The Times They Are A-Changin': Is Folk Music Still Relevant for the Resistance?

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Jake Jacobson
Billy Bragg delivering the keynote speech at the Folk Alliance International conference in Kansas City, Mo. on Feb. 18, 2017.  

It’s hard to imagine the turbulent '60s without such folk songs as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Eve of Destruction” or “The Times They Are A-Changin’” serving as musical markers of protest. And when Lady Gaga opened her Super Bowl halftime show earlier this month with Woody Guthrie’s iconic folk song “This Land Is Your Land,” the 77-year-old patriotic anthem got introduced to a new generation.

As America enters its most fractious political time in decades, can folk regain the social relevance it once had as the musical voice of resilience and resistance? The very people you would expect to say yes -- some of the biggest artists in the folk genre -- said no during the 29th annual Folk Alliance International conference held Feb. 15-19 in Kansas City, Missouri. But they passionately believe that folk music and its heritage will have a moral and guiding role in shaping the conversation, no matter what it sounds like.

“White boys with guitars is a bit outdated,” FAI keynote speaker Billy Bragg told Billboard. However, he added, “This is one of those fertile times when folk music can come along and feed the resistance. What’s different is that music no longer has a vanguard role in youth culture because of the internet. There are so many different ways to express your anger now, whereas before the only real medium that made sense was music. If you’re 19 and angry, you can make a film on your phone.”

Or, if you’re Harry Belafonte, have your social justice organization Sankofa link up with Tidal to put out 17a short film tied to the fifth anniversary of the death of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed African-American teenager killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Or if you’re A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Consequence and Anderson .Paak, use the Grammys stage on Feb. 12 to call out Donald Trump’s immigration ban. Several folkies interviewed by Billboard felt that rap had become the mainstream voice of the struggle, but they believe they still have a part to play.

Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, looks to artists like Beyonce to continue the work of her father and other politically-oriented folk pioneers. She stresses that just because the music isn’t based in acoustic guitar doesn’t mean it isn’t drawing from the same ideals. “When Beyonce came out with ‘Formation,’ that could be a Lead Belly tune as far as I’m concerned,” she said, citing the legendary folk/blues artist. “Folk music has roots. I always think of [my father] as the trunk of the tree, and as the decades go by, it just keeps growing different branches. What Lady Gaga did at the Super Bowl, that’s a branch. Joni Mitchell changed the world, but so did The Clash.”

To Nora Guthrie’s point, Katy Perry’s pop smash “Roar” was a rallying cry for the Jan. 21’s Women’s March, while Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”  provided an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. “You don’t need an acoustic guitar to make a song that challenges the status quo,” said Ani DiFranco.

Texas Music Hall of Fame inductee Eliza Gilkyson, no stranger to political-themed folk songs herself, references Animal House when asked if traditional folk music can reclaim the mainstream voice it had in the ‘60s. “That feels a little like that scene when the folk singer’s on the stairs [in the fraternity house] singing ‘I Gave My Love A Cherry,’ and John Belushi smashes his acoustic guitar,” she said. “We can’t go back to the stereotype of folk music from that time. We’re all writing in a way that feels more current. There’s a place for it, but it has to seem more new and fresh.”   Grammy nominated singer-songwriter Tift Merritt agreed that the message may look different than it has in the past: “Folk music is built by design to carry a message,” she said, “but I’m sure there will be messages dressed in more modern dresses that are just as effective.”

And relevant. Some folk musicians have abdicated their role as historical chroniclers and moral compasses as a survival tactic, said FAI executive director Aengus Finnan -- hence this year’s conference theme of Forbidden Folk (a topic chosen well in advance of November’s election results). “Folk music once had a higher profile on the frontline of these issues -- whether it was on picket lines, in civil rights marches, demonstrations -- that were the issues of the day, and there was a bit of a shift within [folk] to become more industry oriented around personal career success,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with that, that’s about self  preservation of the artist, but it brought with it, ‘oh, I don’t want to upset my audience’.” FAI’s theme and this year’s programming were designed “to really create that bold, proud and confident ability of the artist to not shirk from the issues,” he said.

It is a tough line to walk, said upcoming folk singer Caitlin Canty, especially when so many artists make their living playing in red states before paying customers who want to be entertained, not necessarily preached to.  “I feel sympathetic to those audience members,” she said, adding that she kept most of her political opinions and activism separate from her music -- until recently. “We need our Guthries right now,” she said. “That’s not how I’d stereotype myself or my friends, but I think everyone is adding that piece to their personality right now.”

What folk artists may lack in arena-sized audiences, Finnan believes they can make up for in a more personal outreach. “The activation that is happening now is at a grassroots level,” he said. “There is an intimacy to the presentation of acoustic-based folk music that is in the coffee houses, in the community halls, in the church basements, in the high school gymnasiums that has a very disarming quality and that has a proximity to people’s hearts and lives that is different from commercial music. There may be a few crossover acts that bump up into that world from ours, but I think it’s a different track that folk music can take.”

For legendary folk rocker Bruce Cockburn, getting the message out is all that matters, regardless of the form. “The more voices and the louder the voices the better,” he told Billboard. “If you have someone like [Katy Perry,] who reaches the ears of many many people, it’s all to the good.” And, as he said, invoking a quote made famous by Louis Armstrong, “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.”