Folk … What’s in a Name?

From the birth of the Compact Disc until the death of physical media, there was a figurative explosion in the number of music categories one could browse down at the local edition of whichever cookie-cutter corporate music store chain happened to be in your path.  And some of those categories (World Music, Folk Metal, Alt-Country, etc.) would have been, at one point in time, likely dropped into the “Folk Music” category, which by the 1990s, was likely to be the least stocked category in the entire store.

Folk music has enjoyed varying levels of mainstream success over the last seventy years (at least), although sometimes it gets a different name. The term folk music is demonstrably an example of bad marketing. Other terms seem to be more alluring. In addition to the ones I mentioned previously, there’s “singer-songwriter,” of course. There’s “roots” music. Sometimes it’s hidden away over there under a section of “country music.” These alternative terms drift in and out of favor as well. But for the last couple of decades, the preferred synonym for “Folk” seems to be “Americana.”

Americana sells. Folk? Not so much. Most folk musicians don’t put a thought into it as they define the folk music they write and perform as Americana. And it’s no big deal. It’s okay. There’s no category police. As proof, examine the curious case of the Elton John pop song, Bennie and the Jets, which peaked at #15 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1974. So call it Americana, or call it Folk. Or come up with the next great marketing synonym for “Folk.”

But are Folk and Americana synonyms? Perhaps not. At a David Bromberg concert I attended back in 2015, Bromberg was kind enough to repeat the distinction he likes to highlight as the difference between Americana and Folk.  “Folk Music,” Bromberg explained, “is any music that is or has been played with no expectation of money exchanging hands.” He went on to say, “Americana, on the other hand, is music that is very much similar to folk music, but performed with commercial intent.”

Bromberg claims, and correctly so, that he’s been playing Americana since well before the term had been coined. Who are we to argue? But some of those tunes, like the ones he learned from his mentor, Rev. Gary Davis? Those are folk. Plain and simple.