How has Folk music Impacted Contemporary Popular Music?

A discussion of the enduring influence of folk music upon modern popular music using the example of Whiskey in the Jar and Cold Chisel’s compositions.

Isabelle Mills has argued that ‘The texts of the traditional folk songs give poignant reminders of the universal timeless characteristics of mankind in their living, loving, toiling, and suffering’[1] and in this we can see that much contemporary music shares these themes and concerns.

Denisoff has argued that folk music has three defining features ;‘(1) the author of the song is anonymous; (2) the songs are orally transmitted from one generation to the next; and (3) the song must experience verbal alteration during generational transmission’[2] and this reinforces that folk music is music of the common people.

In the contemporary period the development of music as a commodity has meant that authorship and ownership of songs is paramount, that songs are recorded and played on radio or pressed to CD and record, and that these hard copy recordings preserve a song in its original form and according to these guidelines it is clear that modern music cannot be considered folk. However the impact of folk music on modern music cannot be denied.

As folk songs rose out of their milieu as a reaction to everyday circumstance, modern songwriters attempt to tap into universal themes in order to garner a wide following. By comparing the well known folk song ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ with the Australian band Cold Chisel’s ‘Standing On the Outside’, certain undeniable similarities in narrative and themes become evident and illustrate that modern musicians have learned to create songs that seem of the people for the people.

Whiskey in the Jar

‘Whiskey in the Jar’ is a traditional Irish song that is the first person tale of a man, most likely a highwayman, who robbed an English landlord. As is the oral tradition of folk music many different versions of the song exist, using differing geographical locales and names for the characters, however the vast majority depict the narrative voice’s betrayal by his wife and ultimate incarceration.

As the song has been traced back to the 17th century[3] we can see that it fits into Denisoff’s definition of a folk piece. Many bands including Thin Lizzy and Metallica have covered this traditional song which illustrates the lasting appeal of the narrative and the underlying themes of the poor challenging corrupt authority and attempting to gain some financial equality.

Though this adaption of folk songs illustrates that such music continues to influence some modern performers on a musical level, the lyrical sentiments are what can be seen to continue to permeate all genres and styles of pop. The ease with which this song could be played by a modern electric rock band shows that modern music still utilises many of the same elements, simple chords and a melody line played by guitar as well as a simple chorus that repeats between the many verses and can be learned and sung after only a few listens.

Though modern rock versions are superficially different to the original, much of the fundamentals remain the same in terms of tempo and harmonisation. Just as importantly the story of a poor man attempting to better his position but ultimately failing is both universal and timeless.

Standing on the Outside

Released in 1980, the Cold Chisel song ‘Standing on the Outside’ is not a folk song in that it has an author, it is recorded and transmitted in its original form on CD and record, and that it is generally played live in the same way and largely by the original band who recorded it. It also is played on keyboards, electric guitar, drums and bass with harmonised vocals so it differs from traditional folk in its delivery.

However, its personal tale of standing on the outside, wishing for money and planning a robbery after being inspired by a friend that ‘broke through illegally, pulled a job on a small town t.a.b’ and stole’ five grand down on his own little piece of eden’, is undeniably reminiscent of ‘Whiskey in the Jar’. The song, like ‘Whiskey in the Jar’, draws attention to the frustration of being poor when the rich are undeserving. Captain Farrell in whiskey in the jar ‘his money he was counting’, is an evocative image of the selfish wealthy with the spare time to sit counting his money, while in ‘Standing on the Outside’ the t.a.b betting agency is representative of the capitalist system that takes the poor man’s money and we are told ‘they’ve got the means to justify every end’.

Importantly, the protagonists see that the only one way of breaking away from hard work and toil is to steal from the wealthy and this anti-establishment continuity reinforces the enduring of themes from folk into contemporary music.

