THEY CALL IT FOLK MUSIC
By Elliott Murphy

In the very early sixties something appeared on the American pop cultural landscape that was neither glamorous nor legendary nor particularly long lasting but whose influence continues to be the lie-detector test for authenticity that most pop music fails to pass. They called it Folk Music and its heyday came about during the pastel twilight of quickly fading rock idols with greased hair and names that reminded one of synthetic leather (Fabian, Avalon, Rydell) and just before the world wide epidemic of the infectious europop of the choirboy Beatles. Few may remember, but like Camelot there was a brief shining moment when we all got quiet and became aware of something very pure strumming and singing in the distance, coming down from the mountains of idealism. This was an innocent time my friend: before Kennedy's head was splattered on his wife's pink suit; before drugs and rock n roll were joined at the hip; when pubic hair was not yet part of the skin palette of Playboy magazine. The cultural Richter scale steadied for a moment way back then and a dip in the barometer of what was cool allowed those of us who could strum three chords on a nylon stringed guitar to try our best to appear authentic, to support our new found ideals of racial equality and pacifism and to sit in small circles and pass the guitar around and learn folksongs.

Don't be confused: Folk Music was not the cowboy music of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers or some anthropology study of hillbilly yodeling. It was not dumb at all, in fact it was both smart and innocent, a formula which proved unstable and split apart soon enough. But its attraction lay in its sad and lonesome quality and finally we loved that most of all, didn't we? When our adolescent instincts told us that contrary to what they'd been preaching in Disneyland Cathedrals, life was indeed tragic after all and here was the music to prove it; music that had been proving it from way before we were even born. It was not the rock evolution of Roll Over Beethoven, it was the wisdom of the ages saying Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley, Poor Boy you're bound to die. In Vietnam, in street violence, from bad drugs, whatever...poor boy, you're bound to die. We were a long way from becoming street fighting men and nobody even knew what french perfume smelled like, not to mention teen spirit.

But even though it was soft folk music and not powerful rock n roll, there were still bands to be fans of and even dress like: groups with no nonsense names like The Kingston Trio who wore matching Madras shirts and Peter Paul and Mary in hip goatees and ironed Francoise Hardy hair, and even sex symbols like Joan Baez and Buffy St. Marie and rebels like Tim Hardin and David Blue. Rock n roll had its originators - courageous men like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley - but Folk had its own patriarchs in Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, men whose sworn duty was to keep the flame burning, the cause alive. Folk had been around for so long that there was never any need of a discussion about who invented it. It was music for white middle class college kids determined on joining the Peace Corp and polluting the Upper Nile river with the soapy American dream while accompanied by "world folkies" such as Harry Belafonte's Caribbean work songs and Odetta's mother Africa ballads. For the most part we, the fans, were clean, short-haired and stayed home Friday nights to watch "Hootenanny" the prime time TV show dedicated to only folk music, often broadcast from college campuses back then when there was no other way to go except unplugged. If a Glam rocker had appeared on that TV stage he might as well have been from Mars. And finally that's what Mr. Bowie did with his 12 string guitar a few years later but that's another story...

My sister Michelle was just three years older than I but it made all the difference when she was 17 and I was 13. In the beige autumn and snow white winter weekends of 1961 and 1962 she would go on college weekends with her girlfriends; highly chaperoned affairs that gave high school girls a chance to see university life first hand without any fear of losing their virginity. I remember her returning from a trip such as this held at Princeton University (F. Scott Fitzgerald's alma mater if that makes any difference) deep in New Jersey, then terra incognita but destined to be the future Springsteen holy land. Anyway, she told me of a coffee house concert she had attended, a smoky affair of espresso & fake beatniks (were there really any other kind?) featuring a young folk singer in a trainman's cap who held his harmonica in some contraption wrapped around his neck as if he'd been injured in a car crash. Of course, it was Bob Dylan with yet only one album under his belt. That night in Princeton he played for my sister and maybe twenty others, maximum. But thank God, she insisted on bringing it all back home to me, her kid brother.

