Photo: Simon & Garfunkel
When I wrote the first entry to this column on jazz rap, it sadly came to pass that Phife Dawg (a member of jazz rap pioneers A Tribe Called Quest) passed away halfway through my writing it. When it came to my second entry, which covered trip-hop, it turned out that the day I finished it was also the 25th anniversary of Massive Attack’s seminal trip-hop record, Blue Lines. Now, I’m by no means a superstitious person, but I couldn’t help but think it would be quite nice if my entry on folk rock coincided with the release of a new Fleet Foxes album. It hasn’t. But I guess I’ll talk about it anyway.
What is folk rock? That question perhaps doesn’t necessitate answering, as it’s probably the only style I’ve covered so far in this column that doesn’t require some degree of explanation. Folk rock was pioneered in the mid-1960s by none other than Bob Dylan himself and involved – you guessed it – a fusion of folk and rock music. The folk singer’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home was a musical landmark, featuring a live backing band equipped with electric instrumentation, and was marked by the heavy influence of rock’s driving rhythms and melodies. Soon afterwards, The Byrds released their debut album Mr. Tambourine Man, named for the Bob Dylan song, and a cover of which was featured on the record. Mr. Tambourine Man was very much in the same vein as Bringing It All Back Home, and along with its successor Turn! Turn! Turn! helped to popularise the genre. Between the two of them, Bob Dylan and The Byrds oversaw a musical revolution of a massive scale, which would have enormous and lasting impact over the next fifty years and beyond. Other artists soon caught on, most notably Simon and Garfunkel. The electric, overdubbed remix of The Sounds Of Silence earned phenomenal commercial success, and propelled folk rock to the national attention of any remaining citizens who just so happened to be living under a rock
It wasn’t just the US that enjoyed these grand innovations, though. Around the same time, folk rock was enjoying some impressive developments in the UK. Cat Stevens’ revitalised brand of folk rock, influenced by early British rock bands and recent American folk music, was a formidable showcase of what English artists could do within the genre. Nick Drake’s music spoke to this as well – the English folk musician’s first two records were a true testament to the beauty that simple rock augmentations could lend to folk music – although Drake’s pure folk songs were just as exemplary. The fact that he was backed by members of prominent electric folk groups Fairport Convention and Pentangle, as well as Velvet Underground founder John Cale, certainly didn’t hurt either. Meanwhile, there were some revered rock musicians who didn’t hesitate to dabble in folk stylings. Led Zeppelin’s third and fourth albums demonstrated that the band weren’t just hard rock masters – they could branch out into beautifully rendered folk music at whim (which reached far deeper than Stairway To Heaven).
Folk rock didn’t exactly pursue any major innovations for quite some time past the mid-1970s. The musical machinations of the past decade were so thorough and developed that there wasn’t a great deal of new ground to be trodden – not at that point at least. But by the ‘90s, the genre was ready for its resurgence, in the form of indie folk. Indie folk was an attempt (and often a very successful one at that) to amalgamate traditional folk with the modern alternative rock of the time. As such, the style of music was often more melancholic and distanced, with lyrics reflecting a far greater amount of introspection and self-reflection than had previously been typical of folk rock. Notable artists include Father John Misty, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes and Sufjan Stevens. Yet the ‘90s resurgence of folk rock didn’t end there. Subgenres which were even bleaker than the oft-sorrowful endeavours of indie folk spawned at around the same time – most notably neofolk and folk metal. The former is a type of folk rock steeped in dark industrial and ambient influences, whereas the latter is a bold attempt to vault the fairly vast musical chasm between folk and metal. Noteworthy purveyors of these styles include Agalloch, Ulver, Nest and Anamai. Indie folk, neofolk and folk metal have brought forth some of the most inventive music of recent times, and it looks as though folk rock may be spawning new offerings for a while to come.
Do yourself a favour – put down the Mumford And Sons for a while, give some of the classics a go, and experience some of the most earnest and beautiful songwriting of the past half century.
Recommended Listening: Simon & Garfunkel – The Sounds Of Silence Bob Dylan – Subterranean Homesick Blues Cat Stevens – Father And Son Led Zeppelin – Stairway To Heaven Nick Drake – Northern Sky Sufjan Stevens – Chicago Anamai – Lucia Agalloch – Fire Above, Ice Below Fleet Foxes – Mykonos