Lexicon of the Modern Folk Fan
In reading descriptions of our musical offerings, all but the few of you who have followed folk music for many a long year will find terms and references that are unfamiliar. Here are a few things to know that will help you better understand what you’re reading. Please send feedback, corrections, arguments and polite suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Blues Music Award – The top award for blues. Formerly known as the W.C. Handy Award.
- JUNO – The Canadian version of a GRAMMY.
- WAMMY – Regional award for musicians in the Washington, DC area.
- Wildflowers, Mountain Stage Newsong, Kerrville New Folk, John Lennon Songwriting Contest – The main international singer-songwriter contests.
- Folkie – A devotee of folk music
- Folk Scare – See “folk revival”
The two that feature many from our roster are Falcon Ridge and Kerrville. These are outdoor camping festivals that feature performances by singer-songwriters primarily, as well as a smattering of traditional folk music and dance.
- Falcon Ridge – takes place over one weekend in Hillsdale, NY, usually at the end of July or early August.
- Kerrville – takes place for eighteen consecutive days in late spring to early summer in Kerrville, Texas. The Kerrville New Folk Award is given annually to the winner of their songwriting contest. It’s very prestigious.
- Other regional festivals to check out: Old Songs, Jenny Brook, GottaGetGon
Young people in cities and colleges, particularly in Greenwich Village, NY, became devotees of Southern Old-Timey music, blues, Appalachian ballads that came from the British Isles, as well as square dance music. This began in the 1940s with the Weavers (Pete Seeger and company) and hit its peak in the mid-60s.
Caffè Lena became one of the cornerstone venues for this music scene. Caffè Lena is the only venue from that era that has been in continuous operation ever since. Club Passim in Harvard Square is a descendant from that era. Godfrey Daniels in Bethlehem, PA has been around since the mid-70s, and The Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, CA has been around since the later ’60s.
Everyone knows what a guitar, fiddle and banjo are. Nearly everyone recognizes a mandolin (short neck, 8 strings, common in bluegrass). Here are a few frequently seen folk instruments you might not know:
- Bouzouki – Like a mandolin on steroids. Popular in Celtic music. It’s actually Greek in origin.
- Bodhran – Most commonly pronounced “bow-rahn,” but whatever slight variation you choose, Never Pronounce the D. Circle shaped drum that’s hit with a short bone or wood tipper that is flipped back and forth for very fast and compelling rhythms.
- Celtic Harp – Also Irish Harp. Somewhat smaller than the big Concert Harp sometimes seen in orchestras.
- Concertina – Sounds like a mini accordion. It’s octagonal, black, is pumped between the hands, and notes are played with buttons on each end. Common in English music and sailor songs.
- Djembe – An African drum that is about 3 feet high and is usually gripped between the knees and struck with bare hands. If you go to a folk festival, you will be “treated” to the near constant “music” of the Djembe coming from one campsite or another.
- Dobro – These are resonator guitars, meaning they have a large metal disc on the face that actually covers an aluminum cone that makes the sound louder. Most common in Delta blues, but also in bluegrass (played lap style).
- Dulcimer – Mountain Dulcimer, Lap Dulcimer or Appalachian Dulcimer (or, colorfully but uncommonly in New York State, “hog fiddle”) are all the same thing. It has four strings and is plucked with one hand and fretted with a little dowel in the other. Hammered dulcimers are the big, many-stringed trapezoid-shaped things that sit on a stand and are hammered with little wooden paddles.
- Jaw Harp – AKA Jew’s Harp or Trump. A little metal twangy device that never fails to draw a laugh. It’s chomped on and plucked.
- Musical Saw – Certain folk musicians are capable of using a violin bow to extract ethereal music from a common household saw. The resulting sounds rival the finest opera singers of Milan.
- Uilleann Pipes, Small Pipes – The Irish version of the Scottish Great Highland Pipes. Much gentler sound. The bag is filled by pumping with your arm and the mouth is not employed.
There is a regrettable lack of consistency in the use and interpretation of these terms, but as long as you maintain a flexible outlook these definitions should help get you started on forming your own definitions. Then you can jump in and help muddy the water along with the rest of us:
- Alt-Country – This is country music with elements of other genres, such as bluegrass or acoustic rock.
- Americana – Not quite rock, not quite country. An amalgam of many American musical styles.
- Bluegrass (traditional)- A typical bluegrass band would include banjo, fiddle, guitar, bass, and mandolin, with wonderful multi-part harmony singing preferably with a “high lonesome” sound. Traditionally, the songs are interpretations of folk ballads of the British Isles, though gospel songs are also popular with bluegrass bands.
