Folk music finds an audience again

August 22, 1993|By A. Scharnhorst | A. Scharnhorst,The Kansas City Star

Folk music is back in fashion.

Part of it is the music -- acoustic artists are attaining rarely seen popularity -- but a lot of it is the message. Political turmoil, war, economic instability and environmental concerns worldwide are making people relate to folk music once again.

"Music, like all art forms, tends to reflect society," said John Henson, president of the Greater Kansas City Coalition Against Censorship, which strives to protect art that takes a stand.

Just as some of the music of the 1980s indicated the conservatism of the Reagan era, music in the '90s illustrates the more liberal political climate, Mr. Henson said.

Mary Travers, of the folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary, said she is seeing a new acceptance to her group's activism-laced music, and in folk music in general.

"I'm thrilled that folk music seems to be enjoying a bit of a renewal here," she said. "The audience we have now is four generations. The audience we began with was one generation -- our own."

Music often is a medium for youth, who in the '90s seem to be less self-absorbed and materialistic than the youth of the late '70s and early '80s. Their '60s- and '70s-styled clothing reflects their interest in the period -- and in some of the same issues that captured the hearts of the youthful activists of that era. The environmental movement has played a part as well.

"This whole tendency [among youth] to be politically charged, more open-minded, tends to be reflected in music," Mr. Henson said. "It's widely accepted that environmental aware ness -- in music or in any sphere -- is greater."

Already-established folk performers such as Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and Peter, Paul & Mary weathered the anti-activism bent of the late 1970s and 1980s. But that atmosphere damaged songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, whose liberal reputation affected his recording contract and touring schedule.

If Peter, Paul & Mary had formed in the '80s instead of the '60s, Ms. Travers acknowledges, they wouldn't have had a chance for success.

"I don't want to say social messages have ever been missing from music," Mr. Henson said, but they have, at times, faded out of the musical mainstream.

In the '60s, radio stations played folk music. In the '80s, mainstream radio and music shows on television widely avoided activist music -- including much of the rap, country and rock music that took an activist stand.

"We began as a group singing some of the songs of [Seeger's group] the Weavers," she said. "And Pete Seeger certainly was a big influence. Pete taught a whole generation of folk singers that artists had a responsibility toward their community."

As people begin to accept responsibility in a global sense, musicians who promote that responsibility have found a new audience.

"There certainly is a growing awareness that there are political problems that need to be addressed," Ms. Travers said. "I think in the '80s and '70s, there was a real sort of movement inward -- personally inward. A lot of people were just concerned with their own personal fate. No one was watching the store."

The burgeoning debt, economic crisis, Iran-contra and the savings and loan debacle made the politically catatonic take note that something was wrong. Americans have gone from political numbness to a sense of malaise. They know something -- maybe almost everything -- needs to be done, but can't necessarily define the problem to begin fixing it.

A definition of some of the problems is cropping up everywhere -- in the music of such folk-influenced artists such as Peter, Paul & Mary and the Indigo Girls, in the alternative songs of the Australian band Midnight Oil, in the lyrics of the omnipresent rock bands U2 and R.E.M.

Folk music, by its very nature, defines society's problems, Ms. Travers said. "I don't know that I would say our music is political," she said. "Although people would say it was. It's ethical. Folk music -- our type of folk music -- is much more 'identify the problem.' "

From there, Ms. Travers said, individuals must decide on their own what they can do to help fix the problem. A song about homelessness, for example, might prompt one listener to

volunteer at a soup kitchen, a second to vote a particular way on an issue, and a third to send money to an organization that helps the homeless.

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