Published Jan 01, 2006When Harry Smith released his epochal Anthology Of American Folk Music in 1952, the box bore an engraving of a single-stringed instrument being tuned by the hand of God. In 1966, against Smith's wishes, the set's cover was altered to display a grim photograph of a Depression-era farmer, a leaden symbol of folk music's social agenda that endures even to this day. Indeed, where folk could once have been defined as a music any music that expressed the views of a self-supporting community, it now wallows in a mire of clichés: banjos and fiddles, denim and gingham, and little else.
With so much music now being composed (and distributed) strictly via lines of code, there remains a stubborn bunch of artists who appeal to our urge for a music made from earthen tools. In this way can we explain the success of Canadian acts like the Be Good Tanyas and Carolyn Mark, musicians whose work flashes back to supposedly simpler and better times. But while adept at assuming the surface postures of Appalachian folk, artists of this ilk fail to understand that the music that inspired them was a deeply mystical form, steeped in religious and occultist imagery. Untethered from its roots as an incantatory form, much of what passes for folk music these days seems hopelessly trite and ephemeral.
In this era of corrosive nostalgia, it is all the more refreshing to find a small community of artists who remain faithful to folk music's tenets. The music made by such American acts as the Charalambides, Dredd Foole and the Tower Recordings is known as avant-folk, a style that adheres to Smith's conception of folk as a mystical music made from wholly contemporary instruments. Linked via a subterranean network of micro-sized labels and fanzines with names like Ecstatic Yod (www.yod.com), Wholly Other (www.wholly-other.com) and Spirit of Orr (www.spiritoforr.com), these bands produce a music that as journalist David Keenan so brilliantly explained in a recent issue of The Wire "impacts on the ass as much as the third eye, that draws from mountain music, country blues, hip-hop, militant funk and psychedelia as much as free jazz."
Where so much experimental music seems like the work of passionless intellectuals, avant-folk arches unrepentantly toward the heavens, whether in its hypnotic, raga-like rhythms or perpetually ecstatic drone passages. According to Bridget Hayden of the British free-folk group Vibracathedral Orchestra, "There is no chord formation that can be planned that creates elation or sadness, or any art that is profound enough to change anything fundamental about a person. There is just a resonance around us that artists are using or not using."
When the Tower Recordings' Matthew Valentine says that his band's live sound is "really dependent on the weather and star signs," he reminds us that free improvisation is a primal gesture, not a cerebral one. Valentine's evocation of the elements is integral to our understanding of the form, for unlike so much supposed roots music, free-folk is an art of the here and now, equally derived from acoustic and electronic instruments.
As Maryland's Timothy Renner once declared, his one-man band Stone Breath is "part of the earth. Metal, hair, wood, skin, flesh, leaf, and bone make our songs. As a folk artist, I use what is around me to express myself. I happen to live in the 21st century, so that also means electricity, magnetic tape, hard-disc recorders and so on."
While it has been bubbling up since 1994 (the year Dredd Foole released his seminal debut, In Quest Of Tense), 2003 was the biggest year yet for the scene, peaking with Vermont's Brattleboro Free Folk Festival, the first major showcase for artists from all over the United States. In the wake of Keenan's far-reaching depiction of the scene in The Wire's August issue, the indie cognoscenti is starting to take notice, with Chicago's Kranky Records wading in with a recent re-release of the Charalambides' 2002 LP, Unknown Spin. More an archival snapshot than an album proper, the Texas trio's disc is stunning, preaching an earthen brand of mysticism that strikes at free-folk's very essence. With its fusion of ancient spiritual forms and cutting-edge technologies, this music sounds simultaneously primitive and advanced, hinged on the divide between past and future: the ceaseless present.