Folk music ain’t what it used to be —if, indeed, it ever really was.
In the United States, they don’t even call “Folk” music “Folk” anymore —these days it’s referred to as “Americana”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. And increasingly “north of 49,” you hear the use of the word “Roots” to describe a genre that in truth encompasses many different styles of musical expression.
Of course the meaning of the term “Folk music” possibly really began to get fuzzy in 1965 when Bob Dylan first took to the stage with an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival —and the significance of that event in starting a rethink of what the genre really is cannot be underestimated, as was underlined this past week when the guitar he used for that controversial and seminal performance sold for an astounding $965,000 U.S. at auction.
If you needed another reminder of how wide and diverse the genre is today here in Toronto, the Sat. December 7 “Winterfolk XII Sneak Preview” showcase of songwriters taking place at Free Times Café demonstrates the elasticity of the category better than any attempt to define it in words.
To be sure, the show contains several artists who very much resemble the “guy with an acoustic guitar with something pithy and political to say or girl with a guitar pining about love” model that seemed the norm back when the Guthries and Pete Seeger and The Travellers and so on were at the fore in the mainstream.
Brian Gladstone, HOTCHA! and Tony Quarrington are all fairly straight-ahead singer-songwriter acts, although HOTCHA! also has more than a touch of Tin Pan Alley and Cajun-style influences operating in its highly-energized music. Other artists on the bill, however, might elicit the same reaction from some Mariposa-era Folk purists as Dylan did when he plugged in.
Ginger St. James, who kicks off the show in the room at 320 College St. at 8 p.m., made her name and won awards as a cabaret-style Jazz/Pop singer with more than a little touch of burlesque thrown in. She’s also established big cred as a Blues and Country singer but also, unbeknownst to many of her biggest fans —but as I’ve witnessed first-hand at an open stage I was hosting— is a pretty fine singer-songwriter while wielding an acoustic guitar.
Julian Taylor, who follows her at 8:30, certainly is no slouch on acoustic guitar either and often performs that way solo to kick off his Monday open stages at Dora Keogh. But really, Taylor is best known as the songwriter behind indie alt-Rock band Staggered Crossing in the early aughties and these days gets a lot of more media attention for songs written with more of an R&B/Reggae twist, as well as stuff best slotted in the Dance category, than he does for his touching, soulful ballads, of which he also has more than a couple of handfuls.
Rick Zolkower (aka Mr. Rick of Mr. Rick & The Biscuits), meanwhile, delivers what can best be described, at least when he has his band on hand as a kind of Rockabilly/Country-Blues mix.
Of course all of this diversity just goes to the heart of what I’ve often noticed about the acoustic “Folk” or “Roots” or whatever-you-want-to-call it genre of singer-songwriters in the past from hosting my acoustic open stages: at the heart of every genre (save perhaps Classical and some weird Techno and Jazz offshoots) is usually an artist who writes their songs either on an acoustic guitar or piano. You’d be surprised how many musicians who make their living performing in Punk, Metal and other seemingly Roots-inimical genres have come out to my open stages to perform and told me they “just really miss playing a few tunes on the acoustic guitar sometimes, because I can never do it at my shows.”
The great thing about Roots, it seems, is just that: that you can do whatever you like with whatever instrumentation you like and if it’s sincere it’s “Folk” or whatever we’re calling the genre now.
Winterfolk has certainly done its share to help in that expansion of the definition of the genre and the preview show —along with the Feb. 14-16, 2014 festival itself, of course— can help educate you about that in a most enjoyable way. Cover for the preview is just $12.