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Got Culture?  Get Folk Music

By Lisa Wersal
March 2007

I especially resonated with Frank Behrens’ May, 2006 column, “The Poetics of Music and the Music of Poetry,” in which he advocated for the integration of related disciplines in school settings (the combined teaching of literature and history, for example, or of music and poetry).  The interweaving of literary and musical elements that make up “song” has long been an interest of mine, and I would like to expand on Behrens’ suggestions.

The late Ruth Crawford Seeger, musicologist and music editor, was a pioneer in bringing American folk song into the classroom, for the very reasons that Behrens recommends.  She pointed to folk songs’ historical merit, as they often relate human experience at particular moments in time, conveying a chronology of wars, elections, labor strikes, civil rights struggles, pandemics, and changes in the social or cultural milieu.  Moreover, these songs provide an insider’s view, enlivening stiff historical records with vivid imagery, lively melodies, and compelling rhythms. 

Additionally, folk songs are rich with literary elements, such as metaphor, simile, allegory, schema, symbol, and analogy.  They include the use of dialogue, humor, satire, irony, foreshadowing, flashbacks, and word plays.  Though many traditional songs feature economy and simplicity in language usage, they are not “simplistic” in meaning; rather, they address the fundamentals of the human condition via a substantive message.

What’s more, folk songs evoke imaginative and emotional response, and invite us to share more completely in our collective human experience, ranging from touchingly poignant to silly. 

New folk music continues to evolve, and contemporary singer-songwriters rooted in the traditions of folk music contribute to the shaping of social discourse, building on the work of their predecessors, each adding his or her own unique flair.  Their creations, too, are part of the ongoing dialogue between music and language and life, and contain much to value and appreciate. 

If I may point to one outstanding example, the songs of contemporary singer-songwriter David Roth* are often hailed as abundantly creative, expressive, insightful, and inspiring.  Roth’s song lyrics are often utilized in exactly the way that Behrens recommends, as they are reprinted in children’s readers, social skills workbooks for students with special needs, textbooks for students learning the English language and American culture, and even course materials for graduate students and professionals, as well as in non-academic best-sellers having to do with personal and spiritual growth, community-building in the workplace, and social transformation.

I highly recommend that learners of all ages acquaint themselves with the plentiful gifts of folk music, both traditional and contemporary.  Visit a coffeehouse that features local folk artists; pick up a copy of Sing Out! (a non-profit, educational folk music magazine), or visit artists’ websites to sample songs and order recordings or songbooks.  Most especially, because folk music is a communal experience, when the opportunity presents itself, sing along!

(Lisa Wersal hails from the Minnesota prairie, and writes articles, essays, opinion pieces, and poetry for a variety of publications.) 

*David Roth will be performing on April 1, 2007 at 5 pm at the Uptown Coffeehouse, located at the Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture, 4450 Fieldston Rd, Riverdale (The Bronx), NY.