I call myself a “folk musician” because that’s the genre of music I tend to play and because musically, I run a “folksy” little cottage industry that’s mostly donation supported. I write and play solo, mostly on Martin acoustic slotted head guitars. That right there makes me a “folk musician”.
But I am mostly in the idiosyncratic, quirky, lyric heavy, personal diarist corner of the folk music barrel (mixed metaphor intended). I write plenty of sweet love songs too but it’s not my main thing anymore.
What I do is comb my internal and external environment for words that move me, that release a charge in me, that make me feel better for having found them. And I set those words to music that does something similar for me. I’m not trying to create or support a consistent position on all issues, or a single coherent worldview, or even a single coherent personality. I’m not presenting myself. I’m writing individual songs that express and release charge for different parts of me. It’s like there’s a parliament in my mind and every minister is asking for their song to be heard and I’m doing my best to help that happen.
But even though my art is a kind of therapeutic journaling to music, there is a still a folk core to what I’m doing. Even though many of my songs are very specifically about me and no one else, I still tend to see my music not just in terms of personal satisfaction with the work, not just in terms of how many people like it, but also in terms of how many ordinary everyday people want to actually learn my songs and sing them.
I think music began as people became more and more self-aware and began to notice the power of combining sound and feeling to create a satisfying whole, some kind of song. Most of the animals around us make sound and as self-aware creations of Nature, I think we began to want to make a self-aware sound that reflected who we were. A sound that meant something more than the instinctive sounds made by most animals. I think the first music came from people who were working, or sitting around a fire, or looking up at the sky at night, and felt inspired to express what they were feeling in sound, rhythm and melody. The first music was folk music because everyone was folk. There were only tribes and small groups of us. I think the idea that a song could be owned was as foreign to early man as the idea that a bird call could be owned is to a bird.
Traditionally, the way folk music survived was not because someone made a product out of it and sold it. It survived in only one form, people sang it to each other. Songs survived because people cared enough about them to sing them and teach them to other people who also wanted to sing them. Songs that didn’t resonate with people were either discarded or modified…some crystallized into set versions…others were always works in progress…but all of them were passed directly from one person to the next. And neither person was doing it for any other reason than because they loved the music.
I’m not talking here about professional musicians or troubadours or people who traveled about entertaining others. I’m talking about folk music. The indigenous music of villages, small towns, tribes, etc. The music everyday people played and enjoyed.
Most of the folk songs I grew up with in the 60’s were of this variety. They were simple and beautiful, expressive and poignant, and mostly unadorned. The language seemed like it had been through a kind of word “polishing” that had resulted in little masterpieces.
One of the reasons it’s so hard to write a genuine “folk” song is that very few of them are written by one person. They evolve in the hands and hearts of many people over time. This longer credit-free process tends to take the ego out of the work, which allows the song and its ability to move people to become the most important thing, not who gets to claim ownership of it. And now, it’s harder than ever because once you write a song, it’s owned by you and no one else can use any part of it without your permission. Songs don’t evolve anymore. They are captured, numbered, tagged and monetized almost the minute they are written.
So now, to write a genuine folk song, it has to come out pretty damn complete. And this is difficult because most modern people, songwriters especially, are burdened with insecurity, a need to please or impress other people, a narcissistic sense of “specialness”, a hunger for attention, and a generally fearful attitude towards fucking up. All of this gets in the way of the song becoming a genuine folk song and imprints it with the writer’s ego and personal needs. Writing a folk song especially requires that you fuck up and keep fucking up until you get one that works a bit. If you’re not willing to fuck up, sometimes you won’t be working. You’ll be afraid of fucking up. And when you’re not working you miss out on whatever inspiration might be in your neighborhood. You have to be working all the time if you want to be there when that odd moment happens, when you get out of your own way, stop trying to get something for yourself and just write.
I think one of the reasons Bob Dylan is so amazing is that he just never stops working and, if you look at his entire catalog you’ll see that this is not a man who is afraid to fuck up. And publicly. It’s just not something he’s afraid of. Unlike say, Paul McCartney who seems to me to be absolutely terrified of fucking up even a little. Bob seems to me to be operating on the idea that, hit or miss, you want to be aiming and sharpening your tools all the time, so that when the magic presents itself, you are as ready for it as you can be. Couple this work ethic with his incredible talent and well, you get Bob Dylan. But even with Dylan’s work…look at how many of his songs are actually being sung in bars, living rooms, and coffeehouses…many to be sure, but compared to how many he’s written, it’s actually a very small percentage that are widely sung by regular non-industry people. And most of them are from the first half of his career.
I’ve written almost 600 songs myself, but I’ve only written one that has a chance at being a real folk song. Only one that more than one person has emailed me asking for the lyrics or chords to. Only one that has at least two websites posting the lyrics and chords. Only one with close to 200,000 total views on youtube. And that song is “Jump You Fuckers”.
And interestingly enough, I got the idea from a sign that someone else held up at a rally on Wall Street after the 2009 collapse of the housing market. It did not spring spontaneously into my head. Whoever wrote the sign created a ripple that caught my eye and that inspired me to make it into a larger wave. It grew like a folk song does. The video above was made by a man in Holland whom I've never met. He morphed my original video into the one you see here. Whether it will keep growing, or mutate, or die out, I have no idea. All I know is for now this song is the closest I’ve come to anything like a real folk song and I’m happy about that.
I have many, many songs that I love much more dearly than JYF and some that directly contradict its main message. But I kept showing up and running with every inspiring impulse and taking each one as far as I could. I didn’t shy away from fucking up and I didn’t write to please anyone but myself. I’m actually more proud of the integrity of my work ethic than I am of any particular song. It’s like if you get up every morning and drag a net through the ocean, chances are you’re going to catch some fish. And if you don’t overfish, and if you keep showing up rain or shine, sooner or later you’ll catch a really nice one. Or at least a nasty one that everyone seems to like the taste of.