Folk musicians used to sing about ranching, mining, and hopping trains. They still do, of course, but their voices now sound in nostalgia. I'd like more up-to-date folk tunes, ones about managing sales reps, or writing code, or illegally using the car pool lane. Judging from the long-ago origins of old folk music, I may have to wait quite a while.
Successful folk tunes have generally arisen spontaneously, their words and music shaped and polished over years and across singers. Folk music has grown in the wild—not within the bounds of copyright protection. These days, though, the long and broad limits of copyright law fence music from its birth. Songs don't escape into the public domain quickly or accidently. We—the "folk" in "folk music"—thus don't get to reengineer catchy tunes into shared cultural artifacts.
Happily, the Creative Commons offers a solution. Of the various licenses it offers, the Public Domain one would probably best serve folk music's free-wheeling ways. (But why doesn't Creative Commons offer a cute icon for that license? It does for most of the other licenses it supports. I've suggested using "¢" to designate copyright abandonment.) The BY license (requiring no more than attribution) or the BY-SA license (requiring attribution for both copies and derivative works) might suit new folk music, too. Works of folk music do not usually tout authors, though; the proverbial "folk" get the credit.
Copyright law surely doesn't bear all the blame for folk music's musty air. The Wikipedia explanation of folk music's decline doesn't even mention copyright, instead pinning the blame on (essentially) technological progress. Why bother with amateur renditions of tired old songs when you can buy professionally recorded new ones?
I'll tell you why: Because making music makes for fun! I grew up having old folk tunes sung to me, and pretty quickly learned to join in. My kids enjoy the same sort of rough-and-ready musical games. Just last night, while I was bathing him, Kai asked me to (again) sing "The Boll Weevil" song. (Yeah, I read the copyright notice. But check out an older version of the song and you'll get a fuller picture.) After singing all the verses I knew a couple of times, I started improvising. His sister, A.J., overheard the ruckus and came in to help us think up silly new rhymes.
I'm pretty sure that the song has now sunk pretty deeply into my kids' musical memories. Our bath time jam session certainly made an impression on Kai, at least. He greeted me this morning, as I groggily stumbled around the kitchen making French toast for the kids, with a request, "Daddy, sing the Boll Weevil song!" I begged off, both because he failed to add, "please," and because I try not to sing when I can hardly think.