The Folk Process

Resurrected from a 1994 Friends of Florida Folk (FOFF) newsletter — rf, april 2014

The Folk Process

For 25 years or so, I’ve operated under the assumption that I play quite a bit of folk music.  However, I’ve avoided facing up to just exactly what “Folk Music” is.  Perhaps subconsciously inspired by the Folkie News article reprinted in the December FOFF Newsletter, I recently had a revelation about THE TRUE NATURE OF FOLK MUSIC.  The idea probably isn’t new (and it’s maybe not totally serious), but it’s helped me to make more sense of what I do with music.  Perhaps running this by FOFF members will generate some discussion and help others to clarify their thinking.

“Folk music” is music that has been subjected to The Folk Process.  TFP has at least three major components: incompetence, bad memory and orneriness.

1. Incompetence — I’m trying to learn this song off of a Doc Watson record, but I don’t know how he does this one riff, so I just pick on a D7.

2. Bad Memory — I’ve heard a song a few times at jams, and I remember most of it, but I don’t remember all of the words, so I make up some words that seem to feel right.

3. Orneriness — There’s a song on this Pete Seeger record, but I really don’t like the way he does it, so I change it around to the way that it sounds best to me (MY WAY).

On the surface, these characteristics of TFP aren’t very flattering.  Indeed, a subconscious awareness of them might contribute to the low turnout at many folk concerts that Jan Glidewell laments in the January FOFF Newsletter.  (Not many people are interested in paying money to contend with belligerent, forgetful incompetents.)

But at a deeper level, TFP is much more positive.  Incompetence, orneriness and bad memory work together to produce something that is much greater than songs and musicians: evolution.

Genetic evolution results from the interaction of two basic processes: diversification and selection.  Genetic variability in living things arises from DNA being altered, moved around and recombined by partially random phenomena.  The environment then “selects” which organisms reproduce more (and thus pass on more of their genes to the next generation).

TFP is the semi-random diversification process that produces variation in the basic “genetic material” of music (songs or tunes).  It generates different versions of songs.  Musicians and audiences then “select” which versions are played more (and are thus passed on more).  Folk enthusiasts thus have the opportunity to participate in the accomplishment of something that no one person can do alone (even a Mozart or Gershwin or Dylan): the evolution of music.

Recognizing the existence of TFP can help us to be more tolerant and appreciative of ourselves and others.  There’s a lot of TFP in types of music that often don’t get recognized as “Folk Music”, such as jazz, blues, rock, country, reggae, and gospel.  And if somebody’s butchering a great old song sometime, go easy on them — they’re just folk processing like a lot of us other folks.

—     Rick Ferriss,  Tampa


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