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Phil's Folk Curmudgeon Review

The Folk Curmdgeon Review October 2011 by Phil Cooper

I haven’t written a Folk Curmudgeon Review for quite awhile.  But I was looking through an issue of Living Tradition Magazine a few months back, and saw an ad from Greentrax records.  It quoted a review of a band that contained the affirmation that this group was a refreshing change on a scene that was plagued with groups playing “hyphenated folk music.”  That got me to thinking…


I’ve stated before that my definition of folk music is:  if I like it, it’s folk; if I don’t, it’s not.  That is rather simplistic, I know.  However I’m tired to hearing “don’t hear no horses singing it,” or “it’s all folk music.”  And, I’m not buying into traditional versus contemporary.  I may really push the trad end of my repertoire a lot, but I started being interested in playing guitar from listening to “folk scare” songwriters.


My friend Joel Mabus once described what he did as “music generally recognized as folk.”  I always liked that, though it can come off as awkward.  I often wonder why performers in this field try to be dismissive of the phrase “folk music.”  I say, admit that’s what you do.  If you want to add embellishments, do it in a way that respects the music.  Don’t try to put into your music the worst aspects of rock and pop music and think it improves what you’re doing.


I have no quarrel with electronic effects, using modern recording techniques as tools in putting music across, or taking chances.  But does the world need more plotless songs with shark-fin chords and no discernable melody?  And just what is alt-folk anyway?  What has always appealed to me in folk music is the straight-forwardness of the words with recognizable melodies.  I don’t particularly care if I’m immediately dropped into the middle of a good old tragic story, as in a Child Ballad, or some new scenario laid out in crisp imagery.  Abstract language can work, although it needs to be better than “angst, mugs on the wall, desolation” type bad poetry.


My objection to some types of production and effects is when they interfere with the words or the point of the song.  Why impede the listener’s ability to understand what you’re trying to say?  If you don’t care about that basic communication, then admit that you’re a performance artist and not a folksinger.  What has always appealed to me about folk music is a strong story with a strong melody.  When formula takes precedence, the music suffers.


I’m reminded of a live introduction Ben Bedford gave to his song “Lincoln’s Man.”  He said that if the protagonist survives at the end of the song, it’s pop.  If they die, it’s folk.  Although I don’t necessarily agree with that 100% of the time, it reinforces the idea that there’s something special about this music that you won’t usually find anywhere else.  Who decided that music was NOT supposed to make us think and feel?  I thought that was what it was all about in the first place.