The Current State of Folk Music

does it matter as much as it did?

I just returned home from a wonderful week where I was mentoring at an event called ‘On The Road’ – hosted by the BC Touring Council followed by an industry event called Pacific Contact.

I hosted a discussion there with my old friend Peter North, Artistic Director of the Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival and someone I have called friend for 35 years. The festival Peter books is similar to Vancouver Island MusicFest (the Festival I book) and I often think of the two as sister festivals, because we both have campgrounds and are in smaller communities. Plus, we both are run by non-profit organizations and in the tradition of Western Canadian Folk Festivals each features multiple stages with numerous collaborations between musicians and multiple styles and cultures represented.

Peter trained me way back when I started doing a radio show on CJSR (University of Alberta) Radio in Edmonton. We have remained friends over the years as both of us have had wide and varied careers in the Canadian Roots Music World so it was interesting to host this discussion with him to see where we stood.

I think it remains fair to say, we mostly agreed.

The topic was the current state of Folk Music and Folk Festivals.


I wrote down a couple of discussion points which I thought I’d share here in hope that you might be interested or want to join in the discussion. I am fascinated by this subject and believe we are at a major crossroads at this moment in history; not only in the business but (more importantly) with regards to the actual music.


Below are a couple of thoughts – I’d love to know if you agree or disagree with me and why.

  • The original job of the troubadour/folk singer was to ‘spread the news’ from community to community as they travelled from place to place. They taught us about far away cultures through the sharing and teaching of folk songs. This was done both at home and on the road. Currently, (can you say Publishing?) most current ‘folk’ singers are encouraged to play their own music without much thought towards past songs. Plus, the job of spreading news and ideas may not be as relevant now that we have the internet. Do you think it is?




  • Almost every style of folk or roots music I can think of developed in an isolated culture with specific regional influences. I’m not so sure isolated cultures even exist at this point due largely to our modern communications (internet) and travel abilities. Chances are, we won’t discover any more ‘new’ styles of music that come from an specific culture. Chances are, we won’t discover any more isolated cultures. Perhaps, the future of folk and roots music will simply be the exciting cross-genre and cross cultural fusions that are happening. I’m ok with that but it does put a different slant on things for sure.


(Isolated Cultures)


These are both simple ideas but I believe they are significant driving forces in the change that is happening in modern culture and in ‘folk’ . What do you think?




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10 thoughts on “The Current State of Folk Music

  1. Actors describe themselves as storytellers and I see folk/roots singers as you describe, in this same way.People driven to tell stories though the medium can be different and evolving. What Pete Seeger did with his songs is what I saw Patti Smith(People Have The Power) do at the Bataclan with U2 after the Paris attacks. Recently I read Bruce Cockburns’ book Rumours of Glory where he describes how causes and places he cares about were calling him to go and “witness” what was going on so he could come back and sing his take on it. He explained,”Not to “cash in” on anything but to witness and tell the story.Sometimes not the only voice, but the story resonates and is given legs in the hands of certain journalists, authors, filmmakers…. After 9/11 Bruce Springsteen tells the story about going to a lookout in New Jersey near his home and looking at the wreckage when someone got out of their car, walked up to him and said “We need you Bruce”. Not a folksinger for sure but a storyteller that hopefully, culturally will always be around because some people are just born to it 🙂

  2. Thanks for the provocative ideas. On your first point, I think information through music in the troubadour tradition does still matter. It packs a punch. It gives an issue a vested, authentic voice versus a journalistic, editorial one. As Tip Oneill said, “All politics is local.” That is to say, I think as long as there is a regional aspect to an issue, singers Can often best tell the story and thus carry out the troubadour tradition in a way the Internet cannot. Of course the music has to have a message and most likely a cause. As an example, I would point to Si Kahn’s current release “Bristol Bay” which tells the story of how Bristol Bay Alaska and the salmon that both nourish the land and support the local fishing industry are threatened by the idea of the Pebble Mine, a huge open pit gold and copper mine planned and sighted for the headwaters of the Bay. The album is carrying on the tradition of topical folk music in action. There are numerous other examples in modern folk music, but arguably not enough.

    On your second point, I found myself re-thinking the Playing For Change project. I’ve always loved the music it has produced and the universal messaging of peace and love and artistic expression that it spreads as diverse cultures all blend in on a song, but now I wonder if it also sort of makes your point and has sort of completed the transition you point out; I wonder if it is all too homogenized in that some purity and regionionism is unknowingly being stripped away?!

  3. Hi Doug- Just discovered your blog. Many interesting ideas. While I agree that the likelihood of finding music from isolated cultures is dwindling, don’t forget that it was just within the last 20 years the whole Sacred Steel culture was brought to light and that was a style that existed right in front of us, but was cloistered in the particular African American churches that gave it birth. So there may be some other musical forms hidden in plain sight that we haven’t stumbled onto yet. I hope so!!

    Regarding the role of folk music in spreading the news, it seems to me that the music forms that deal most with current events, politics, and social justice these days are hip hop and rap. Folk music doesn’t have the juice or, perhaps in light of the dilution of the form by a zillion “singer-songwriters”, the credibility to make statements that can reverberate thruout society and have an impact.

