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What Is Folk Music?

You are sitting at choir practice in Oakville (or Burlington, Etobicoke, Lawrence Park or Richmond Hill, for that matter), when the friendly person next to you asks if you like folk music. You think perhaps of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, or Arlo Guthrie, iconic folk musicians whose work has influenced music over decades. But you realize that you aren’t sure exactly what the definition of folk music is.

Well, as always with My Pop Choir, we believe in going to the experts! Tim Harrison, heralded as “Canada’s cinematic songwriter” by the Boston Globe, has been recording and creating music all his life. His debut album “Train Going East,” introduced Tim to a wide audience and was produced by Canadian legend Stan Rogers. Nine albums and many tours later he remains one of Canada’s finest singer-songwriters. As well, Tim was the founding Artistic Director of the Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival in Owen Sound, Ontario, and has acted in the role of Artistic Director for many other events including Mariposa, Northwind, and Eaglewood Folk Festivals.

He offers his take on how, if it’s even possible, folk music can be defined.

“Sounding like an oldie, I can say that folk festivals of the past were focused on bridging gaps between singer and audience, and, while they were in a formal setting, sought to have people "share" the music rather than attend an entertainment extravaganza. The idea was to heighten the sense of community involvement.”

Tim points out that the folk "revivalists" believe people should sing only songs whose original authorship cannot be traced (most of those songs deriving from the 17th and 18th centuries) and they also believe that these songs are the one "true" folk music.

“I have to think that these songs come originally from individual imaginations,” he says. “Material may well have gone through the "folk process," that is transmitted orally down through the generations, but I believe that the creations of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton and others from the 1960s are also folk music.”

For Tim, storytelling is a fundamental part of attempting to define folk music, and these artists were nothing if not storytellers. He adds that he speaks of folk music derived only from his own Anglo-Saxon background and does not presume to talk about this in the context of any other culture.

He points out that in defining the folk genre, you have to consider east coast Scottish fiddling, or Appalachian banjo music and other types of music that may have originated at small social gatherings. “The banjo begins in Africa, comes to the Southern United States, gets shipped to Britain, and then returns to Appalachia in modal tunings. That's the folk process for sure and therefore is most definitely folk music.”

Tim feels that it comes down to music and stories which can be particular to a pocket of culture (like the Ottawa Valley) or more generally from any country or race of peoples you could name. “It's about people sharing with other people, or in my mind, community. All of these types of music put us in touch with our past and help to ground us in the present. Music and stories handed down in various cultures serve as a starting point for creative inspiration and help us to find our roots. Any music or story which we catch, and which gives us direction is "folk music."

You can find Tim at

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