I had picked up the guitar a year or two before. Twelve years old and hyper active and my mother thought it a good way to calm me down. Mostly I was figuring out how to play Link Ray's Rumble on the $25 instrument my father bought me, when made in Japan meant cheap. But when that Christmas in 1962 I found the first Bob Dylan album under the tree, a present from Michelle, I knew I had found another world. This was the purest folk of any album Dylan ever did with perhaps the exception of the recent Good As I Been to You, he only wrote one song on the LP and sang of a mysterious House of the Rising Sun that's been the ruin of many a poor boy. Of course, I knew I wanted to be ruined in that same way. Before that I had listened to the Italian immigrant do-wop of Dion and The Belmonts, the southern gothic of Elvis and the black hipster swing of The Coasters, but this was music to eat potato chips with and drink cokes while trying to get beneath endless layers of petticoats for a feel of the real thing at teenage parties. It wasn't until I heard that first Dylan album, that I learned that some wonderful songs were to be listened to and not danced to; that some songs had a history and a birthplace far outside the money covered halls of the music business and an afterlife far away from the fickle airwaves of pop radio play. That this folk music might live on and survive, regardless of the sins of show business, devoid of entertainment value but full of real life stories which is always a difficult commodity to sell door to door, radio to radio. These folk songs were full of the real joys and tragedies of real lives and people sang of it and ate of its essence the same way they ate a bowl of soup on the family kitchen table: with no pretension or expectations of anything else but what was put in front of them.

I've come back to this style of music many times since and I've distilled my own music down to the basic formula of a man and a guitar and harmonica many times both on record and in concert both for artistic as well as financial reasons. Practicality was the essence of Folk Music: guitars and banjoes traveled light and were easy to pull out after a hard days work. Pianos were for the aristocrats and besides what could they say that a ten hole harmonica couldn't say better and cheaper? It was this minimalist spirit which always attracted me and so many others to folk music. It was what made this music feel real when everything else felt like it was contrived in some mad producers head. We knew we could play "Stagger Lee" or "Coming Round The Mountain" but could we ever inhabit the Spector world of "Be My Baby?" in any way other than a listener?

Now all these years later, I can tell you from the heart that more than any other artist who has achieved a "large audience" and who grew up with an exposure to Folk Music, it is Bruce Springsteen who has carried that same combination of innocence and ideals that folk music instilled in us into his own music and survived the minefields of MTV and top 40 radio while doing this noble task. Really, I don't know how Bruce feels about that music, I can't ever remember talking to him about it, but I know he was there at the same time and place that I was and must have experienced in some fashion the same exposure to folk that I did because its so evident in his own music. For the most distinguishing quality of Folk Music is its sense of place, its tie to a particular region, micro-culture and geography no matter how small or provincial that world might be. It is not city music for the jaded. Folk is the music of the backwater, the provinces; it is music for the losers of life, not the winners; for the victims of oppressive government who sent boys off to fight old men's wars and wall street financiers who close down mines and factories and families too, in the process. It is the music of couples struggling to stay together, not roving eyed wanderers nor highway outlaws. The music of the folks living out there in the boondocks riding in...Volkswagens, of course.

Nowhere is Bruce's attachment to the lyrical traditions of folk music more apparent than in TRACKS the long awaited 4-CD set of many of those out-takes all his most rabid fans had been genuflecting about for years. It was an event that I feared would be anti-climactic, just another fix for Christmas shopping addicts. But I was wrong. For more than any other release of Bruce Springsteen's career, more than any album or tour, TRACKS , this collection of throwaways, this re-familied gathering of the orphan songs of his 25 year career, this blatantly commercial, overtly packaged "gift set", the CD equivalent of a coffee table book, has managed to transcend all of the banality of the hoopla surrounding its release to say, this man is an artist of today with a story to tell and a landscape all his own - essentially one of the greatest folk artists the world has ever known.

And who better than me to be the judge of Bruce Springsteen's current standing? After all, we left the gate at the same crack of the starter's pistol back in the early 70's. My own horse went lame halfway through the race and by the time I had re-mounted Bruce had rode on to glory far beyond me. There was a time when I have cried jealous tears over his triumphs and more recently I have basked in the reflected spotlight of his fame thanks to his generosity. We are no longer rivals, just men with families approaching fifty - the great leveler.

And now coincidentally or not SONGS, the actual must-have coffee table book itself and compliment to TRACKS, has been released. For the most part its a beautiful book full of historical photos and a good selection of the most important lyrics although I must say that Bruce's own in-depth narrative of how each album found its direction sounds almost too orderly to be true - no guitar player can plan his life that well - its still a moving document of a well thought out career. Bruce Springsteen's sense of place and time in his lyrics is even more apparent when they are laid out in front of you in black and white as they are in SONGS. He has succeeded in inventing a New Jersey world of his own imagination in the same way that the American author William Faulkner did with Mississippi - a world that I'm not sure ever even existed but one that does have a specific geography you can relate to and a sense of place and time and tragedy like all the best folk music. I have visited the New Jersey Shore that Bruce calls home in his lyrics many, many times and for me it only holds its allure and fantasy when looked at through the tinted glass of Bruce's music.