- Blues – For us it’s usually Acoustic Blues, or Country Blues. Most common guitar styles are Delta and Piedmont. Delta is from Mississippi River Delta and characteristically makes use of a slide (traditionally a bottleneck, these days a metal tube). Piedmont is from the southern east coast and employs fingerpicking and syncopation. Chicago means electric blues.
- Celtic – Traditional music from Ireland and Scotland primarily, but also from related peoples elsewhere in the world.
- Clawhammer – A banjo style that is rhythmic and typically used in old-time music. The opposite is Scruggs style, which you hear more commonly in Bluegrass music.
- Country – In the context of the folk world, country does not refer to the loud, electric music called country in the popular media. There’s often a twang to the vocals and a fun bounciness to the rhythm, but the instrumentation is acoustic and often emphasis is placed on beautiful harmony singing. Note to New Yorkers: it really is okay to enjoy this.
- Fingerstyle Guitar – This tends to refer to instrumental (no singing) guitar pieces that have a sort of Classical-New Age-Jazz hybrid sound. Fingerstyle players employ numerous inventive and virtuoso techniques, such as unusual tunings, tapping the strings, playing notes on the fretboard rather than over the sound hole, etc.
- Jug Band – String bands (no drums or keyboards or electric instruments) that typically take a humorous, eccentric and up-tempo approach to live performance, and include one member huffing and puffing into a jug to provide the bass rhythm.
- New Folk – Fast Folk was a musician’s co-op in NYC that published a magazine and records through the ’80s and ’90s. Participants focused on the art of songwriting rather than on traditional songs, and they largely took over the folk scene from the traditionalists. This is often referred to as the New Folk Movement. Certain people are still grumpy about this, while others are delighted. This dichotomy often devolves into the age old debate about “What is Folk Music?” You’d be amazed at how worked up folkies can get over that one.
- Newgrass – Bluegrass music that contains improvisational elements (tending toward jam band), or non-traditional instruments, such as electric banjo or drums.
- Old-Time, or Southern Old-Timey, or Oldtimey – Popular in the 1920s and ’30s and then again during the Folk Revival. Typically features fiddle, and banjo or guitar. Lyrics often seem humorous or surreal, but actually are telling the story of everyday poor people in Appalachia (“Patch it up with a piece of string / Spearmint gum or any old thing / When the power gets sick just hit it with a brick / And the little Ford will ramble right along!”).
- Quebecois – This is French-Canadian traditional music that features percussive footwork, unison singing (no harmony), as well as guitar and fiddle.
- Roots, Rootsy, American Roots – This is the trendy label of today. Typically, it consists of original songs played in a rock style on folk instruments (guitar–electric or acoustic, fiddle, mandolin, banjo). If the music also incorporates elements of jazz, it’s more likely to be called “jam band” than “roots.”
- Traditional – When nobody knows who first wrote the song, and it has been passed along from player to player for decades, and it exists in many variations, it’s Traditional. Some people feel that is the only music that should be called folk music. Other people feel that this is Not Worth Arguing Over.
A tiny sample of the musical greats of the past whose names you’ll hear referenced most frequently. Go ahead and look them up.
Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Lead Belly, the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers, Elizabeth Cotten, Mississippi John Hurt, Turlough O’Carolan, Child Ballads (not a person), Alan Lomax (not a musician).
These magazines review folk music recordings and provide in-depth articles about players and events.
- Dirty Linen – ceased publication in 2010, but you’ll still find many performers described with quotes from that magazine.
- Penguin Eggs – Canada’s leading folk mag.
- Sing Out! – now the main U.S. folk mag.
- You’ll also find much interesting info in American Songwriter, Acoustic Guitar, No Depression (online only), and several others.
These are weekly programs that feature contemporary folk musicians:
- A Prairie Home Companion – NPR
- Mountain Stage – NPR
- Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour – NPR (around here you have to listen online)
- In our area you can also tune in to Wanda Fisher’s Hudson River Sampler on WAMC, Local 518 on WEXT 97.7, Mostly Folk and Stormy Monday Blues and others on WRPI, Sympatico with Chris McGill on WSPN, and Robert Resnick’s All the Traditions on VPR
There are many besides those listed here, especially since long-time folkies often create their own labels and run their recording operation independently.
- Compass Records – Lots of country and bluegrass artists. Located in Nashville.
- Red House – Located in St. Paul, Minnesota, this label represents many new folk artists from the Fast Folk era (see, now you know what I’m talking about!)
- Rounder – Based in Cambridge, MA. Specializes in roots, bluegrass, and old-time country.
- Signature Sounds – Based in Northampton, MA. Tends toward the groovy and mellow and soul-stirring.
- Smithsonian Folkways – The Smithsonian took over the Folkways Records collection in 1987. Under original owner Moses “Moe” Asch, Folkways recorded Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and more than 2,000 others.