I am writing this piece to clarify what I am trying to do as a singer of folk songs and to encourage you all to come hear for yourselves how this works, when Ranald, Daphne and I will present an evening of Canadian Folk Songs on Saturday, June 8, at the Old Town Hall (details on the event page and in the previous post on this page).
Folk songs tell stories or make comments about real life situations in language that is clear and easy to understand. The audience listens to the words and takes its satisfaction from the meaning of the words, while the tune serves as a pleasing structural platform for the words. A really good performance of a folk song, therefore, is one which best allows the words to be heard clearly, the meaning to come through and the audience to learn the refrain if there is one.
In contrast, pop, art and jazz songs tend to be vehicles for the voice to perform artfully in the style of the singer. It is, therefore, quite common to hear one of these songs and not hear the words clearly or retain any idea of what the song is about. This can still be a satisfying experience for the listener because the singer and instrumentalists combine to create a pleasing sound.
I have been both kinds of singer, but I have chosen in recent years to be a really good folk singer, because I want traditional songs to be heard and enjoyed in a way that is true to the tradition. Although people often tell me that I have a beautiful voice, this is not the purpose of my singing, and an even more satisfying comment after a performance is one that relates to the songs. I also gain much pleasure in the sound of many voices joining in on the choruses, as this is a very strong bonding experience available to us all and not something that is reserved for the professionals.
In claiming the title of folk singer, producing concerts and charging money to hear me sing, I am in a curious position of professionalizing a music that is originally the domain of non-professionals. But I hope that in staying true to the plain and simple singing style of these songs, encouraging group singing and teaching the refrains, I am allowing people to be exposed to songs and a singing style that they would otherwise never hear. My other hope is that people will get interested in this material by hearing me do it, and perhaps learn some of these songs for their own singing pleasure.