Folkstep: Folk Music You Can Rock Out To

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A new genre of American folk music emerged in the last couple of decades. It draws on the work of many artists, but no one band can claim credit for its invention. Basically: It’s folk music with a beat that you can rock out to. For lack of a better term, and given the danceable nature of this music, I call it folkstep.

A Working Definition of Folk Music

To define folkstep, we first need a rough definition of “folk” music. Pete Seeger used to tell a story about blues singer Big Bill Broonzy who was once asked if a certain song he sang was a folk song. “It must be,” Broonzy replied. “I never heard horses sing it.” Folk music, in this broad definition, is music made by folks.

Humans have always made music in community—hunting songs, work songs, songs that mark the changing of the seasons. This “music of the people” can be contrasted with the capitalist drives of “popular” (pop) music, which is—especially now—fully industrialized in the factory model. Pop music is optimized to satisfy the biggest audience possible and thereby earn the most revenue possible. It still sounds amazing, but it’s the rare songwriter that achieves popular success while keeping a meaningful message in their songs. Authenticity and intricate cultural meaning are welcome ingredients in pop music, but they’re not strictly necessary in order to get people dancing and are therefore often absent.

Folk music is also different from art music or concert music (commonly thought of as “classical” music), which focuses on a crystallized, often cerebral, artistic expression that tends to find an audience among the intellectual and economic elite. Folk music is working people’s music. It’s the music of everyday life.

The American folk revival of the 1940’s-60’s helped to crystallize a sound that lives on in the memory of many alive today. The music of the folk revival—inspired in large part by the ethnomusicological recording efforts of Alan Lomax and The Smithsonian—drew on the blues, old time Appalachian music, Irish music, jug band music, creole music, sea shanties, spirituals, gospel music, and countless other traditions from the melting pot that is the United States.

The common contemporary conception of folk music centers around a single primary totem: the acoustic guitar. Banjos and fiddles are common in many traditions, but the sound of undistorted guitar strings strummed with broad, open chords is probably the most familiar signature across many types of folk music from the early 20th century up through today.

Folkstep, as an outgrowth of this ever-evolving folk tradition, is primarily acoustic (though a little electric guitar for flavor never hurt anyone). Since the goal is to get people to dance, there’s a major focus on percussive sounds. Muted stringed instruments are common, especially the mandolin.

Folkstep in many ways emerged from folk punk, anti-folk (R.I.P. SideWalk Cafe), and from the “mash” style of playing bluegrass music, exemplified by bands like Blue Highway and The Steeldrivers—though folkstep tends to be played at a faster tempo than “mashgrass.”

Ultimately, the best way to understand a genre is by hearing it.

Examples of Folkstep

The bluegrass genre gives us the most prominent instances of folkstep. There’s no doubt that Punch Brothers have been at the forefront of innovation and experimentation in bluegrass since they formed in 2006, and “My Oh My” (2015) is one of Chris Thile’s most elegant songwriting ventures to date.

Another bluegrass band that formed in the early 2000’s was Crooked Still with their Berklee-infused bluegrass pedigree. Their Bob Dylan + old time cover medley “Oxford Town/Cumberland Gap” (2006) shows off the whole band including Aoife O’donovan, cello goblin Rushad Eggleston, and four-finger banjo wizard, Greg Liszt. The Deadly Gentlemen is another of Greg Liszt’s projects, and “I Fall Back” (2013) is one of their most exhilarating songs. Mile Twelve follows in the footsteps of groups like this and brings a fresh new wave of virtuosity with their original song “Onwards” (2017).

Drums are a controversial addition to certain folk musics, but The Band’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” (1993) was recorded in a zydeco-like style—invoking a genre that long ago embraced the drum kit. Indeed, drums make a certain kind of sense in folkstep, given the importance of rhythm to the genre. Knowing that people were coming to their shows with the explicit intention of dancing, Mumford and Sons incorporated drums into their music from the beginning, including a kick drum in “Little Lion Man” (2009). The Mountain Goats similarly bring the full drum set into their sound as they jam out on “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1” (2012), a song off their outsider-focused album Transcendental Youth.

