What is a folksong? Does Authenticity matter?

Posted: March 31, 2015

What does authenticity mean in the 21st century? One critic says most singer/songwriter products are indistinguishable from pop. We are urged to avoid slavish copies of styles and techniques collected by folklorists yet respect them. Should we avoid anything not strictly acoustic? Condemn anything ‘commercial?’ Is it possible to write an “authentic” new folksong? What is authenticity? Do digital recording, the internet and globalism justify threatening the diversity of countless ethnic musical cultures created over hundreds of years with extinction?

Moe Asch, the visionary behind mid 20th century Folkways Records wrestled with this issue, but never really defined it. He would just listen and decide for himself whether a performance was ‘authentic.’ Acceptable examples ranged from tribal dance music, through Harry Smith’s Anthology of American rural music, to Guthrie, Seeger, the Ramblers, Dave Van Ronk, etc. whose living was singing and sometimes writing “folksongs.” Aunt Molly Jackson defined it as “…a song of the people, which is the only kind of a song that is a folksong, it’s what the folks composes out of their really lives, out of their sorrows and out of their happiness and all…”

Have we moved on since then? We still have to listen and decide for ourselves, if it matters. Sometimes we tinker with old songs to complete or intensify them, without losing authenticity when we re-interpret the legacy of the old song carriers and good interpreters. It respects them and it’s great music. It works when I write too. You don’t have to agree, just enjoy it. –Jack


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