You know, it’s nice to see that folk music has pretty solidly made a comeback, with an active bunch of artists making records and touring. The Billboard folk albums chart shows consistent, if not especially spectacular, sales of folk acts. Mumford & Sons, of course, were the big exception and became a major sales story of the year when they moved more than 600,000 copies of the album Babel in its initial release week. There have also been impressive works such as the Avett Brothers’ Carpenter and the Lumineers’ self-titled album.
Folk music has traditionally been the chronicle of historical events. Before (and even after) the advent of newspapers and radio and TV and blogs and tweets, the folksinger, the troubadour, chronicled the events that people cared about. Whether it was the shooting of Billy the Kid or the tragic railroad crash of Casey Jones or the disappearance of the pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart or the sinking of the Titanic, history was preserved in song.
Woody Guthrie, especially, told the stories of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression and the migration west by the Okies with iconic songs such as “This Land Is Your Land,” “Hobo’s Lullaby” and “Worried Man Blues.” Guthrie’s musical children include Bob Dylan, Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash, John Mellencamp and Emmylou Harris. Cash’s folk albums depicted the sagas of the Native Americans. The folk tradition is intertwined with country music and blues music, beginning with the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb.
Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and John Prine were all branded folk singers. The rodeo songs of Chris LeDoux are straight out of the folk ethos. Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt were pioneers on the Texas folk club circuit. Country stalwarts such as Waylon Jennings and Bobby Bare in Nashville were marketed as “folk-country” even as such country-leaning groups as the Byrds and Poco were labeled “folk-rock.” Kris Kristofferson in Nashville was pretty much a pure folk singer.
What is now remembered as “the great folk scare” of the 1950s and 1960s was a time for discovery and renewal of the folk tradition. It started with the huge commercial success of the Kingston Trio with their debut album in 1958 and the hit single “Tom Dooley,” which sold 3 million copies. The song was a smoother modern version of the old folk song “Tom Dula,” which was the story of a real Southerner who was convicted and hanged for killing his fiancée. That sort of revamping old songs became a pattern in commercial folk music. Their lineup — guitar, banjo and bass and three voices — was widely imitated.
Unlike the Kingston Trio’s political neutrality, the folk movement led by Dylan and Joan Baez and groups such as Peter, Paul & Mary shifted leftward and gave rise to protest songs addressing the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War rallies and marches and gave inspiration to countless new folk groups, especially on college campuses.
One of my favorite albums this year comes from the stellar country singer Bobby Bare. His new CD Darker Than Light collects 16 folk songs, ranging from “Tom Dooley” to “Tennessee Stud” to “Woody” to “Dark as a Dungeon.” His laconic vocal deliveries render these timeless songs vital again.
Bare has been adamant as identifying these as “folk songs,” not as “folk music,” because isolating them and identifying them as stand-alone songs is important to him as marking them as significant event songs in American history. For example, the song “Boll Weevil” encompasses a period of American agriculture when cotton was king and boll weevils loved to eat cotton plants.
“What drives me with the folk songs,” Bare told CMT Edge, “is the melodies. The melodies are great, and if they hadn’t been great, they wouldn’t have been around this long. I’m talking hundreds of years, some of these great melodies — and a lot of the folk songs were like CNN is now. They were the news of the day. Anytime a disaster or tragedy struck, somebody would write a song about it and put it to the tune of who knows what — but always to the tune of ‘Red River Valley’ or something like that. That’s the way it goes.”
Bare closes Darker Than Light with the newest song here. The late songwriter, artist and author Shel Silverstein wrote “The Devil and Billy Markham” as a poem, published it in Playboy in 1979, and it was later turned into a stage play. Set in the old Lower Broad diner named Linebaugh’s, it tells the story of an epic dice game between the devil and a down-on-his-luck songwriter named Billy Markham.
Some sample lines from the song: “Well, then, get down,” says the Devil, “just as if you was gonna pray. And take these dice in your luckless hand and I’ll tell you how this game is played. You get one roll — and you bet your soul — and if you roll 13, you win, And all the joys of flesh and gold are yours to touch and spend. But if that 13 don’t come up, then kiss your ass goodbye. And will your useless bones to God, ‘cause your goddamn soul is mine!”
It’s good to remember that Shel, like Woody, didn’t have co-writing appointments on Music Row.