Forgetting the Roots: Does It Matter Who Makes Folk Music?

In 1946, a Jewish boy named Elliot Adnopoz was growing up in Brooklyn. Although his father was a surgeon at a local hospital and wanted his son to follow him into medicine, young Elliot had his heart set on a different profession: he wanted to be a cowboy. When Elliot was 15, he ran away from home with two friends to join the only professional rodeo east of the Mississippi. Even though it was a matter of months before his parents caught up to him and reeled him back to Brooklyn, the damage had been done—Elliot had developed a fascination with the singing cowboys of the rodeo. In other word, the music bug had bitten. Once back home in the big city, Elliot began to teach himself how to sing and play the guitar.

If this sounds like the beginning of a story about a misfit Brooklyn teen trying to escape middle-class angst through folk music, then you wouldn’t be quite right. But you wouldn’t be quite wrong either. (We’re heeding the famous dictum of the reporter Stoddard in the 1962 John Ford film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the legend becomes fact, we should print the legend.) In the case of this particular Brooklyn boy, generations of folk music enthusiasts have followed that principle. For while the name “Adnopoz” doesn’t mean much to the average folk fan, the name “Ramblin’ Jack Elliott” signifies a man who is more or less a demigod. The legend, it seems safe to say, won the battle. Elliott, of course, is Adnopoz, albeit transformed by culture, music, and the curious power of the public imagination. The name “Ramblin’ Jack Elliott” conjures a world of cowboy wonders and hobo life that could never have been conveyed by a Jewish kid from Brooklyn.

In considering Ramblin’ Jack Elliott as a cultural icon, it’s worth keeping track of that Jewish boy from the big city, not letting his ramblin’ life as a folkie overshadow his origin. The fact that a Jewish boy from the big city could grow up to become one of the folk icons of his generation is a feat. Perhaps more than other genres, folk music values the ‘authentic,’ somewhat suspicious of those things that are not the ‘real thing.’

I want to explore this approach to folk music ‘authenticity’—how and why some fans are uneasy about anyone but a good ol’ country boy being a folk musician while other fans are perfectly happy admitting that their favorite folkie got her start in a stable, middle-class home in an urban area. The phantom of Elliot Adnopoz in the Ramblin’ Jack story bothers some people and pleases others. How did folk music end up in such a paradoxical place?

It should be noted that the argument over musical authenticity is not a new one. It’s an old story that’s been told time and time again, one that has spilled over genre boundaries and across music cultures. It’s an argument that has been rallied back and forth over dinner tables for decades. There are dozens of artists whose musical journeys align with that of Ramblin’ Jack. Bob Dylan, raised in a middle-class Jewish household in Minnesota, is one famous case. A recent New Yorker article about Bruce Springsteen touched on the fact that rock ’n‘ roll’s blue collar troubadour never worked a day in his life. Popular music history is cluttered with issues of racial authenticity, in particular the practice of white musicians appropriating ideas from black musicians, ranging from white musicians like the Rolling Stones playing rhythm and blues to the rap of the Beastie Boys.

In our day and age, it’s almost safe to say that every musical community out there has struggled with its sense of ‘authenticity.’ Is it just about the music? Or does it matter who plays it? In Scotland, even as the Royal Scottish Academy of Music works to preserve Scottish folk music, there are those who worry that the whole effort of preservation compromises the idea in the first place. After all, putting fiddle students through a rigorous musical program isn’t the way that Scottish master Niel Gow learned the instrument some two and a half centuries ago.

Further complicating notions of authenticity is the way in which all musical forms and ideas are up for the taking in our globalized culture. That powerful sense of sharing is evident across the entire musical spectrum, especially in the burgeoning practices of mash-ups and samples, which can create extraordinary culture clashes—Sufi music and dubstep, Celtic music and electronica, even metal and flamenco. Those, obviously, are extreme examples of how music can be changed thanks to a more fluid cultural discourse. Far subtler is the way in which folk forms—thinking here of Americana music—can be blended together by the likes of bands such as Mumford & Sons.

