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Let’s take a deep dive into “indie folk” music. What is it? Well, first we really need to know it’s origins. For starters let’s look at folk music, which is any kind of music that can be performed using whatever instruments are available. It is passed down through generations orally, like stories. The term “folk” comes from the German word “volk,” which means the people as a whole. Every country and culture’s folk music sounds very different, but can be recognized due to its ability to capture a cultural event, be passed down through oral tradition, and can commemorate specific people. Many folk songs are public domain, as an original writer can be hard to cite. In North America today, people often use the term “folk music” to refer to the folk revival of the 1960s.
From Native American songs, to the music of the American Frontier, the work songs of enslaved Africans, and what we recognize as folk today, North American folk music has quite a range. With the invention of audio recording, people began recording and preserving these arts so that they would not be forgotten. Whatever happened in history was reflected in the songs. For example, during the Great Depression, the folk songs of the 1930s often discussed financial hardship, long work days, and moving. Also known as roots music, North American folk music encapsulates genres including bluegrass, country, gospel, Appalachian folk, blues, Native American music, and blues.
Popular European folk genres include polka, klezmer, Celtic music, Balkan folk music, Nordic folk, and many others. This music is frequently played on a fiddle or sung, and can be accompanied by dance traditions. Many advancements in acoustic string instruments took place in Europe, creating a rich musical landscape throughout the continent. For example, the lute and other early relatives of the guitar can be found in early Europe.
Different countries in Africa have very different folk traditions. We can credit most American pop music, as well as the genres popularized in the Caribbean as adaptations of African folk music. In many African folk music traditions, songs place a lot of emphasis on percussive instruments like the djembe or thumb piano. By playing rhythms on top of one another, polyrhythms are created. The music is difficult to notate using Western and Common Practice Period techniques, as many of the pitches exist outside of those systems.
The word indie comes from shortening the term “independent record label.” The word first appeared in the film industry somewhere between 1920 and 1940. At some point, the word began to shift, taking on a description for those creating music or movies or anything without major labels or a giant fanbase. Today, it more so describes a sound that is a little left of center from the mainstream. Thus, indie music has become its own genre with many branches- one of those being indie folk. While Indie Folk usually is an adaptation of American and English folk traditions, we will certainly be covering some artists who fit outside of that.
Indie folk artists today often can fit into other categories including indie singer-songwriter and indie acoustic. Some of our favorite indie folk bands and artists here at We Are: The Guard include Adrienne Lenker, Vagabon, Molly Tuttle, Chris Thile, Fleet Foxes, First Aid Kit, The Milk Carton Kids, Mountain Man, Leon Bridges, and The Tallest Man on Earth.
Elizabeth Cotten embodied, influenced, and inspired the indie folk genre with Freight Train, a song that she wrote as a child, though the public would not hear it for decades after. When her brother was away at work, seven year old Cotten would sneak into her brother’s room and practice playing his homemade banjo. As a left handed person, she would turn the instrument upside down. She would play the higher strings with her thumb, and the bass with her other fingers. Her self-taught manner of learning the instrument ultimately led to the creation of her own unique style, later to be known as Cotten Picking. As a young adult, Cotten and her family moved to Washington D.C., where she worked in Lansburgh’s Department Store. One day at work, Cotten helped a lost little girl find her mother. Grateful for her help, the mother offered Cotten a job in their family’s home. The little girl turned out to be Peggy Seeger, daughter of Folk Revival leaders Charles Seeger and Ruth Crawford Seeger. With the help of Mike Seeger, Cotten began recording music in their living room in 1952. In 1957, at the age of sixty two, she released her first album, Elizabeth Cotten: Negro Folk Songs and Tunes, later renamed Freight Train and other North Carolina Folk Songs.
Born in 1941, Joan Baez’s 60 year career of performing protest songs has inspired indie folk artists for years. In 1958, Baez performed her first concert at Club 47 (now Club Passim), in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A month later, she began recording what would become her first album: Folksingers ‘Round Harvard Square. In 1959, Baez performed at The Newport Folk Festival with Bob Gibson, which launched her 1960s breakthrough. Throughout her career, Baez touched on topics including the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, environmental issues, and LGBT rights. In addition to being an artist and activist, Baez helped other artists grow including Bob Dylan. From there, she released multiple gold records, performed around the world, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as her protesting spirit inspired a new genre of indie folk rock. In April of 2017, Baez released her first song in nearly 30 years titled “Nasty Man” filled with clever lyrics about Donald Trump.
Joni Mitchell is a Canadian folk artist who created her own indie folk sound by melding various genres including rock, jazz, and folk. Mitchell created her own unique guitar style which utilized multiple, open tunings (which created some difficult live show logistics). Her lyrics inspired women all over the world. Mitchell’s ability to be honest, raw, and transparent about the darker pieces of life and love as a woman in the 1970s helped her to stand out amongst a sea of male rock stars. Mitchell also wrote songs about the environment. One of her most popular releases, “Big Yellow Taxi,” talks about destroying the environment for frivolous, material things. Though it was released in the 1970s, “Big Yellow Taxi” remains relevant today, hinging on the famous line “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
Bob Dylan is an American folk artist born and raised in Minnesota. In 1960, he dropped out of college and moved to New York, where he visited legendary folk artist, Woody Guthrie while in the hospital. He performed folk covers and originals around the city where he caught the attention of the New York Times and Columbia Records. His first releases contained songs that would become staples in the folk culture, like “Blowin’ In the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin.’” Throughout the 60s, Dylan reinvented himself many times while walking the line between folk and rock, acoustic and electric. He would go on to release number one albums and tour with artists including Tom Petty and The Grateful Dead. In 1989, Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2020, folk and indie folk culture is alive and well, and there are some specific venues and festivals that prove that to be true. Since 1959, the Newport Folk Festival has wowed audiences with some of the best folk talent around. This year’s lineup includes Big Thief, Vagabon, Rainbow Kitten Surprise, and many more. Not far from Rhode Island, the famous Club Passim (formerly Club 47) still holds folk shows every night in Boston’s Harvard Square. The venue is frequented by folk heavyweights including Anais Mitchell and local favorites like Kris Delmhorst. Club Passim also supports the local music scene by offering music lessons and courses, as well as grants to upcoming talent. A little further west, Nelsonville Music Festival in Ohio often features a lineup of indie folk talent. Lineups have included Death Cab for Cutie, Julia Jacklin, Ani DiFranco, Angel Olsen, Gillian Welch, and The Tallest Man on Earth. In Colorado, Swallow Hill Music operates as a music school and folk venue serving the Denver area. As you can see, folk music is alive and well in 2020, and shows no signs of stopping. Check out our playlist to hear our favorite indie folk songs.
We hope you enjoy the best indie folk music, new artists and editorial picks here on We Are: The Guard, as well as a background overview of the genre.
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