For the love of folk!

Houston McLaury-

I can remember clearly when I first fell in love with folk music. I was sitting in my living room when I was about twelve years old, finishing up a rewatch of the autumn classic movie Fantastic Mr. Fox by Wes Anderson. This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen the movie, mind you, my parents made sure that I saw the movie years before, and I’m ever grateful for it. But, during the few final scenes of the movie I heard the first of many folk songs that I would soon fall in love with.

While climbing up a ladder, Mr. Fox and his family are talking, and in the background comes the wonderful sounds of The Beach Boys. But, they aren’t playing their usual upbeat songs with multitudes of instruments. Instead, it’s an organ that backs them up as they sing in what seems to be a quartet. And, of all the songs they’re singing, they sing “Old Man River,” a song originally sung by Paul Robeson in the 1936 film Showboat.

Of course, I didn’t know this at the time, and instead waited until the credits came rolling around to try and find where that song came from. After finding the title, I rushed to the family computer and looked the song up, and instantly I was enraptured by the deep bassy voice he held. I could not let his voice leave my ears, looking up his songs on my phone when I had the chance, and eventually finding a biographical book on his life that I read in my sophomore year of high school.

Finding Paul Robeson opened multiple doors to other folk musicians, people like Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Vashti Bunyan, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and so many more that I have yet to find. I write this not just to gush and praise the singers of folk music, but to make an argument that this music is important, as it allows us a look into the past through the stories told in them, and offers a distinct way of protest that has been weaved and built into the entirety of the genre.

Some of the first few songs I’ve listened to in the folk music genre have dealt with tumultuous moments in American history. Take, for example, the song “Ballad of the Fort Hood Three” which was written by Pete Seeger. It details three college-educated people discussing their refusal to join the Vietnam War, as in 1966 they refused to be deployed into Vietnam. It refers to the problems facing a majority of the people who were alive during the time, allowing us a look into America’s history. Folk music like this offers a snapshot of the time the song was written, as is evident in older American folk songs.

Another example comes in the form of a Great Depression song, titled “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” If you’ve seen Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Then you’ll know this as the song that plays over the opening of three men escaping a chain gang. But, again, this song offers a great insight into the dreams of many unemployed Americans during the Depression era. It details how “the railroad bulls are blind” and the “farmers’ trees are full of fruit,” discussing kinder and better times while hoping for a better tomorrow in the Big Rock Candy Mountains. Folk songs trail back through a lot of American history, allowing a look into the past through the songs the people made to discuss what they were experiencing in their time.

Even with these historical lenses that can be used in folk music, they are useful in the ways of protest as well. This can be seen in the dozens upon dozens of Union folk songs that are out there, one significant one is “Casey Jones (The Union Scab),” detailing the life of a wreckless scab train conductor, who died when he went to heaven started “scabbing on the angels.” This song makes a clear stance against people who cross picket lines, and those who actively work to break apart protests.

These songs aren’t just used for union protests, but for protests against war, protests for the environment, and many were made and used during the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s. If you feel moved to listen to some great music, look into the many many many different covers of the song “We Shall Overcome,” which became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout most of American history, folk music has been utilized to protest against the cruelties of the world, used so that one voice can be many as people sing in picket lines or protest marches.

I love folk music, not only for the sound it provides, but the looks into American history that is rarely told, and the multitude of protest songs that fueled so many movements. Hearing this music always transports me to the past, but it also puts me back onto that couch in my parent’s house, watching Fantastic Mr. Fox, and hearing that same sweet tune of “Old Man River” for the first time again. Please, be curious about the music you listen to, look into who wrote it, if there are any covers, find your favorite, and continue to explore with all your heart.