When we talk about folk music these days, we are less likely to be speaking of the traditional music that has been passed down through the generations and more likely to mean the popular music that has developed since the 20th century folk revival. Although all real folk music is based in the traditional instruments and songs of long-established communities spread across the world, so-called ‘folk music’ today uses these influences to create modern pop music with a folky twist.
This might mean updating a recognisable folk song like the ancient ballad, ‘Scarborough Fair’. The song harks back to 17th century England, yet the folk revival movement in the 1960s saw Simon & Garfunkel record an immensely successful updated version, and Bob Dylan use the melody for his original song, ‘Girl from the North Country’.
Alternatively, it could mean writing completely new material influenced by the sounds, stories and prevalence of the folk music tradition. Modern musicians like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez and more created a ‘new folk’ sound between them, focusing on acoustic music, politically charged lyrics and traditional refrains to make something fresh and different in the 60s and 70s.
So, who are the folk artists of today? Where is folk-influenced music heading in the 21st century? As with most forms of art, the internet has had a huge influence on the scene, bringing together artist and audience in a way never before seen. Just as you would access Charlie Kaufman’s recent film I’m Thinking of Ending Things through Netflix, or the latest updated table games through Pokerstarscasino, you can find brand new folk music online using platforms like Last.fm and Apple Music.
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest players in the new generation of folk music at the moment.
It would be remiss to go a single word further in this article without mentioning the release of pop megastar Taylor Swift’s new album, folklore. It was a surprise follow up to the enormous success of Lover (released in 2019) but, rather than churning out more singalong pop hits, the 30 year old decided to take a more wistful route this time. Harking back to her roots as a country singer, Swift has coined the term ‘indie folk’ for her latest work, using less production, softer melodies, haunting lyrics and collaborations with some of indie music’s biggest names. Produced in part by Aaron Dessner of The National and featuring a collab with Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon, Swift attempts to transition into a space filled with more gravitas than her usual world of shiny pop. folklore can be read as Swift’s take on her own personal folk tales about life, love and relationships, using the main themes of many folk songs and the stripped back sound of them too. It remains to be seen whether this is a permanent move into the folk scene for the popstar, but the album has certainly shone a light on the mini 21st century folk revival currently under way in mainstream pop.
Mumford & Sons
A band who are not shy about their status as folk musicians, regardless of how much fame they find, are Mumford & Sons. They first rose to prominence all the way back in 2010, but have since gone on to sell out stadium tours, make four studio albums and cement their place as folk/pop royalty. Their fusion of bluegrass, folk, country and rock music styles takes all the best bits of English folk music, mixes it with the 20th century folk revival, and comes up with something exciting and fresh, yet nostalgic and somehow familiar. As winners of the 2012 Grammy Album of the Year award, they’ve certainly made their mark in mainstream music circles and fans wait eagerly for their next release after their last album, Delta, saw a return to their original folk-focused sound.
Perhaps the most obvious successor to the folk singer/songwriter crown is Laura Marling, who first found fame around the same time as Mumford & Sons. Although her style has shifted and changed over the years, her use of acoustic instruments, lilting, repetitive melodies and the traditional themes of folk music secures her a place at the helm of folk pop music in the 21st century. Her latest album Song for Our Daughter saw her return to form, delivering a riposte to fellow folk artist Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Alexandra Leaving’, using a cantering strumming guitar on song ‘Strange Girl’ and introducing sparing strings on the titular song. This is folk music at its most stripped back, its most true to its origins and yet still bringing something new to the table.
Ones to watch out for on the folk/pop scene as we move into the roaring 20s are Phoebe Bridgers, Snail Mail, The Staves and Aldous Harding.