With all the usage of drums, it’s all the more striking to hear musicians create a powerfully percussive atmosphere with only string instruments. The bluegrass bands discussed above accomplish this (Punch Brothers, Crooked Still, The Deadly Gentlemen, and Mile Twelve), along with Joy Kills Sorrow. Their cover of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” (2013) is driven from below with the hefty bowed bass tones of Zoe Guigueno. In “At the Beach,” The Avett Brothers rely mostly on the percussive qualities of a strummed banjo, with just a shaker to add a little flavor (2004). Trampled By Turtles gets the whole band playing powerful eighth-note strums in “The Middle” (2018) in order to create a driving rhythm, with only an occasional tambourine in the chorus.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops take a different path to percussion in “Country Girl” (2012), incorporating beatboxing along with their fiddles and mandolins. The power of the fiddle is also strong in “Bright As You Can” (2015), where Ruthy Ungar takes lead in Mike + Ruthy’s sound, carrying on the legacy of her parents and folk legends Jay Ungar and Molly Mason.

Ultimately, Folkstep is inspired to a great extent by the capacities of other genres, so pop & rock covers are a natural fit. Darlingside’s rendition of The Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979” (2015) shimmers with the bright tone of the mandolin, drawing out new characteristics of the song as the dynamics ebb and swell. Front Country turns the Don Henley hit “The Boys of Summer” (2016) into a nostalgia trip for a whole new generation. “Superstition” (2005) as covered by Old School Freight Train brings out new dimensions of acoustic funk that might surprise Stevie Wonder. And The Infamous Stringdusters transport us to another realm with their cover of “Just Like Heaven” (2017) by The Cure.

And then there are the pop natives like Tegan and Sara, now better known for their dance bangers. Their song “Living Room” (2002) showcases their early banjo-rich sound in a song about trying to puzzle out the mystery of Tegan’s secluded neighbors. Béyonce also wanders away from the pop world to make an appearance in folkstep. Her song “Daddy Lessons” (2016) showcases the Texan influences of her richly autobiographical album Lemonade.

The Gourds bring a hip hop cover into the fray with “Gin and Juice” (1998), pairing their mandolin-centric sound with a drum kit to get Snoop Dogg’s point across. Gangstagrass keep the hip hop vibe going with “Barnburning” (2015), which showcases equally impressive rapping, banjo, dobro, and fiddle.

Molly Tuttle shows off her unique virtuosity with the guitar in “Take the Journey.” Her style stems from her use of clawhammer banjo techniques applied to the guitar. Abakis‘ indie folk vibe brings us back to center with her beautiful singing, songwriting, and instrumentation in “Home.”

A great deal of folk music is rooted in various religious traditions. In “Open Up the Window, Noah,” (2014) another pair of guitar virtuosos—Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge—share a new spin on Phil Rosenthal’s 1985 song based on the Old Testament story. The Great Flood myth transcends many cultures, and even if the Noah parable might be fictional, it has some relevance to our current predicament. Human-caused climate change has all of us thinking about how to prepare for great floods that are amplified by rising sea levels and fiercer storms from our warming oceans.

Folkstep is ever-evolving, and it will be exciting to see as more folk groups intentionally gear their music towards an audience that wants to dance, while maintaining the virtuosic instrumentation that makes contemporary American folk music so special.

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On a personal note…

I was introduced to folk music by my mom and dad. When I was young they played Pete Seeger, Simon & Garfunkel, Johnny Cash, and many others. When I was in high school I went several times with my mom to the Mountain Opry to hear bluegrass and old time down the road from where we lived on Signal Mountain in Tennessee. My friend Aaron introduced me to so much music in high school, including Crooked Still.

During my time at Sarah Lawrence College, my professor Toby King taught me the intricacies of bluegrass music as I learned to play Scruggs-style and melodic banjo (along with Balinese gamelan and West African percussion). That bluegrass ensemble is where I got to know my wife, Amie Anderson. After graduating, Amie and I continued to play together as a folk duo called The Apple Kickers. I continued going to bluegrass jams in New York City, especially at Paddy Reilly’s on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

There, I met my friend, Evan Murphy (who now sings and plays guitar in Mile Twelve). He and I gathered a few friends (Brian McCarthy, Vivian Li, and Jesse Markowitz) and formed a bluegrass band called Tenafly Rye. After a few years, we disbanded as I moved up to Beacon, NY and Evan moved to Boston, MA.

Amie and I continue to play as the Apple Kickers and enjoy living in Beacon. Pete Seeger spent most of his adult life in this town, and it has thus become a bit of a hub for folk music.

One of the most beautiful parts about folk music is how it brings people together in joyful celebration. It’s a marvelous playground built on improvisation and participation. My explorations in the world of folk music are filled with memories of dear friends who I would never have met any other way. This music connects us and fills our lives with song.