What Is Folk Music?

The last of thirty-two first round polls comes your way today:

The title question is apt as you consider your choice today. How wide a path foes the folk genre cut into music as a whole, including sacred music?

The much-reviled “Kumbaya” has been transformed from a simple spiritual composed/revived not quite a hundred years ago, into an anthem of 60’s acoustic music (Thanks to Pete Seeger and Joan Baez), and now into a code-word for ridicule. Congrats on that latter part, you cynics. One of the last “popular songs” that is an explicit and direct prayer to God (Come by here, my Lord) is now sneered at universally. My take is that it shows the critics as either godless or bullies. Michael Ross offers up some apt commentary:

Decades ago, the song “Kumbaya” (alternatively spelled “Kum Ba Yah”) first became part of the national songbook as a call to peace. Since then, the message and meaning has been twisted into something altogether different. Derision of the song and its emotional foundation has become a required sign of toughness and pragmatism in American politics today, and this is especially true since the Sept. 11 attacks. That’s a little sad, or a lot, depending on your point of view.

It’s a rather delicious irony that if you want to show your 9/11 toughness, you have to poll in favor of another folk song from across the Atlantic. “The Summons” has gained a huge following in the twenty or so years since John Bell wrote his text for a traditional Scottish folk tune, Kelvingrove. I’ve always thought of John Bell as a fusion of Tom Conry and Jacques Berthier. A social justice sensibility and lyrical edginess combined with very basic roots music easily singable by virtually anyone. Who’s not to like or be big-time bothered by this thought in the second verse?

Will you leave yourself behind
If I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind
And never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare
Should your life attract or scare?

Let’s face it: some songs do scare people. Does that make them necessarily bad or good to sing? Bad or good for church music? Maybe the polling would be better phrased as which of these two songs scares you less? Have fun.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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4 Responses to What Is Folk Music?

  1. Liam says:

    The Summons has the following lyric millstone around its neck: “Will you love the ‘you’ you hide.”

    A classic example of an unripe lyric.

    • Todd says:

      Agreed. And yet in spite of that, I think the overall thrust of the text is deeply appealing. People want to serve others. They want to be challenged to live a Gospel life. Imagine if the text were more mature and subtle, and a shade less preachy.

      • Liam says:

        I understand that people wish to serve, and that your inclusion of this was not by choice but by your source, as it were.

        There are way better texts for that purpose. *Every* time I’ve witnessed that song being sung, that verse provokes titters or rolled eyebrows (more typically, both) in at least one area, often more, of the congregation. And, because of its rather over-earnestness, it’s without the camp humor irony of, say, the “nor thorns infest the ground/far as the curse is found” verse of “Joy To The World” or the variations on “And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, And one was a shepherdess on the green” of “I Sing A Song of The Saints of God.”

        “Kumbaya”, by contrast, seems nearly Laconic in its severity (especially if you get the harmonies, rhythm and tempo right…).

  2. Bill Foley says:

    from Bill Foley

    I aplogize that my comment does not apply to the article in question, but I have come across a paragraph that is one of the most beautiful things that I have ever read, and I want to disseminate it over the Internet.

    Human Person and the Tabernacle

    Paragraph from page 344 of Volume 1 of The Mystical Evolution in the Development and Vitality of the Church by Father Juan Arintero, O.P.

    “One day, at the time of Communion, Blessed Mariana of Jesus, the Lily of Madrid, being unusually aware of her lowliness and unworthiness, said to her Lord: “My Lord, the tabernacle in which Thou art is much more clean and beautiful.” Christ answered her: “But it cannot love me.” “From this,” said the holy nun, I understood how much more Christ prefers to reside in our souls than in gold or silver or precious jewels which are inanimate creatures incapable of love.”

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