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Folk Music

Folk Music

Folk music is steeped in the disparate musical traditions that came together on American soil in the 17th century - a happy blend of elements from every continent. While the little-known musicians from these oral traditions left an enduring musical legacy, folk music as we know it today really came into being in the mid-1960s with the emergence of artists such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.

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

Bob Dylan 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 CohenTom Paxton, Buffy Sainte-Marie and 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

James Taylor 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

Patrick Watson 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

Beirut 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 singer-songwriter Jackson Browne. Also appearing at the Festival that year were the group Beirut, with their unusual blend of folk, pop and world, nostalgic Montréal-born singer songwriter Jason Bajada, and Patrick Watson, who gave a magnificent show under the stars.

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