Burkhard Bilger points us toward a definition of folk music: “Before 1945, Ledbetter liked to say, you could tell which side of a ridge a banjo player was from; after 1945, most just played like Earl Scruggs” (New Yorker, April 28, p. 56). Beyond that pointing, what’s folk remains unclear. Bilger argues that folk evolves to a distilled purity that is the defining characteristic (p. 55). When the music in the isolated communities where folk originates becomes watered down with outside influences, that defining characteristic of purity is lost.
Yet variation is characteristic of folk. The author of folk music is not anonymous as much as communal. Folk songs are created by a community, passed down and sent away, and come to rest in other places, changing shape to suit local needs. A key characteristic of folk music therefore includes improvisation. A contemporary example is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the lyrics augmented and modified in many covers. This is why Bob Dylan rarely sings his own songs the same way twice. When folk passes from the community to the individual, its defining characteristic of variation is lost.
“900 Miles” morphs into “500 Miles.” It’s a train song, a folk shape, and the folk musician understands the form can be filled with any number of miles, train rides, destinations, lonely whistles. Keys change to suit voice and instrument; words change to update the form to contemporary, local needs. We find examples of this morphing in literature: Huckleberry Finn turns up in Holden Caulfield; Melville’s Ishmael gets a nod from Vonnegut’s Jonah; Romeo and Juliet sing Maria and Tony in West Side Story; the Henry of Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage meets Hemingway’s in A Farewell to Arms. The origins of literature are found in the origins of folk music. The individual relocates traditions. At the end of the cycle, the individual disappears back into the folk community, the folk song re-emerging as something new.