I once bumped into a bass player at a jazz club. Because he had seen me playing what is called, in Chinese, a “ballad guitar” (民謠吉他, steel stringed acoustic), he said “You play folk music, don’t you?”. I replied “Not exactly, eh!”.
My answer was somewhat inaccurate. I am a folk musician. I grew up in the 1960s, in a household where all kinds of music was heard, including generations of protest songs, and traditional music from around the world. At age 13, the first song that I learned to play was “Stewball was a Racehorse”, followed closely by Ten Years After’s “I’d Love To Change The World”, and a bunch of Neil Young songs. I’m proficient in a number of styles, including British and North American folk music, bluegrass, fiddle tunes, country, and so on. So, yes, I’m a folk musician. However, I also play blues (arising from African American folk tradition), I fake my way around jazz, and have studied and incorporated elements of classical music (somewhat derived from European folk music traditions). So, what am I?
I’m more of a prog rocker than anything else. Or, as Steve Vai said: “I’m basically a heavy metal knucklehead.” Much that I listen to, still, came out of the psychedelic sixties and seventies, many people were inspired to combine disparate elements in new ways. I am a musical chameleon, shaped and inspired by many, and also somewhat unique (or so I’m told).
The 1960s was the era in which Bob Dylan’s ruffled the feathers of (some) folk music enthusiasts by playing electric guitar onstage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. It was a time of paradoxes. I’m not a luddite. I live well, with technology, and use it as an extension of myself, to further my creative power. I also respect the feelings of people who prefer the sounds of natural wood instruments. I value the ability to make things with my hands, and to be able to walk easily in nature.
The sixties was the birthtime of techno music, and of punk rock, altho those labels wouldn’t be used for some time. Multi-track recording was still fairly new. Along came new kinds of electric guitars, effects pedals, and synthesizers. A little later would come drum machines. All of these things melded in neighborhoods around the world to make all kinds of new creations. So then, what is folk music?
I once read a quote, attributed to Louis Armstrong, which stated “All music is folk music, ’cause it’s played by folks.” I searched for that quote, and while I didn’t find the exact words, I did find the following: “Man, all music is folk music. You ain’t never heard no horse sing a song, have you?”. The debate about what constitutes “folk music” continues to this day, and I’m guessing that Louis Armstrong may have been responding to this debate when he made this statement.
Taking Louis as a precedent, I guess I can, after all, proudly stand up and say “Yes, I play folk music. I am a folk musician.” I also play some things which are decidedly not folk music, in most people’s opinion. It’s all rock and roll, to me… My point is that here, on the edge of forever, distinctions break down. May we all love our idiosyncrasies, and freely express everything that is within us, regardless of labels.
Here are a few more quotes from Louis:
“Hot can be cool, and cool can be hot, and each can be both. But hot or cool, man, jazz is jazz.”
“If I don’t practice for a day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, the critics know it. And if I don’t practice for three days, the public knows it.”
“Never play anything the same way twice.”