A Voice of Protest
In English-speaking countries such as the United States, England, Ireland, Scotland
and Canada, the term "folk music" originally designated traditional popular
music. And, like its cousin, country music, folk music has become more Americanized
over time, its European heritage all but forgotten. Early folk music was purely
acoustic, and the tradition was passed on orally from generation to generation.
Perhaps owing to this oral dimension, folk music would eventually play a critical
social role as well.
Singer Joe Hill, a pioneer of the 20th century union song,
used folk songs to voice widespread social concerns. In the 1940s, American guitarist
and singer Woody Guthrie founded The Almanac Singers
with fellow musician Pete Seeger, and folk music became a recognized
and legitimate form of social protest.
In the post-WW2 period, Seeger – also founder of the group The Weavers –
was a central figure in the development of the protest song, a blend of traditional
song with new melodies. Also among the period's most influential artists was
Afro-American singer Leadbelly.
In the early 1960s, folk music swept across American campuses, winning audiences
as far as Greenwich Village – the intellectual nerve centre of New York City.
The Newport Folk Festival, started in 1959, helped to launch the careers of such
folk icons as The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary.
Joan, Bob, Buffy and Leonard
The social ferment of the 1960s also gave rise to singer Joan Baez,
aka the "Queen of Folk." Baez openly voiced her political views in songs
denouncing the Vietnam War and social injustice. Her form of popular protest through
music paved the way for emerging folk artists like Bob Dylan – at the time a disciple
of Woody Guthrie.
Despite himself, Dylan became the torchbearer for the 1960s counterculture
and protest movement. (Rock and roll was imbued with the same spirit of rebellion.)
Other folk artists to gain popular favour during this time were Phil Ochs,
Leonard Cohen. Today the dean of Canadian
letters, Cohen is widely acknowledged to be one of Canada's greatest gifts to
music and poetry.
Not immune to the rise of rock music and British rhythm and blues, folk music, by
1965, took on a more electric sound, with the electric guitar often replacing its
iconic acoustic counterpart. Dylan, of course, was among the first to propel the
folk movement into the electric age - his appearance at the Newport Folk Festival
in 1965 was the catalyst, and other bands like The Byrds and
Simon & Garfunkel followed suit.
The Revolution Within
The 1970s saw the emergence of folk-pop songwriters whose interests gravitated towards
personal rather than social issues. Some of the most prominent artists of this period
were Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens and James Taylor – as well as other
introspective troubadours like Nick Drake and Tim Buckley.
Although the 1980s were not folk music's finest hour, they allowed a handful
of interesting singers-songwriters to enjoy their 15 minutes of fame…
and then some: Some of them, like
Suzanne Vega, Billy Bragg, Michelle Shocked
and Tracy Chapman, are still very much active today.
A phenomenon of the 1990s, the alternative folk movement was spearheaded by Buffalo-born
Ani DiFranco, an independent spirit who went on to launch her own
Righteous Babe label. Since the arrival of the new millennium, the folk torch has
been held up high by prolific artists such as Devendra Banhart,
Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes and Alela Diane,
each of whom offers an original spin on the genre – often by injecting it
with a good dose of country, roots, R&B or rock n' roll.
Back In Canada
Here at home, folk music is alive and well thanks to such talented young artists
as Martha Wainwright
and Montréal-born singer-songwriter Patrick Watson. The incandescent and
highly creative Watson has earned widespread praise since the release of his debut
album in 2003. The success of events like the Winnipeg Folk Festival, which started
in 1973, and other Canadian events (the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, the Calgary
Folk Festival, the Winterfolk in Toronto and the Vancouver Folk Music Festival)
speak to the genre's enduring appeal.
Folk at the Festival
The Festival has welcomed various folk artists over the years, none bigger than
Bob Dylan, who gave an historic show here in 2007. In 2008, Festival
fans were treated to a series of intimate concerts by the great Leonard Cohen
culminating in a performance at Place des Arts. The same year, James Taylor
and his Band of Legends performed some of Taylor's signature hits at the Festival,
including Carolina in My Mind and You've Got a Friend.
To mark its 30th anniversary in 2009, the Festival welcomed famous American
Jackson Browne. Also appearing at the Festival that year were the
with their unusual blend of folk, pop and world, nostalgic Montréal-born
Jason Bajada, and
Patrick Watson, who gave a magnificent show under the