In fact, hard core Bruce fans will take weeks of precious vacation time to visit the New Jersey heartland he has nearly always inhabited in both music and body; the fans come from far and wide, from Europe and beyond to sit at the bar of the Stone Pony club, to stroll the crumbling Asbury Park boardwalk, to look in vain for Madame Marie's fortune telling booth. They crowd into rented cars with streetmaps in sweaty hand to search out Bruce's own humble beginnings in a two family home in Freehold, New Jersey, a town once best known for the engine noise of its hot rod dragstrip. And then finally to drive slack jawed past Bruce's heavily guarded baronial estate in upper class Rumson, New Jersey and let their imaginations catapult them over the walls and into his property to see what he and his family do in there. Look for clean socks like the rest of us mortals I suppose, but no matter. Now I ask you: do Dylan, Bowie, Stones or Beatles fans have such a holyland, to visit? A land of rockdreams chronicled in songs and lyrics to make their own pilgrimage come high summer? I don't think so. Of all the gargantuan stars rock n roll has produced only Elvis Presley stayed so close to his birthplace but only in his address and never in his music. But the man didn't write songs so that's a whole other story.

Truly Dylan is the Picasso of our music and the cultural icon of the second half of the 20th Century. And he did it first, faster and with more courage and self assurance than any artist seems to deserve. But his legacy is poetic and surreal. His line of immortality descends from Rimbaud and Ginsberg. His symbolism knows no known landscape, its all in the traveling circus of his own mind. He is not a troubadour, more like a magician, a Merlin who appears when you least expect him. And while Bob Dylan has done his damndest to keep us from knowing him at all and in most ways succeeding, Bruce Springsteen only wanted us to get to know him better, in a folksy way and to understand why he had to write these songs.

He has never stood in the shadows of his music. Could he had conquered the world with another moniker less quirky, less folky than his own? I doubt it. I know of no other Springsteens - no Dr. Springsteen the painless dentist or Springsteen's hardware store. No, none of these. He is the only one. Heartfelt and sincere in a heartless and fake world.

It was cynicism and marketing that destroyed the chances of folk music ever reaching a larger audience than it did. We may talk of artists like Suzanne Vega or even Beck as neo-folkies but its only a nametag for press people to hang on to. There are artists like Loudon Wainwright, Arlo Guthrie, John Prine and Dar Williams who continue to uphold its very valuable traditions. It won't die, I'm sure of that. Recently, I played at a benefit concert in Belgium for an aging American banjo player named Derroll Adams. You've probably never heard of him. He came to Europe in the late 50's with Rambling Jack Elliott, a disciple of Woody Guthrie, and he stayed here for better or worse all those years since. He's not rich or famous, in fact he's fairly old and quite ill and can barely play the banjo any more. When we were first introduced he was sitting in a wheel chair and had to turn away and have a coughing fit before he could continue. But the small concert hall was sold out that night, full of people who knew who Derroll Adams was and whose lives had been touched by anonymous folk musicians such as him and so many others and who gathered that evening to show support for something they once believed in and maybe still do.

As a final encore we all got on stage and sang Portland Town, the best known of Derroll Adams' not very well known repertoire. It's one man's story told in plain speak, how he was married in Portland Town and had three sons - Frank, Jimmy and Johnny - who were all sent to war and killed. The six verses were told in the simplest language possible - no poetic rhymes, no acrobatic symbolism - and yet when the narrator sings at the end, "I won't have no kids no more. No I won't." it was devastating to hear. He had lost everything he loved to something he neither understood nor had any control over. The war that took his sons could have been any war, Portland Town could be any town, anywhere in the world but it was that sense of place, that one detail that gave the song its truth and it power. I had never heard "Portland Town" until that night in Belgium. I could probably not find it in any music store in Paris and I'm sure it will never be played on the radio anywhere if I listened all year long. And when I heard it that night I cried. I hadn't shed a tear at a concert in a long, long time.

They call it Folk Music.

Elliott Murphy's web site
Back to Bread Crumb Sins Home Page