It comes as somewhat of a surprise: the best-selling Americana album of the past three years was not recorded by an American. Since its October 2009 release, Mumford & Son’s debut album Sigh No More has sold more 2.2 million copies. That’s right—a quartet of well-educated boys from middle-class London outsold native-born Americana luminaries like Alison Krauss and Steve Earle. And that’s to say nothing of the radio play and general popularity stirred up by Sigh No More. It might be safe to say that most mainstream music fans—even the Top 40 addicts—have heard Mumford’s name at least once. Those are the same people who would likely confuse Steve Earle with his son Justin Townes Earle.

Some might have trouble terming Mumford & Sons “Americana” music; a hesitance derived, firstly, from their extraordinary popularity (how often is Americana ‘popular’?) and, secondly, from the band’s disconnect from…well, America. Mumford, of course, is not unique in its reflection of American influences. The British folk scene has been importing American folk forms and instruments for the better part of a half-century, ever since the British folk revival of the 1960s. The folk-rock circuit in London over the past couple years has blossomed with Americana-influenced acts, from Laura Marling to Johnny Flynn to Noah and the Whale.

The keen listener might argue that Mumford & Sons owe just as much to British folk-rock bands like Fairport Convention and the standards of Celtic folk as they do to bluegrass and American folk. While both traditions are present in their music, both the band and the larger musical community position Mumford’s music with regard to their American influences rather than their British ones. When bluegrass banjo legend Earl Scruggs passed away in March, Mumford’s banjo player Winston Marshall was quick to pay tribute, explaining to NME that Scruggs “invented [his] job” and that “for those who hear the banjo as something other than a joke instrument, it’s thanks to him.” Marcus Mumford has even acknowledged a literary debt to Steinbeck, “Dust Bowl Dance” nodding to the Joad family in all but name. Besides the various appreciatory (and not-so-appreciatory) observations of Mumford as an Americana band by critics, there is the overarching recognition of Mumford by the Americana Music Association as the New/Emerging Artist of the Year for 2011.

So as one might expect, the accusation of inauthenticity has been leveled at Mumford & Sons several times over their brief career. Luke Slater, of Drowned In Sound, drew the disheartening analogy that Mumford is to folk music what Nickelback is to grunge. Slater understood there to be a primal theft going on: just as Nickelback aped Pearl Jam (which, let’s be honest, they did), Mumford & Sons aped a whole genre.

But even though the argument over authenticity might seem centered on the issue of geography, there is also an inherent classism to the case against Mumford & Sons. It’s not just their British-ness that’s perceived as a problem by critics; it’s their education and their upper-middle class upbringing. (Band leader Marcus Mumford and Ben Lovett, keyboardist and drummer for the band, attended secondary school together at King’s College School in Wimbledon, which has recently been ranked by The Telegraph as one of the best private secondary schools in the UK) Before fully dedicating himself to music, Mumford was studying classics at the University of Edinburgh; a whole legion of music critics has poked fun at his college experience. Alex Denney of NME offered the barb: “‘The Cave’ sounds like it should be played through a veil of freshers’ week tears after a drunken grope failed to make the earth move.”

The Avett Brothers

Back in the USA (and on the opposite end of the argument), the Avett Brothers make a compelling case for authenticity. In a way, the Avetts are the poster boys for what some folk fans think Americana music ought to be. Where Mumford’s band name is an elegant white lie—intended to inspire an old-timey, family-business kind of feel (the band has noted this on several occasions)—the Avett’s band name is as true as it gets—and they have songs of brotherly love to prove it. So even as these two bands spar for the summit of the Americana scene (think back to their showdown on the Grammys last year, before joining Bob Dylan to play “Maggie’s Farm” together), there seem to be irreconcilable differences in how some listeners think about them.

However, there’s an alternative method of thinking about authenticity with regard to folk music: looking at the life a musician lives as a musician—not as a kid in Brooklyn or a college kid in Edinburgh. More than any other genre, Americana music thrives on the idea (and ideal) of the road. The recent musical documentary Big Easy Express delineates exactly that argument. The film follows the experiences of Mumford & Sons, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes as they travel by a series of vintage trains over the 1,500 miles of rail from San Francisco to New Orleans, playing shows at stops along the way.

