It seems that a folk-music revolution has been taking place in recent years. Elements of the genre have been showing up in various places, blending with other styles, and generally standing the test of time while moving more prominently into the spotlight of popular music. Such qualities of this musical melting pot phenomenon can be found in the song above, “The Valley” by The Oh Hellos (many thanks to my sister-in-law for introducing me to the group with this song). Before we talk about the song, let’s talk a little about the what it represents.
I suppose one could challenge the term ‘folk-music revolution’ if they are well-versed in the history of the genre which has always been marked by the blending of many elements: poetry, eclectic groupings of instruments, improvisation, etc… Additionally, folk music has been around ever since the concept of music and the folks to write it have walked the earth. In the summarizing words of Louis Armstrong: “All music is folk music; I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.”
So whether we call it a ‘revolution’ or simply another entry in the archives of this broad and deeply historied genre, there are some interesting things happening in the wide world of folk-music.
In my observation, since the late 2000’s, many pop songs have born many signatures of the genre, including foot-stomping bass drums, the inclusion of folk instruments like banjo or mandolin, and guitars that sing melodically and are strummed frantically. In the grand portrait of the music industry, much of what has recently populated the airwaves has been painted with the colors of a heritage that is at once familiar to anyone who has ever heard a classic folk song, and yet fresh because of its long hiatus from the radios of popular music.
Please don’t misunderstand me; these artists are not plagiarizers perpetually under the shadow of the grandfathers and grandmothers of folk music Rather, they have further innovated on some recently rediscovered qualities of a music genre that reaches back into history like a good story.
The Oh Hellos are one such band that has done a phenomenal job of reinventing folk music in their own way. When I find a song that I enjoy, sometimes I pace how often I listen to it I don’t accidentally get tired of it. But I’ve listened to this one on repeat many a time and still come back to it with deep appreciation. The song has me hooked for at least the following three elements:
I have always been struck by the powerful sound of the vocals in the song. The entire song (with the exception of one or two lines) is sung by what sounds like an auditorium filled with talented vocalists. This is an effective production technique because it pulls the listener into the story of the song. Rather than placing the listener in the audience in front of a soloist, gang vocals surround the listener with a crowd for a more participatory experience in which they are invited to sing along.
When you think of a classic folk song, it’s likely that the percussion isn’t very prominent (if it’s even there at all). But the first thing you hear in “The Valley” is the huge thumping sound of drums and shakers. This percussive wave is maintained throughout the song as more instruments are brought into the mix, adding their own density to the overall sound. Moving the percussion to the forefront of the production is a fairly bold move but one indicative of a creative re-envisioning of folk song composition.
Out of all the folk song elements available to a writer, the lyrics of “The Valley” seem to be the most unaltered from their inspired heritage. Folk music is often characterized by lyrics that convey images and scenery. Think of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”, or the classic “Wabash Cannonball”. Each conveys a series of pictures and scenes to communicate their message. “The Valley” is no exception and communicates with artful mystery and poetry. I find the second verse to be a particularly beautiful sampling of the song’s story, piquing my interest to know more:
We were young when we heard you
Call our names in the silence
Like a fire in the dark
Like a sword upon our hearts
We came down to the water
And we begged for forgiveness
Shadows lurking close behind
We were fleeing for our lives
Music changes. Like an ocean that ebbs, flows, roars, and stills with the winds, music forms around the people of its culture. But there are always those ancient currents under the surface that exert their influence in ways seen and unseen. Folk music is, and always has been, a unique expression of people and their stories. As long as there are people, there will be stories. And as long as there are stories, there will be folk music.