Am I “folk enough?”—Towards a Genre-expansive Movement
In Fall 2022, my partner Jessica Gerhardt and I were signing up to attend our first Folk Alliance International conference. She asked me, “Do you really think my music is ‘folk enough’ for Folk Alliance?”
The thing about folk music is: it’s made by folks, for folks. Blues legend Big Bill Broonzy once said, “All music is folk music; I ain’t ever heard a horse sing” (a quote also attributed to Louis Armstrong). Doc Watson, who popularized Appalachian folk, toured playing not just this style, but country, blues, rockabilly, pop, jazz, and Broadway, calling it “traditional plus.” Pete Seeger, rejecting the notion that contemporary songs aren’t “folk enough,” said, “even the most original song you can think of is liable to have a good deal of tradition in it.” Even Wayne Shorter, saxophonist of Weather Report, called his band’s music “folk music of the future.”
Yet, my partner felt she didn’t fit the supposed folk musician mold. It’s a shame folk music often conjures the image of a well-off, white, cis-straight guy with cultivated facial hair, impeccable style, and an expensive vintage guitar—especially considering the debt this music owes to BIPOC, women, LGBTQ+ folks, and workers. It’s partly to do with what’s deemed marketable, and this kind of folkie is often the kind who has access to the market. But once again, folk music is by folks, for folks, not by the market, for the market.
At FAI 2023, we had the joy of hearing not just the anticipated finger-style and boom-chuck Americana (which I love), but also Caribbean protest music, Tin Pan Alley–reminiscent jazz, and Afrobeats-infused hip-hop from all sorts of different folks. Folk music is fluid and expansive. This is what makes it the people’s music, making room for everyone.
Arend Lee Jessurun (they/them) is a singer-songwriter, producer-engineer, and music educator. Since coming out as nonbinary, they have a renewed zeal for writing and sharing vulnerable and sincere songs in their own style of genre-expansive folk. Taking a page from artists like Mary Gauthier and Pete Seeger, Arend believes songwriting is a practice of self-discovery, and sharing songs is a radical act of community-building. Arend’s latest work, Demo-Listen Derby 2020, is an exercise in anti-perfectionism, following after self-recording heroes such as Richard Swift and Sufjan Stevens. Each song from the set is one-take, recorded on one-mic in their home studio. www.arendleejessurun.com