I spent this past summer living and working in the heart of the High Peaks Wilderness in New York’s Adirondack Park, swaddled by looming mountains and lustrous lakes of an overwhelming blue. It was an adventurer’s paradise, a hub for experienced explorers and area newcomers alike, boasting everything from treacherous climbs to approachable day trips.
Needless to say, this type of work environment seemed to lure a particular type of individual – one who feels compelled to investigate the outdoors, one who is passionate about protecting the terrain and one who is comfortable with the prospect of relinquishing cell service. In common parlance, then, “crunchy.” Or perhaps the term “granola” better suits your fancy. Either term speaks to a sense of indivisibility from and adoration for the natural landscape, one that was exceedingly palpable in my new backdrop.
While I’m still not quite convinced that I would call myself an ideal spokesperson for the aesthetic, I can say with a good deal of certainty that many of the people I met would classify themselves in this category. As a result, my new friends were critical in widening my exposure to the critical tenets of granola-hood: Open-toed sandals, miscellaneous houseplants, second hand clothing stores and of course — folk music.
Aside from a brief exposure to the Tennessee-based bluegrass group Old Crow Medicine Show on a hiking trip a few years ago and a fondness for their rendition of “Wagon Wheel,” my familiarity with the genre — or anything resembling it, really — was slim to none. In my youth I frequently characterized my own taste in music as “anything but country,” incorrectly broadening the category to include anything with crooning vocals set against the anchoring strum of a guitar.
In reality, however, folk music is distinct from the genres we are quick to fasten together with it. Folk music’s melodious musketeers are made dear to us by the nuances that slowly reveal themselves to us unacquainted listeners as we let ourselves become submerged in their sounds: The deep acoustic and percussive tones of Americana, the often frustrated sense of fire in country and the confluence of higher-pitched string instrumentals like the fiddle and the banjo in bluegrass.
What stands out most saliently in folk music is its subdued sense of poignancy — its clear demonstration that thoughtful lyricism need not be enmeshed in pounding snares and climactic crescendos in order to be powerful in its own right.
While there is of course significant bleeding between genres even within the repertoire of a single artist, pooling this whole corner of the music world into one entity unjustly overlooks the subtleties that make listening worthwhile.
Examining folk’s roots yields something even more alluring. Folk relied not on written scores or song sheets to expand its reach, but rather on the community linkages that continued to listen, remake, and replay it. This lack of a physical record meant that folk music — an ambiguous distinction to begin with — was perpetually in flux. In this way, the style was also inherently democratic, allowing for collective adjustments and revisions that championed the group over the individual.
After all, folk was music for the masses. Its low barriers to entry made it receptive to those often shut out of the more refined sounds enjoyed by the urban upper classes, namely Black communities or impoverished white families living in rural regions.
The initial recordings of folk songs were taken as an attempt at a new brand of aural recordkeeping, with “song-catchers” sweeping across the country to capture the melodies that powered family life throughout the early twentieth century. As these individuals confronted the gestation of a new era of mass media, complete with radio broadcasts and popular culture, their mission was centered around avoiding obsolescence and extinction.
While there is something about folk that pushes us to swiftly classify it as uniquely American, this is of course not entirely accurate. It is true that America’s early brand of folk music was different from the versions popular in the South American, African and European communities, as well as amongst indigenous groups here in the United States, yet folk is a phenomenon that transverses geographic borders and racial lines.
The genre has undoubtedly evolved since its inception, yet the core tenets remain unscathed — moving lyricism, subtle acoustic instrumentals and a markedly open-ended framework that serves as a corollary to the ideals of liberty and exploration so prominent in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is this antique aura, this rejection of the synthesizers and the auto-tune that lend a distinctly artificial quality to today’s music that encapsulates folk.
This pure, unadulterated essence is what makes folk the ideal soundtrack for introspection against a natural landscape, for wandering through the woods and wondering what you’ll find.
Megan Pontin is a junior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected]. Rewind runs alternate Tuesdays.