Boiled down, this documentary concept offers an excellent rendering of this alter-authenticity argument. The trailer for the film excerpts a clip of an interview with ex-Old Crow Medicine Show member Willie Watson, who notes, “Even the Mumfords are pretty grimy. They’ve got grease and mustard stains on their pants just like us, you know?” That quote—mundane though it may seem—encapsulates a larger truth: Mumford & Sons are like any other touring folk band. They’re just as dirty, just as real, just as folky as the rest of them—to hell with whether or not Mumford went to an elite high school.

More than any other genre, folk music has been subject to critical deconstruction, reconstruction, and even the occasional shoulder shrug—why bother to define it anyway? For more than half a century, musicologists and other experts have waged a long and confusing war over what ‘folk’ means. Often central to these disagreements has been the question of how to deal with the idea of the ‘authentic’: how crucial is authenticity when we consider folk music?

Another key word in this musicological war is ‘community.’ Not so long also, folk music almost exclusively belonged to the family and the community. If you journeyed back in time to the isolated rural corners of Appalachia, you would have encountered men, women, and children who treated music as something central to the community. Musical traditions were passed down from one generation to the next, hand-in-hand with religious beliefs. Music was played in the kitchen after dinner and learned by new players without the formal classroom rigor most of us know today, instead with a close, informal familiarity.

One of my favorite musicology articles is “Longing For Community,” a short piece by American musicologist Burt Feintuch, which deals with his larger project to learn and master the notoriously difficult Northumbrian smallpipes (Northumbria refers to the area in the north of England). Although Feintuch focuses on the technicalities of the instrument, he also dedicates part of the article to the larger theoretical question of what ‘community’ means in terms of modern folk music.

Feintuch’s argument is an appealing one to keep in mind as we consider attitudes towards present-day folk music. In looking at a group of musicians who gather to play traditional (British) folk tunes, Feintuch posits that their “music-playing [is] not so much a community…as a complicated striving or longing-for a moral kind of community.” In a real community, the connection between the musicians would not have been limited to music, but would have extended to religion, work, politics, and even family. In today’s Americana world, it’s rare to encounter that level of community at work within an artist’s back-story. As listeners, though, we’ve learned to overlook those gaps in community; so long as artists like Mumford & Sons possess that longing for community, then we forgive them their less-than-authentic origin stories.

However, thus far I’ve overlooked an essential part of the equation: the audience. Feintuch does not delve into the musician-audience relationship in his article, but I would offer that the audience plays a crucial role in the Americana-based longing for community. After all, it’s not as if everyone out there who is calling bullshit on Marcus Mumford’s inauthentic status as a bluegrass musician was raised in the hollers of Kentucky. What should distinguish a white, upper-middle-class music listener from a white upper-middle-class musician? In other words, what gives me the ‘authenticity’ or the ‘right’ to listen to Americana music? As Feintuch might put it, we’re all unknowingly participating in this longing for community.

But as much as I would like to envision the folk music world as one giant family picking and twanging their way to musical nirvana, not everyone ‘longs for community’ through folk music. Some people like Americana without any illusion of building a community through shared love of song; they like the music, simple as that. Butting up against my argument drawn out of Feintuch, one could argue that if Americana music has been unchained from authenticity, it should follow that it has been equally unchained from community.

Sometimes the music wins—sometimes ‘authenticity’ doesn’t matter. For instance, I’m not bothered by the fact that Gillian Welch was raised in Los Angeles in a middle-class household. Her brand of Americana is just as striking to me as that of Loretta Lynn, who grew up as an honest-to-God coal miner’s daughter in West Virginia. Even though their origin stories are starkly different, I feel that their music boils down to the same comparative essence. Authenticity be damned, their music has got the stuff I’m after.

But even despite that, authenticity will still prove fodder for argument. There will always be those music fans who will champion folky realists like the Avett Brothers while stomping all over transplanted folkies like Mumford & Sons.