In Defense of Folk

Folk gets a bad rap, but two new albums show the genre doesn't always suck.

Folk music often gets a bad rap. After a friend saw the new (and hilariously apt) Christopher Guest fake documentary A Mighty Wind, which pokes fun at aging folk revivalists, she shook her head and wondered why anyone would ever listen to folk music. "It's so awful," she said.

Awful, yes; but since real folk music is usually trying to convey some kind of terrible story or important moral lesson through seven chords, one has to cut it some slack. And as the stepping stone between blues and rock, one has to take it into consideration. So stop beating up folk music so much, people. It may be a four-letter word, but songs about the wind and wine and women can't be all that bad. In an attempt to mend the wounds wrought by folk's foes, here are some recent "folk" albums that aren't awful.

Elizabeth Mitchell and Daniel Littleton, of Brooklyn's Ida, first released an album full of old folk songs for children a couple years back. Entitled You Are My Flower, it was only available through Mitchell's own record label, Last Affair Records, until recently, and a portion of the proceeds went to a charity for children. Since You Are My Flower was such a success (what liberal-minded aging folkie could resist?) Mitchell went back to her acoustic guitar and recorded You Are My Sunshine, another collection of songs for kids. It features more actual children singing, including Mitchell and Littleton's own daughter, Storey (whom I actually had the pleasure of hearing scream loudly at a show Littleton played in New York while Littleton smiled lovingly and pumped more air into the harmonium). But the screams are at least in the right key on You Are My Sunshine, and the addition of more instruments, songs and time in the recording studio (You Are My Flower was recorded in one day) makes You Are My Sunshine less of a folkfest and more of a record kids might actually listen to willingly. And even if you're a bit older than 5, Mitchell's renderings of kindergarten classics like "Skip to My Lou" and "Car Car" are nostalgically cute.

On the more contemporary side of the folk divide is Damien Jurado's Where Shall You Take Me (Secretly Canadian). If you define folk as music that, using mostly guitar, cuts to the emotional core of what it means to be alive in rural America, then Damien Jurado is folk in the best sense of the word. (See? It's not a bad word! It's not!) Jurado's releases have followed a pretty consistent pattern: slow and depressing, upbeat, then slow and depressing, followed by another upbeat rocking record. Where Shall You Take Me goes back to the slow and depressing side of Jurado, with a couple rockers thrown in for good measure. Songs about road trips resonate with the big skies and pastures of state routes and lonely roadside gas stations; these are not high-speed interstate excursions. The songs touch on an aspect of travel that's both beautiful and terrible, hopeful and sad.

"This country will know us by name," sing Jurado and backup vocalist Rosie Thomas on "Omaha," as if seeing more of the land makes it know you better as you take it in yourself. Conversely, a darker side is shown on "Texas to Ohio": This is the rocker, in all its full-blown glory. "From Texas to Ohio is too long a walk even if it's with someone you love, five miles in the walk you already want to do them in," sings Jurado.

"Tether" and "I Can't Get Over You" are folk songs straight out of the vein of Woody Guthrie, and "Matinee" is a happy pop song about watching cheap movies with your friends ("Matinee, why go late, when the movies are cheaper during the day"). Where Shall You Take Me rides a strange volume roller coaster, but too many sad Jurado songs can be damaging; it's impossible to listen to all of 1999's Ghost of David without feeling that you just may need to finish off that bottle of vodka if you want to make it through the night.

Folk music, when it's done right, can either be great to jump rope to, or great to drown your sorrows in.

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