By Cody Elliott
A common refrain from Europeans, who have had the privilege of watching at a distance, is that America doesn’t recognize what’s great about its own culture- or that we don’t believe we have a culture. A couple of centuries in, and there seems to be some truth to this. We’ve always had an inferiority complex regarding the art of the “old world,” whether that means idolizing Victorian poets yesterday or Italian fashion brands today. Certainly, we’ve never been great about providing economic opportunities to our artists- the narrative we tell in hip hop music, country, or of the abstract expressionists is one of overcoming great financial hardship. Perhaps that’s why so many Americans have jumped ship and gone to Europe, even pretended to be European (looking at you, T.S. Eliot).
But of course, most artists stay. Though they may not always get the national reputation they deserve, America’s folk arts are enduring. The Hudson Valley has long been a hotbed in particular for folk music. Some of the earliest songs written by colonists were written on or about the river, and that legacy continues through today. It’s worth noting that Pete Seeger, one of the most influential figures in 20th-century music, called Beacon home for much of his life- his sloop, the Clearwater, a floating educational center, continues to sail the river and is worth a visit.
Seeger was born into a musical family- his father was a legendary folklorist, who had spent time wandering the countryside in order to collect and record various folk traditions. Today, he’s best known for his renditions of labor movement songs- such as “If I Had a Hammer” or “Solidarity Forever,” and for his activism for various progressive causes. Seeger isn’t an anomaly, either- for a very long time, folk music was seen as being closely related to the world of labor organization. It’s hard to think about the mass protest movements of the sixties without thinking about the soundtrack of “We Shall Overcome.” This makes a great degree of sense- folk songs, by definition, were often written by the otherwise disenfranchised and were designed to be sung by crowds in call and response style.
Amateur folklorist Bob Lusk compiled some of the many Hudson Valley specific folk songs, most of them written by working-class people.
There’s something truly wonderful and empowering about running across a song that’s about a location you know well, and few other genres of music do it as well as Folk.
“I'd like a drink of Applejack, or a little drink of ale
That good old stuff Abe Sammons made in the town of Rosendale
You can have your running rivers, your cozy mountain shacks
But just drain all the oceans and put in Applejack,”
goes one song adapted by Lusk himself.
Others point to the nautical traditions of the valley, such as “Mermaid,” a song about a seatime seduction, as set down by the Clancy Brothers:
“And up spoke the captain of our gallant ship
And a well-spoken man was he
He said: ”I have me a wife in Kingston by the sea
And tonight she a widow will be.”
Others tell about the dangers of tickling Mules, local legends of feuding families, or the melancholy of being separated from a beloved home. One thing many of these songs have in common is that they were frequently adapted- sometimes from old-world poets, or sometimes they were humourous satires of popular songs with local landmarks added in. Their writers were not afraid to take ownership of hit songs- a concept that sits strangely with our current notions of copyright law.
Founded in 1979, the Hudson Valley Folk Guild has encouraged the development and preservation of the art of ever since. I spoke with Kevin Becker, Co-Founder of the HVFG, about the past, present, and future of the art form. Starting with just a few like-minded friends, who had grown up with the 1960’s folk revival (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Weavers, etc.), the HVFG has grown to have over 450 members today and has recently expanded to include a concert series, three ongoing coffeehouse salons, and a number of charity concerts and events. Kevin tells me that, to him, what defines Hudson Valley folk is that it is the truest representation of the melting pot- you’re just as likely to hear something that’s reminiscent of New England folk as you are to hear something that sounds like the Appalachians. He chalks this up to the proximity to NYC, and he notes that the valley’s music is more likely to resemble “topical” urban folk, and has a long history of borrowing from Irish traditional music.
For a time, it seemed like folk music was making a revival through indie music labels, but Kevin says his worry of the moment is that the term “folk” has been less popular with streaming services. Instead, they seem to be labeling diverse artists under the somewhat reductive names of “acoustic” or “roots.” Since it’s much more common to find new music online now than it is to run into a jamboree in the town square, this concern is valid. A new terminology can separate the music from its vibrant history. Ultimately though, the HVFG is not worried. The heart of Folk music isn’t necessarily the past, but instead, “it is the new songs that reflect the times we live in that will always invigorate the HV folk music scene. People have a need to be creative and express themselves and music is a prime way for that to occur. For that reason, folk music is alive and well and always will be.”
In other words, people will always have the need to leave their mark- some do it in graffiti on walls, some through writing blogs, others name the things they love (or loathe) in song. We will always need to feel solidarity within our communities, we will always need to take ownership of popular songs and make them more applicable to our lives. These basic human needs couldn’t be summed up better than the definition the HVFG uses: “We simply say that folk music is music created and performed by folks, period.”