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What It Means to Be a Folk Musician

What It Means to Be a Folk Musician

photo by Susan Wallach Fino

I recently reworked a Bob Dylan song and, in the process, deepened my love for folk music.

I know that the word "folk" is a highly contested term. In his book "Deep Community," Scott Alarik offers his 10-year old niece's definition of folk music: "All the songs are ABOUT things." I agree. For me, worthwhile songs
have to have some real meaning--literal and symbolic, explicit and implied, lyrical and musical.

Meaning is especially important because we're increasingly surrounded by meaninglessness. Folk music is acoustic music that *means* something.

To start the process of reworking the Dylan song, I started with the most important lever for meaning - the lyrics.

I took the lyrics of Dylan's "Oxford Town" and imagined the words as a piece of poetry and asked:

•-What kind of mood and tone does the language have? (conversational?reverent? wry? dark and foreboding?)
•-What are the specific features of the lyrics that convey that mood?(Everyday speech idioms? Biblical references? Clunky "surprise" words?
References to primal natural elements--the moon, "the sun don't shine", etc.)
•-What visual images come to mind? (What's the "movie" that plays in your mind as you read it?)

With the "movie" from the lyrics in my head--images of darkness, sorrowful songs, closed doors, etc.--I then considered the music. Dylan's upbeat, fast-paced music did not fit with my "movie," so I changed the music to fit the lyrics as I experienced them. Just as the very same spoken words convey different meaning whether they're whispered or shouted, or uttered with a smile or a frown, the meaning of song lyrics depends a great deal on the musical arrangement and delivery.

I encourage you to go through this exercise with "Oxford Town" or another song that you love - focus on the lyrics as a poem and ask yourself what they mean. If you are a musician, then craft some new music for your meaning. If you aren't inclined to do that, then just enjoy the meaning your reading has helped to make.

Making meaning - this is what I love about being a folk musician, and why I'll always consider myself one.


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   Ears and Eyes (what I'm listening to and reading )

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