Some thirty years later, the stock market crashed, and thousands of Americans hit the iron road and the highways, nomadically searching for work. Theyd work for anywhere from a few hours to a whole season, sending their money home to their families, before striking out again on their own. Labor unions like the IWW started popping up, and workers began striking for regulations in the factories and the fields. Folk music enjoyed resurgence, as agitators like Joe Hill adapted old Baptist hymns and topical songwriters like Woody Guthrie turned their melodies toward the labor pool and the pending war overseas.
Thirty years after that, Americans rose again, to stand up for their civil rights and to dissent against the war in Vietnam. The folksingers and songwriters of the 1960s became known as members of the Folk Revival, as artists like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, and others lent their voices to an era of social revolution.
Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, folk music fans everywhere seem to be at a loss when it comes to identifying the folk music of today. The baby boomer generation who made up the fan base for the folk revival of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, look to my generation, wondering: where have all the folksingers gone?
So Im just going to go ahead and say it: folk music is everywhere, it just doesnt sound like it did in the 60s (a decade when folk music didnt sound like it did 30 years prior, et cetera). Sure, its no secret that folk music is hardly being embraced by the major media outlets. Although major periodicals like Rolling Stone have written articles praising the Gen X & Y folksingers that have dared to speak out, our generation hardly has a Bob Dylan. Wherever s/he is, s/hes not on MTV or on your local top 40 radio station.
CAUGHT IN THE FOLK AESTHETIC
The problem, I believe, is that folk fans are caught up on the folk aesthetic, which purports that folk music is made only in living rooms, on very shoddy recordings (if it makes its way onto tape at all), with makeshift instruments, and sung by people who hardly have polished voices.
The notion that folk music can possibly be made either somewhat or entirely on electrified instruments, in air conditioned studios, or within the walls of artistically lit arenas and amphitheatres, is completely taboo.
However, folk music has never tried with all its might to remain obscure. It is about people, after all, and is next to useless without the involvement the folk. Bob Dylan upset the folk community when he went electric at Newport Folk Festival; but his message hadnt changed a bit, and Dylans music the acoustic stuff as well as the electric continues to inspire and incite musicians into writing and fans into standing up for themselves, to this day.
Still, with a large facet of the American people in a position of disagreement with their leaders, many folk revivalists (and others), are left asking Oh Dylan, Where Art Thou? The problem is not that there arent any great folksingers anymore (Greg Brown, John Gorka, Tracy Grammer, Dar Williams, and others stand up as a testament to the existence of the persistently topical songwriter) the rub is that folks just dont know where to look.
THE DYLAN OF TODAY
The truth is that the Dylan of today is quite literally everywhere. Shes playing the mainstage at your local folk festival, and touring in the opening slot for indie rock bands. Hes busking down at the flea market, and hes offering his downloadable MP3s for free on MySpace. Theyre driving around from town to town in a broken down old Toyota, and flying from coast to coast first class to play a theatre in San Francisco one night, and Carnegie Hall the next.
Folk Music today may not look like it did a hundred years ago, or even just thirty years ago, but its not the only thing that has changed. Folk is nothing if its not adequately and feverishly commenting on the times in which it exists. Where, throughout American history, folk music has circulated in churches, union halls, jungle camps, living rooms, song circles, and festivals, the topical music of today still happens in all these places; but its also pouring out of the Internet and music clubs all over the country. As Janis Ian snarkily commented on her latest record, Folk is the new black download it and see, the first one is free, and then youll be hooked.