Thursday, December 01, 2005

New Folk Music

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.


Mike Linksvayer said...

It might not be cute, but a (pd) icon.

I suspect a ¢ or slash-c icon is not offered because it could be perceived as anti-copyright imagery and Creative Commons stands for reasonable copyright, not against copyright.

There is filk about software, but I wonder if rap isn't something close to modern folk. Nerdcore.

Glen said...
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Glen said...

Here's an old favorite from 1979. Sounds like an old coal-mining tune but the chorus is: "Ho, boys, can't you code it, and program it right; Nothing ever happens in the life of mine; I'm hauling up the data on the Xerox line."

More modern than that? Well, there's Pete Miser...

Glen said...

There's a nice collection of computer stuff here.

That other song I referred to was "White Collar Holler", first sung by Stan Rodgers.

Greyfeld said...

While not exactly released under the creative commons licensing scheme, I would highly suggest that you check out Jason Ringenberg's Empire Builders CD. Here's a link to an MP3 he has made available on his site:

The album is great and Jason (formerly of Jason and the Nashville Scorchers) has extended his career by doing things his way. He plays solo shows all over the world and also doubles as Farmer Jason. Sometimes he will do two shows a day - one in the morning for the kids as Farmer Jason and one in the evening for the older folks.

He is awesome. Order a CD from his site and he'll autograph it too.

Now quit spamming and start hamming.

Tom W. Bell said...

Mike: Thanks for the references to filk, something that I'd never heard about before. But I cannot tell from following the links whether filkers have a particular approach to copyright. I doubt they tend to put their stuff in the public domain, though perhaps Stallman put his song about free software under some sort of GNU license.

Glen: Again, thanks for the links. But, again, I don't see any sort of copyright policy at work. But I did find this absol-friggin-lutely brilliant music video by finding the links you offered: Check it out!

Greyfeld: That Jason guy *does* offer some interesting music. I like that you can actually understand his lyrics--or, at least, you can discern what he's saying. But what's up with "Fly the Rebel Flag in Central Germany"? Is it a joke? Is there some deeper message? I think he's cuppin' some heads.

Kirsten said...

I stumbled across Ethan Daniel Davidson's Talking San Francisco Dot Com Kid Massacre which I really enjoyed playing in the car on a recent vacation while going over the bridge from San Francisco to Oakland.