There are as many ways to characterize folk music as there are people singing and playing the songs.
It encompasses a wide range of musical styles, with the songs being passed on from generation to generation and place to place. And, like in a game of whisper-down-the-lane, it expands and changes along the way.
At its most elemental, folk music is storytelling.
It may be an old story that channels one’s ancestors and relates details and sentiments of long-ago, or it can be a newer story that draws on tradition but brings a fresh interpretation. In any case, the story moves along, and the music is how it travels.
This is why an organization like the The Folk Project is so important. A North Jersey-based, volunteer-driven group, The Folk Project has been championing and showcasing folk music for more than three decades.
Musician Mike Agranoff has been booking the performers for the organization’s Troubadour Acoustic Concert Series since 1977, back when The Folk Project was hardly a glimmer in the eyes of a couple dozen people who’d been getting together socially to play music.
When the group decided to set up a more structured organization, they looked to the Folk Music Society of Northern New Jersey, which ran until the early 1990s, as its model.
Agranoff found his niche running the concert series.
“We present concerts every Friday,” Agranoff said, “and have been at the current location, the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, since 2005.”
The next concert in the Troubadour series is on June 21 and features the multi-talented David Roth, with The Sandie Reilly Band opening. The show starts at 7:30 and admission is – according to the website - $10 on your way in, plus the balance of what you think the show was worth on your way out.
With this history and wealth of experience, I wanted to tap Agranoff for his opinion on defining the characteristics of folk music.
“There’s this running joke,” he told me. “If the performer makes more than one trip from the car to the venue, it’s not folk music.”
But seriously folks, it is a challenge to pinpoint what is folk music.
For example, the description on the group’s website states that the musical styles they present “go well beyond what you may consider traditional American folk music, including blues, swing, gospel, jazz, sea chantey, Irish, vaudeville, doo-wop, gypsy, jug band, and rock ‘n’ roll.”
Agranoff employs a similar broad-strokes approach when selecting performers for the Troubadour concerts.
“The music doesn’t have to be strictly traditional,” he said, “but performers get points for at least referencing a traditional style.”
With singer songwriters who perform original compositions, Agranoff looks for strong content.
“I’m less focused on the sound and more focused on the lyrics and the meaning.”
When it comes to musicianship, Agranoff favors performers who can “really play” and, he comments, there are plenty out there.
“It seems like the overall instrumental virtuosity has increased over the years,” he said, “or maybe the bar has just been continuously raised.”
I also asked the “What is folk music?” question of The Folk Project’s current president, Paul Fisher, and he agreed that there is no one-size-fits-all definition.
“There is the music that goes back to earlier times and that keeps being played to preserve the culture and an understanding of how the world was then. And often it is the music that survived almost below the radar, that became folk music,” he said. “Tin Pan Alley, early jazz, cowboy songs – these still attract a lot of folkies.”
I also talked with Agranoff about how folk music has changed (or hasn’t) over the years.
“When I first came in to the folk music scene in the early ‘70s, a lot of people wrote songs that others would learn,” he said. “Those would become part of the repertoire, the standard material that folkies knew and would pass on.
“In many cases, a song was old enough or had traveled far enough from its source that the author was unknown,” Agranoff added. “Often, this music was developed within an isolated culture, then been passed from person to person.”
The songs and stories then became part of the fabric and created a sense of community where there may not have been one before.
“I had stopped playing music for many years,” he said, “and then I found this place with players of all levels who were always patient with less experienced musicians.”
Another important aspect of The Folk Project is the opportunity for musicians to play for an audience. While today’s singer-songwriters have an abundance of ways to self-produce and self-promote, there is no substitute for a live performance.
“The Folk Project nurtures and provides a performance space for those looking to play in public,” said Agranoff. “We have had people have come to play at an Open Stage and later end up as selected as opening acts – or even main acts – at the Troubadour.”
The range of activities appeals to Fisher as well, both as a musician and a music lover.
“We have Spring and Fall Acoustic Getaways, where people gather for a weekend of workshops, jamming, and performances,” Fisher said. “There are the Swingin’ Tern Contra Dances, with instruction for beginners, and, even if you don’t dance, the live music is worth the price of admission.”
“Monthly music parties give members a chance to show off new tunes or learn songs to play with other musicians,” Fisher continued. “Our OpenStage is a place for anyone – from beginners to professionals – and our house concerts provide a listening experience with no barrier between the performers and the audience.”
Another way that The Folk Project gets the music out is with a weekly half-hour cable TV show, produced and hosted by musician Ralph Litwin and called “Horses Sing None of It”. You can watch episodes here, or check the TFP site for local stations that carry the show. (Note: If you’re wondering about the origin of the name, it comes from something Big Bill Broonzy said when asked if he considered his bluesy music to be folk: “Must be. I never heard no horses sing none of it.”)
There is even a ukulele festival – the New Jersey Uke Fest on the last weekend in August – that Fisher guarantees will put a smile on your face.
I could just keep on going, listing more upcoming events or providing a full rundown of the summer concert schedule, but I believe the point has been made.
Folk is much more than a musical genre. It is a state of mind, a philosophy, a way of looking at and operating in the world.
And, as both Agranoff and Fisher emphasized in our conversations, “Folk music has always been about community.”