Saturday, July 27, 2013

When is a folk festival not a folk festival?

Note: Whenever the word "folk" appears in this article it is used in context with the definition set by the National Endowment for the Arts, "Traditional arts are those art forms that are learned as part of the cultural life of a group of people whose members share a common ethnic heritage, language, religion, occupation, or culturally united geographic region. Folk and traditional arts are shaped by the aesthetics and values of a shared culture and are passed from generation to generation, most often within family and community through observation, conversation and practice."

Writing this generated images of Pete Seeger wielding a fire axe, but it is something that has been bothering me for quite some time and I had to let it out. The see was planted by something the late Jack Hardy several years ago said to me walking the grounds of the Falcon Ridge "Folk" Festival - "(this festival is) a bunch of pop singer-songwriters trying to be rock starts, and doing a piss-poor job of it."
Is it appropriate to incorporate the word "folk" into a festival's title when the music presented is not folk? I understand festivals book certain artists outside the core genre for their popular appeal in order to draw day patrons, the revenue from which is gravy, but if over time the music presented shifts from folk to pop, is it appropriate to retain the word "folk", or better to re-brand?

Let's put this into another context. The MG brand has been purchased by a Chinese company who are manufacturing and marketing a sedans as "MG". See

A Chinese MG? Not cricket, say Britons, who stay away in droves

Here is a photo of the classic MG, designed and manufactured at the 

1954 MG TF
2013 Chinese MG6 sedan
Concept MG SUV
Just as the Chinese usurped the MG brand name, turning a small sports car into sedans and SUV's, certain so-called "folk" festival promoters have usurped the word "folk" and are booking mass-appeal pop artists, their motivation being the bottom line, to draw day patrons. It may be clever marketing, but as long as there are folk artists not booked and displaced by popsters, it certainly is not cricket.
The precedent for renaming festivals that have dropped or reduced folk presence certainly exists. Before it was terminated, the "Boston Folk Festival" was re-branded as the "Boston Music Festival." When its focus moved away from bluegrass to "Americana", the Ossipee Valley Bluegrass Festival became the "Ossipee Valley Music Festival."

Should one expect a sedan or SUV from the MG company? No!
Should one expect bluegrass at a blues festival? Nae!
Should one expect rock music at a classical concert? Never!
Should one expect pop at a folk concert? Certainly not.

At any festival containing a music genre in its title inevitability there will be some cross-over and some edge-pushing, but pop concerts should be so labeled and marketed. "Folk" is not pop festival marketeers' word to usurp.

1. Non-folk artists appearing at the NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL: "Amanda MacKinnon Gaiman Palmer, sometimes known as Amanda Fucking Palmer, is an American performer who first rose to prominence as the lead singer, pianist, and lyricist/composer of the duo The Dresden Dolls" -Wikipediato is a featured artist. Is she a folk artist? Apparently the producers of the Newport Folk Festival think she is, as she and several others popsters, including Feist, Jim James, the Lumineers, Milk Carton Kids, Shovels and know, Boston's NPR music stations' playlist are on the bill.

Amanda MacKinnon Gaiman Palmer, sometimes known as Amanda Fucking Palmer
See the complete Newport Folk Festival Lineup

The Newport "Folk" Festival claims this is folk music.

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra: "Want It Back" Official 

Published on Jul 10, 2012
Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra's official music video for "Want It Back" from the new album 'Theatre Is Evil' coming September 7 (OZ) / 10 (EU) / 11 (US)! Video filmed on and around Brunswick Street in Melbourne, Australia in March 2012. Pre-order the album (on vinyl/CD/digital) at, and get concert tickets at
Producer / Editor / Director: Jim Batt
Artist: Curran James
Stylist / Hair & Make-Up: Anthony Cleave
1st AD / Lighting: Joel Loxton
Production Assistant: Lauren Beck
Special Thanks To: Ghita Loebenstein, Claire St Claire, Kim Boekbinder, Rick Mereki and Andrew Suttar
For more on AFP...
Official Site:
For More On Jim Batt:
© 2012 8ft. records

The Newport "Folk" Festival claims this is folk music.

The Milk Carton Kids: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

Published on Jul 17, 2012

Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale get a lot done with subtle gestures, but there's real sophistication to the three gorgeous, harmony-rich folk-pop songs they recently performed in the NPR Music offices.

Set List:

"Stealing Romance"
"I Still Want A Little More"

For more videos and to subscribe to the Tiny Desk Concerts video podcast, visit

The Newport "Folk" Festival claims this is folk music.

Shovels & Rope - Birmingham

Published on Feb 22, 2013
"Birmingham" is the first single from O' Be Joyful, the debut album from Shovels & Rope. Produced by The Moving Picture Boys, this video was shot in the band's home city of Charleston, SC.

2. PHILADELPHIA "FOLK" FESTIVAL: "Todd Harry Rundgren is an American multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and record producer. Hailed in the early stage of his career as a new pop star, supported by the certified gold solo double LP" -Wikipedia

Is Todd Rundgren a folk artist? Apparently the producers of the Philadelphia Folk Festival think so, as he is billed, in capital letters no less, as their Saturday headliner.

Todd Rundgren
See also "BIG news everybody! Joining us at the 2013 Philadelphia Folk Festival: Todd Rundgren..." What the Folk? from 6/6/13.

The Philadelphia "Folk" Festival claims this is folk music.

Todd Rundgren - Hello Its Me

Live in 1973, with a pre-recorded backing track

Marketeers and branders are clever people, they will do apparently do anything (except consult with and respect ethno-musicologists) to usurp a word and fill the corporate coffers, but don't hold your breath expecting these popsters to be booked into Clifftop or Harry Smith Frolic or Lowell or other folk festivals.

A believer in truth in advertising, I would have more respect for the Philadelphia and Newport festivals to re-brand themselves as "Philadelphia Pop Festival" and "Newport Pop Festival."

Or here's a novel idea, Philadelphia and Newport could return to their roots and let Amanda Plamer and her fellow travelers find bookings at Bonnaroo and similar pop festivals.

Thanks for allowing me to vent, I feel much better now and am heading to the Lowell Folk Festival.


Laura Stewart said...

Purists define folk music as music that has enough staying power that nobody remembers who wrote it, which would exclude all singer-songwriters. But I think most people agree that the singer-songwriters of the 60s folk revival created and performed folk music. Personally, I usually prefer complex music over simplistic, but then I'll hear a song that is achingly beautiful in it's simplicity. I love it when genres are cross-pollinated in unexpected ways, but that can also become a train wreck. One of the strengths of the festivals named in this article is that they don't have a narrow preconceived notion of what folk music is. This keeps things fresh, but it also means that some people will think some of the acts have pushed too far to be called folk music. There is always another stage if one act isn't what you want to hear but sometimes the unexpected turns out to be stunning.

notloB said...

"Purists", the National Endowment for the Arts and musicologists.
Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

notloB said...

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Adrian Durlester said...

Umm, notloB, who are the "folk" to which the name "folk music" refers? Shouldn't the "folk" get to decide what "folk music" is? One person's idea of "folk music " may not be the same as another person's idea of "folk music." What is it that you fear from the particular acts you mentioned appearing at a so-called "folk festival?" I grew up in the 60s on Seeger and Brand and Ochs et al. I use "Rise Up Singing" every day in my work teaching music to young children (and sometimes grown-ups.) I'm happy to see the likes of AFP, the Lumineers, et al. Damn the entho-musicologists, full speed ahead!

notloB said...

The Philadelphia Inquirer has nailed it, its feature piece dubs the Philadelphia "Folk" Festival as "The Philly Folk (zydeco, rock, alt) Festival."