Friday, April 27, 2007

Folk and Country

A while ago, somewhat unintentionally, I chucked a hand-grenade into the nz-folk list. There was a post, mentioned in an earlier blog:

"Folk? The Warratahs? They are listed as a Country band."

To which I somewhat rashly replied,

"Something I notice that we have trouble getting our heads around is that country music is the folk music of this country."

The response was astounding, from those who thought I was joking to those who were indignant and miffed (and those who agreed and told me so quietly in the background).

"Mike, I am guessing that you are teasing when you say that country is the real NZ folk music, but I'll react just for fun... Country has always been a small, but welcome part of our folk music, but is hardly the folk music of New Zealand because it has always so commonly featured American culture: All that fake rolled-r accent emulating Texas, the whiny nasal singing about county jails and horses, the Stetson hats & braided clothes and boots with spurs. Contrast that with our our Swandris, stockmen's hats & oilskins & gumboots."
"I find it rather interesting that Bluegrass music is seen as part of the folk scene, whereas 'whinge and cringe' country isnt."
"There's been no mention of Victorian palour music or classical music which I think has had a huge influence of NZ music from the early days right through to the Verlaines and beyond."
"But to say it's THE main influence? I don't think country is quite a 'national' music here in the same way as in Australia. It's big and been around for a while, but so have brass bands and Highland piping."
"I tend to agree with Mike, Phil and Alan that country music has had a strong influence on 'homemade' songwriting in NZ, ever since it was the latest trendy music back in the 1930s."
"And as far as I´m concerned, country music stemmed from this celtic stuff anyway... don´t believe me?? Go out and rent Songcatcher."
I have no problem with any of this. I was talking somewhat historically. Back in the 50s and 60s as the folk revival burgeoned, folkies started looking at their own rich traditions; Ireland and Scotland had their celtic musics, America had its dust-bowl ballads and blues and appalachan traditions and so forth. New Zealand folkies, NZ being a much younger country, struggled a bit to find a traditional identity in their music. We tended to look straight past characters like Tex Morton and Cole Wilson because they were a bit recent, a bit twee and maybe, a bit naff. Paul Metsers wrote Farewell to the Gold to get the ball rolling in the NZ folk songwriters' camp, Neil Colquhoun collected some songs of a young country. Phil Garland wrote, resurrected and reconstructed contemporary and other material and so did Martin Curtis (these are the most noteable I can think of, there were heaps of others). We looked at our fields of gold and gum for old songs. But meanwhile, perhaps from as early as the 20's, there was a mainstream music that was being played in parlours, theatres, pubs and shanties that was "ordinary" and played with instruments of the day. A lot of formal music was based around the piano, but those songs that were based around more portable stringed instruments were undeniably "country" in sound.

Now whatever you choose as your folk music is absolutely fine by me whether it's based on a tradition or not. But when you're talking about the indigenous music of this country (with a respectful nod to the tangata whenua), it's country music that has been the mainstream music of the dock worker, the stockman, the tramp, the soldier, the miner and the digger.

No comments: