Traditional Influences on Contemporary Music

April 22, 2023 2:53 am61 commentsViews: 62

Although Folk Music is meant to be heard live, every now and then a single person records a song that changes not just Folk Music, but that influences all of contemporary music. Below are three songs and musicians that did just that, each from a different generation of folk singer.

Goodnight, Irene by Lead Belly

The importance of Lead Belly to modern music can not be underemphasized. The “King of the 12 String Guitar” helped to popularize the instrument, passing interest on to the Byrds, Beatle George Harrison, who often played an electric 12 string, and even Jimmy Page, legendary guitarist for Led Zeppelin, who‘s double necked guitar–one with 6 strings and the other with 12–has become almost as iconic as the man.

According to folk legend, Lead Belly, who was incarcerated at the time, was released from prison early that he could record “Goodnight, Irene,” which he simply called “Irene.” This was later disproved, but helped add to his mystique as a hardened criminal, with newspapers drooling to write about the “singing convict.”

Goodnight, Irene later went on to be a #1 Billboard Magazine hit for the Weavers in 1950, one of the first hits of the American Folk Revival.

Return of the Grievous Angel by Gram Parsons

If it was possible for one man to create a music genre, it would be this one. “Return of the Grievous Angel,” perhaps his most well-known song, appears on Gram Parson’s last album before his untimely death, and is often viewed as a major influence in the birth of Alt Country.

Before he began his solo career, Gram Parsons had already made an impact in Folk Rock with his work with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. However, it is with his two solo albums that he was able to mold the sound that would later be emulated by Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, The Old 97’s, and Ryan Adams.

Gram Parsons also helped launch the career of Emmylou Harris, who was Parson’s singing partner on “Return of the Grievous Angel”.

Not a Pretty Girl by Ani Difranco

Ani Difranco took what was accepted as a female artist and smashed it in a flurry on innovative, percussive guitar and empowering lyrics. “Not a Pretty Girl” is not the most obvious example of her guitar style– using more conventional methods in a bluesy chord progression. However, when she spits out “I ain’t no damsel in distress/ and I don’t need to be rescued,” thousands of women pumped their fists in solidarity and picked up their own guitars.

Ani Difranco’s music is often fiercely political, harking back to the early half of the 20th Century and Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Odetta. She often collaborated with politically charged folk institution Utah Phillips. While many of the folk musicians she inspired attempt to emulate her, none of them can rouse the rabble like Ani Difranco.

Many more songs could fit this list, yet these three stand out for their influence on contemporary music. They are not just popular songs, but songs that created genres, triggered movements, and empowered thousands. Music is a primordial ooze that sometimes needs a stroke of lightning to create life. These three songs bring the thunder, a term you may never hear associated with folk music again.


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