43501
The Byrds' latest single is a double-sided hit (they get a lot out of a piece of plastic), each side by a different member of the group. Though it catches on slower, 'Set You Free This Time' (by Gene Clark) is definitely the bigger and better side. It's a lovely, moving song with Dylan-like twenty-syllable lines chockfull of well-chosen words. The arrangement is in the usual Byrds style, rhythm & bass backup, melody carried mainly by the vocalist while the lead instrument or instruments work harmonic variations on the tune. The singer is deliberate and effective; he occasionally under-emotes, but since the group does not rely completely on the vocal to convey feeling, no harm is done. The harmonica at the end is beautiful.
The flip, 'It Won't Be Wrong' (by Jim McGuinn), is louder and more catchy, though not as memorable. It's a good r'n'r sound, and moving in its plaintiveness ("Please let me love you and it won't be wrong"). Both sides show clearly that the Byrds are nothing if not original. This won't match 'Turn! Turn! Turn!''s three weeks at #1 (one for each "Turn!"), but it should be a good solid Top 20 hit.
'Mellow Down Easy', the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Elektra 45016
'Back Door Man', the Blues Project, Verve-Folkways 5004
The happening at clubs in New York and LA for the past year has been the coming of the electric blues bands. With groups like Paul Butterfield and the Lovin' Spoonful leading the way, a field that was empty a year ago actually became crowded. Sooner or later this sound is sure to spill over into the charts. Let's take a look at two of the 45s that might start the action.
'Mellow Down Easy' and its flip, 'Got My Mojo Working', are both cuts from Butterfield's first LP, which has been selling excellently. Unfortunately, those stations that have picked up the single so far have been playing 'Mojo', sung by drummer Sam Lay, which is a fine number but too familiar to make any kind of pop splash. 'Mellow Down Easy', however, has some potential. It's a great song; Butterfield's singing and harmonica are fantastic here, as is Mike Bloomfield's electric guitar. But I like the song too much to be able to say for sure whether someone brought up entirely on rock 'n' roll would be turned on by it if he heard it on the radio. It is a danceable, driving number; Butterfield definitely has the best sound of all the white blues groups, including the Stones. Sooner or later, this band is sure to record a #1 hit song. I don't think this is it, however.
'Back Door Man' is much more likely to be a big seller, if it gets airplay. The words are bluesy, but not so far out of sight that the average listener doesn't know what's going on. The beat is straightforward and effective. The band is terrific; it is almost a prerequisite for blues bands to have more talented and imaginative players than straight r'n'r bands. And to top it off, this song has a hook, a really fine one. The band breaks at the start of the last line of the chorus, emphasizing a particularly exciting vocal. You've got to hear it to know what I'm talking about; the point is, I think this song could be huge if it gets airplay.
© Paul Williams, 1966