Walker is an accomplished musician and though Cold Chisel’s music does often contain many chord changes and modulations the choruses contain simple vocal hooks such as a ‘woah oh, woah oh, yeah yeah’ that can be easily sung after a few listens. Harap has argued that ‘Folk art serves the interests of the common people; its subject matter arises out of their everyday life; it is practiced by the people as participants and not merely as spectators’[4] and Walker’s sing along pub rock and celebration of Australian working class life in his music has been embraced since the 1970’s in Australia.

Don Walker

What becomes evident when perusing the songwriter Don Walker’s body of work is that he is a master of writing from the perspective of others, and creating enduring narratives of common experience. His song Khe Sanh is an Australian pub rock classic that documents a Vietnam veteran’s experiences after the war, Standing on the outside documents armed robbery and Four Walls tells the story of a struggling prison inmate.

Walker is University educated, was gainfully employed as a scientist straight from University[5], and has not been to war, prison, or performed an armed hold-up but has proven adept at tapping into lives and experiences he has never had. Many of his compositions fit easily into Denisoff’s definition of rhetorical propaganda songs as they illustrate problems with society from the point of view of a person experiencing them, yet do not offer an answer or alternative.

Denisoff refers to the songwriters of so-called ‘modern folk’, such as Bob Dylan, as ‘folk entrepreneurs’ and ‘imitators’[6] and seems to feel that the spirit of folk music has been appropriated for personal capital gain. Regardless of his motivations, by drawing on the way that the folk songs of the past ‘bound people together and helped them feel the spirit of community and rise above and persevere through hardships,’[7] much of Walker’s writing has been adopted by the, particularly Australian, people as their music that speaks about their lives.

Bibliography

Denisoff, R. Serge, The Proletarian Renascence: The Folkness of the Ideological Folk, Source: The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 82, No. 323 (Jan. – Mar., 1969), pp. 51-65 Published by: American Folklore Society Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/539053 Accessed: 10/11/09

Denisoff , R. Serge. Class Consciousness and the Propaganda Song, Source: The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Spring, 1968), pp. 228-247 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the Midwest Sociological Society Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4105044Protest Movements:, p230. accessed 15/11/09

Denisoff , R Serge, Protest Songs: Those on the Top Forty and Those of the Streets, Source: American Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Winter, 1970), pp. 807-823 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2711871, accessed 11/11/09.

Denisoff, R Serge, The Proletarian Renascence: The Folkness of the Ideological Folk, Source: The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 82, No. 323 (Jan. – Mar., 1969), pp. 51-65 Published by: American Folklore Society Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/539053, accessed 14/11/09.

Mills, Isabelle, The Heart of the Folk Song, http://cjtm.icaap.org/content/2/v2art5.html, accessed 16/11/09.

Don Walker bio, http://www.coldchisel.com.au/biodw.html, accessed 15/11/09.

[1] Mills, Isabelle, The Heart of the Folk Song, http://cjtm.icaap.org/content/2/v2art5.html, accessed 16/11/09.

[2]Denisoff , R. Serge. Class Consciousness and the Propaganda Song, Source: The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Spring, 1968), pp. 228-247 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the Midwest Sociological Society Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4105044Protest Movements:

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whiskey_in_the_Jar

[4] Harap in Denisoff, R Serge, The Proletarian Renascence: The Folkness of the Ideological Folk, Source: The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 82, No. 323 (Jan. – Mar., 1969), pp. 51-65 Published by: American Folklore Society Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/539053

[5] Don Walker bio, http://www.coldchisel.com.au/biodw.html

[6] Denisoff, R. Serge, The Proletarian Renascence: The Folkness of the Ideological Folk, Source: The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 82, No. 323 (Jan. – Mar., 1969), pp. 51-65 Published by: American Folklore Society Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/539053 Accessed: 10/11/09

[7] Isabelle Mills, The Heart of the Folk Song, http://cjtm.icaap.org/content/2/v2art5.html, accessed 16/11/09.

Leave a Comment