Saturday, 5 July 2008

Folk music


Apparently, with a sufficiently positive mental attitude, it's possible to scale mountains, snaffle tremendous jobs and win Wimbledon, all in the same afternoon. In a hearty effort at self-improvement, then, I'm going to write about something that makes me merry and excited, rather than stodgy and grumpy. So this week it's all about folk and country music, because both are amazing, sometimes in slightly bizarre ways.

The two are fairly similar, primarily because both are mainly produced by moody people who reckon the twentieth century is a nasty rumour. There is actually an obscure Scottish island (by 'obscure' I mean one that hasn't had a Walter Scott novel set on it, which, given the quantity
of his output, leaves about four) with a local bylaw against plugging in. This is chiefly because the island's electricity supply is rather limited, and churning out a few trippy guitar noises uses an extra plug, and that really tires out the donkey.

Folk bands provide a valuable outlet for those who were run out of orchestras for being wantonly enthusiastic, and caught either tapping their feet or attempting to sing along. Conductors have to keep a very keen eye out for anybody using the word 'fiddle', or for any shifty, wide-eyed, henna-haired hippies lurking near the doors, handing out pamphlets. If they're not careful, one day they'll find their entire string section lying in the nearest forest, full of mushrooms and learning gypsy dances. Other popular recruiting grounds for folkies are standing stones, pagan enclaves and any rural village where they think 'pop' is something you drink. Comedy accents and shirts that look like curtains are keenly encouraged.

In contrast, a proper country singer spends at least three months a year living under the bridge, and the rest downing whisky in filthy bars, slurring '... and then she left me, so I took my wagon to Tennessee' to anybody who'll listen. Then they start a fight, kill a man, go on the run, and write a song about it. If your idea of heating involves gathering kindling, and seeing a car makes you cross yourself, you're probably a prime candidate for county music. Essentially, it's for people who haven't felt the same since spaghetti westerns stopped being popular.

In terms of subject matter, folk is generally about giving birth in a forest and having to kill your baby, then being haunted by its ghost until you hunt down the father and beat him to death with a dulcimer. Folk songs start off like horror films - if you make it through to the last verse without being bumped off, you're doing well. Of course, the last verse has a tendency to go a bit Hamlet and finish off everybody who made it through the rest of the song. It's a bit like climbing inside the big cat enclosure at the zoo - everything looks pretty and cuddly, then it gets messy. Of course, lions tend not to hide your body down a well afterwards.

Having said that, it's not always about murder. It's very possible to die instead from disease, poverty, a broken heart or old age caused by an extended accordion solo.

Country, in comparison, is a much jollier form of music, and sometimes an album can get through several songs without anybody being lynched, drinking themselves into a stupor, or being shot by banditos. It's sometimes quite similar to folk, but with Morris dancing replaced with spitting and swatting flies. Nashville record shops refuse to stock any album with fewer than four songs with subject matter chosen from: God, the devil, trains, general gunslinging, and dysfunctional families (traditionally a violent and abusive father, although an opium-addled mother or an irresponsibly pregnant sister are also allowed. The latter usually leads back to gunslinging). Thwarted love is also acceptable, but any song of requited love automatically counts as 'unnecessary frivolity', unless she dies in childbirth or is bumped off by banditos.

It has been suggested that country is just folk music for the New World, which means that it's more suited to somewhere where yes, there is loads of inspiring scenery, but it's on the other side of several hundred miles of desert, populated (if the cinema has taught me anything) only by wooden petrol stations, cults, missile silos and people hiding out in motels built entirely out of cockroaches and stains. For all this geographical theory, however, I'm convinced it really does come down to God, trains, and shooting stuff. Sometimes, if we're lucky, all three at the same time. It's a fine basis for a national music. Just don't mention line dancing.

Late addition: there ain't no such word as lonely in country music. It's lonesome, dagnammit.

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