Every workplace in the country must have a stack of CDs in the corner of the office of unknown origin. You know that stack of mostly jewel case-less discs that you rummage through every other month hoping to be surprised, or at least find a guilty pleasure that’s not too guilty. But instead, all you get is Travis Tritt, Marcy Playground, and some unidentifiable seventh generation trip-hop disc that no one will cop to. My place of employ is much the same, but perhaps just a wee bit luckier for being a folk music organization. Among the discs rolling around the office is a couple from the Putumayo series, a wide range of compilations from all over the world. From Music From the Tealands (an Asian music comp, including Chai recipe) to North African Groove, Putumayo deals in rewarding exploration. Before diving in and buying that box set of Iranian Rastgah systems, for example, Putumayo would have you toe the water a little bit first.
Now Putumayo’s got their sights trained on American “folk” music, having tackled blues, Cajun, zydeco, and other forms separately. I put the word “folk” in quotes because there’s two major definitions for “folk” when it comes to the American variety, and in assessing this particular compilation’s merits, it’s important to know the one Putumayo has in mind. Folk music exists as a very broad term akin to “music of the people,” including just about every form of music outside of classical. Blues, hip-hop, salsa, rock, punk, ska, skiffle-all of this and much, much more can be considered forms of folk music. The other definition is much more narrow, and is what most people envision when they hear the term. It’s the folk music of acoustic guitars, coffee shops, Christopher Guest spoofs and whatnot. Its roots are mostly in the ballad tradition of Ireland and England, and it tends to be mellow in sound, and pastoral in feel. Putumayo Presents American Folk is a compilation of the latter definition of folk, and as such, it’s a pretty good one.
Each of the 12 artists on this disc, whether veteran of the style (Nanci Griffith, Natalie Merchant) or relatively new cat on the block (Josh Ritter, Ida’s Elizabeth Mitchell) has their own history, sound, and influences, but the selections here make for an extremely cohesive, if not bordering-on-homogenous, listen. I’d find the uniformity a sin if I were hoping for a broad representation of folk music. But as document of contemporary genre folk, its solidity is pleasing and apropos. For instance, that a Bob Dylan cover appears here (Griffith’s 1993 sweet rendition of “Boots of Spanish Leather”) is head-slappingly expected, but included in the same 45-minute span as Josh Ritter’s “You Don’t Make It Easy Babe” the choice is thoughtful and revealing. Even without Putumayo’s thorough and trilingual liner notes, the link between Dylan and Ritter is made abundantly clear within the first 10 seconds of “Babe”, which sounds the less snarky cousin of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”. Apart from drawing the connection between past and present, it demonstrates an allegiance to tradition and form that is uncommon in other genres, but welcome and appreciated in folk.
The liner notes describe Lucy Kaplansky’s “I Had Something” as “a sober reflection on parenthood in the wake of her adoption of a Chinese child,” which demonstrates another aspect of contemporary American folk music: the shaping of one’s personal life into lyrics of inspiration and/or wisdom. The confessional strain of folk music is currently one of the strongest, with clubs, venues, and yes, coffeehouses full of people seeking shared experience and affirmation of feeling. Kaplansky represents this side of folk music well, though I personally find her song’s back-story far more intriguing than her lyrics. The tendency of writers to attempt universality through the broadening of language, as opposed to specifying, is a trick learned from pop music, and a bad one. Contrast Kaplansky’s chorus of “Every footstep that I take / Completes a circle my life makes / Every living thing has ties that bind / What I lost will return in time” with the concrete imagery of the traditional “Owensboro”, sung by Natalie Merchant: “We rise up early in the morning / And we work all day real hard / To buy our little meat and bread / Buy sugar, tea, and lard.” The first approach serves you the message without the motivation; the second gives you information for you to draw your own conclusions from.
In the end though, those aesthetics are two sides of the same coin, to seek perspective or insight into the lives of regular people, or folk. American folk music is about love songs that do more than sell cola, political songs as much about nuance as proselytizing, and country songs about the land itself instead of a string of redneck jokes. Putumayo’s compilation is an adequate and succinct look at some of where we’ve been, and where we are now in the patient evolution of sing-able songs.