    The future, I think, does lie in cross cultural collaboration. I’m glad I have lived in a time that I could still hear and be privileged to have known and befriended some of the authentic bearers of the earlier, more pure forms. But, as human beings, I’m sure we’ll be finding ways to do this music thing for as long as we roll. The only constant is change. Cheers!…oj

  4. Cultural isolation began to deteriorate a long time back : Robert Johnson was the product of the first generation in the Delta to have phonographs, which exposed him to the wider range of Mississippi styles. I think cross-pollination now is thr folk process.

    • well said Tim!
      i was reading an article the other day that pointed out that seven of Muddy Waters first recordings for the Library of Congress were Gene Autry songs.
      And the early song collectors who went up into the Appalachians were surprised to find out how many of the songs they collected were from the riverboats and/or written by Stephen Foster…

  5. The ‘spreading the news’ troubadour role seems to have evolved – several generations ago – more one on of commenting on the news, or interpreting the news. Looking back to the early labour-singers and the Woody Guthrie generation there have always been a number of songwriting who have wanted to politicize their listeners or get the messages out that mainstream media was ignoring or supressing. Things are no different today, except that, if anything, our ‘news’ is somewhat more homogenized and sanitized to represent the views of the small minority who controls the media outlets. The good thing is that there are still many younger songwriters who see their role as interpreters of the world they live in.

    As for your second point, there is far more cross-over and exchange between genres, which has led to many exciting collaborations. Indeed, many festivals routinely build in collaboratories into their programming with the hopes of stimulating exchange. One thing I see as universally declining are workshops that are more than simple ‘in-the-round’ mini-concerts. I see too many festival directors throwing a bunch of groups on-stage together and expecting them to make the magic happen and too often this approach fails. Back in the ’80 when I was a festival director up north at Folk in the Rocks in Yellowknife, we always held onsite meetings with our workshop hosts and spoke with them about why everyone was in the same workshop together and where we believed there were touchpoints or where there could be common touchpoints (i.e the same instrument in different cultural contexts or two distinct heritages that resulted in something very similar) and made sure that the workshop performers met ahead of time and worked at least one or two common pieces that they could perform together on-stage. This approach worked and I would love to see a lot more time put into using festival workshops in this was as opposed to just making them showcases for individuals and groups that don’t make the main stages of festivals.

    Glad to see this discussion, Doug. Keep it up.

  6. Thanks Doug, this is great to have these types of discussions. This is very thought provoking and could launch a whole weekend of chat, for sure. Some great points made by other commenters.
    I think that the effect of the troubador was not only to spread shared stories and news but to invoke a sense of shared culture and belonging among dispersed communities- that is, before printed media, they created the sense of a broader imagined community. If “folk” is still about community, which I think it is, an important question is what type of community does a particular folk festival or folk performance celebrate? The ethnomusicologist Kay Kaufman Shelemay talks about music communities as being based on processes of descent, dissent, or affinity. Nowadays festivals tend to consist of various affinity groups- you have your bluegrass fans, your blues fans, celtic fans etc.- and I think also there is a vague sense that folk is a means for dissent but I think that part of it is not what it was, at least in terms of the music’s ability to mobilize communities. I think the true community experience is really fleeting in our individualistic society- folk music offers the hope of it but rarely delivers like it once did. I think that is the challenge of folk music today- to genuinely create community with meaning for people.

  7. “Currently … most current ‘folk’ singers are encouraged to play their own music without much thought towards past songs.”

    The absence of older and/or traditional songs in so many musicians repertoires has bothered me for a long time. It’s a lose-lose situation. The musician loses the opportunity to become a part of the tradition, carrying songs forward that have been handed down and in the process learning what a great song sounds and feels like, how it’s built. Rather than becoming part of a living tradition, they contribute to its’ demise.

    The audience is subjected to non-stop “originality”, at the expense of ever hearing a song they may have enjoyed for years. The result? Endless evenings of “here is another song about me”, and never a song about “us”.

    Bob Dylan pretty much invented the singing songwriter as a job description, but his early albums all feature traditional songs. His original songs have always reflected a profound understanding of traditional structures and themes. If it worked for him…

    “Chances are, we won’t discover any more ‘new’ styles of music that come from an specific culture.”

    The “we” here seems to be from a global perspective, but I think “discovery” is personal

    I’ve been way into music for decades and I’m constantly coming across styles of music I never knew existed, largely thanks to music bloggers into sounds from north Africa, or Iran or Thailand, etc. Obviously, it’s not new to some, but it’s completely new to me. Does that count as a discovery?

    I’ve presented Canadian fiddlers from Newfoundland, the Maritimes, Quebec, Ontario, Metis and other traditions but there’s probably a dozen other Canadian fiddle traditions I’ve never laid ears on. Are they undiscovered? No, I’m just demi-literate on a good day, but hey, there’s so much out there to discover.

  8. What a thoughtful bunch of comments from a very distinguished group of friends, thank you! This is the kind of conversation I hope for in response to my blogs. THANK YOU