Neal's Principles of Folk Music

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There are as many definitions of folk music as there are folks, but here’s a stab at what it means to me. Incidentally, these are also the criteria by which I conceive and then evaluate my songs (but not necessarily those of others — you can’t really put folk music in a box, now, can you?):

  1. Folk music belongs to everyone (the folks). Which means that it cannot, then, belong exclusively to me. Anyone is free to play it, copy it, change it, record it, perform it, sell it, and so on. Folk music has always been that way, long before there were copyright laws.
  2. Folk music is simple, and not overproduced. In my case, it’s mostly me and my guitar. Ocasionally a harmonica or some organic percussion. If my voice cracks or my guitar makes a funny sound, I don’t care. It’s not about the quality of the recording or the artist, it’s about the quality of the song.
  3. Folk music emphasizes familiarity over originality. While most contemporary music strives (too hard) to be "original" and "unique," folk music admits there is nothing new under the sun, and freely borrows from all that came before. There is still room for originality or "fresh" treatment of a familiar tune or theme -- but originality is not considered the height of achievement.
  4. Folk music is the conscience of the people. It cries out for justice on behalf of the poor, the powerless, and the outcasts of society. It is at times gritty, witty, painful, pleasant, shocking, mocking…but always real.

That last one might not be true of folk music across all cultures, but it certainly is part of the American folk music tradition and the line that stretches from Woody Guthrie down to Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and several others.

These principles seem to be closely related to some of the driving forces behind the Open Source Movement, and the Emerging Church Movement. What a surprise!