Can Electronic Music Also Be Folk Music?

My answer is yes. I’ll explain.


A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of performing at the lovely and charming Hillside Festival in Guelph, Ontario. While taking in the terrific lineup and the bucolic setting, even the roof of the main stage was green, I noticed that most of the smaller stages would feature a live band, then a DJ or electronic artist of some kind, followed by a band, etc.. Practically this makes a lot of sense; setting up a band is time consuming, not to mention complicated. There are often many outputs on stage that need to be routed and kept track of, multiple monitor mixes have to be adjusted. All that and we haven’t even mentioned the hassle of quickly getting a group of people and gear onto a stage and set up. On the other hand, an electronic artist can get on stage and go much more quickly. I watched several performers get their rigs together beside the stage, check that all was working, and then as soon as the previous band was off, move it all into place and connect it to the house. Many of them used their own headphones for monitoring, or had no monitors at all. They were self-contained, and sonically everything sounded pretty good, or even great, right out of the gate. Most importantly, the audience loved all of it, and likely appreciated that the lapse in the music was short.

Practicality aside, my first thought, after observing this cycle once, was how out of place a bunch of banger-cranking laptop drivers seemed at a folk festival. Was this a play to attract younger fans, or to keep the teenage kids from ticket-buying families happy while their parents and younger siblings were elsewhere?  But after catching a few more sets, it began to make sense to me.

I need to you indulge me for a moment now.

Few things are more ubiquitous today than computers; most of us carry a smartphone that is a more powerful computer than the ones that (so I’m told) helped to land Apollo 11 on the moon.  This has all been described before and you don’t need to hear any more of it from me. Suffice to say, we ALL have immense and flexible computing power at our disposal all of the time.

Our smartphones are at least as, and maybe more, commonplace now than fiddles, guitars, and banjos were prior to the era of tech nativism. I say this with no evidence and having done no research, but I feel confident in my claim that, historically speaking, virtually every person over the age of twelve has not had access to a household musical instrument. Fast-forward to today; as easy as it is to pick up a banjo, if one is around, making music come out of it is much more complicated. But with GarageBand on your iPhone, it’s an easy jump between what you hear in your head and what you can bring forth into the world with your hands. Even dedicated synthesizers and sequencers are now pretty inexpensive. For less than $100 you can buy a standalone piece of gear that will allow you to make actual music without even having to connect a patch cable. That’s cheaper than any smartphone I’m aware of, and more affordable than any playable acoustic instrument. We mostly use this fantastically powerful gear to watch our programs and to argue with strangers, but with a tiny amount of effort, we can coax real music, that people who like that sort of thing would enjoy, from the computers that surround us.

In my mind, one of the defining characteristics of folk music is a prevailing sense of democracy amongst its’ practitioners. While some performers have elevated performance standards to virtuosic levels there is still ample room at the table for sincere or inspired  interpretations of canonic songs and tunes that could be described as “ragged but right”. The message that I take from this standard is that refinement and technique can sometimes play second fiddle (sorry) to vision and honesty. Not that polish is a bad thing, mind you, when all of these traits are present the results can hold staggering power.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that while many of us are happy to take in a performance by a renown performer in the rarified space of a listening room, the purpose of folk music throughout history has been closer to the ground. We have used it, among other things, to facilitate dancing (and the activities that follow), to tell stories, or to spread news. So, if one of our chief uses for folk music has been to help us to dance, does it make such a difference if it’s happening on a Pocket Operator  rather than a banjo? Before you dismiss this idea by saying something about technology vs tradition, consider that modern resonator and open-back banjos are technical marvels when compared to their gourd-bodied forerunners which came to this continent from Africa. I’m not saying this to suggest a hierarchy, only to point out that technological advancement, or lack thereof, has little to do with an objects’ usefulness as a tool of music creation in the right hands.

So, if we’re talking about making music for the purpose of getting a crowd to dance, what’s the difference if it’s being done with a synth or a fiddle? Had the venerable TR-808 been around at the time of their composition, it doesn’t seem out of the question to this writer for tunes like Whiskey Before Breakfast to have been conceived with a very different set of tones in mind.




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