Clad in cowboy boots, a flannel shirt and straight leg jeans, Clayton Severson looked like the epitome of a country musician, right down to his shoulder-length blonde hair. Yet as he performed his first song on Sept. 23 at The Bitter End, his music showed only a smidge of country, mixed with stronger strains of folk, bluegrass, and pop.
Severson, 23, plays music emblematic of what has been coined “new folk.” Though he wouldn’t identify himself solely as a folk singer, his music can be described as folky in nature with his use of a harmonica accompanied by a single acoustic guitar, and his vocals with Leonard Cohen and Niel Young influences.
Folk music was the soundtrack to the 1960s. Musicians like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Joan Baez resonated with the counterculture movement. Fifty years later, folk is resurfacing on the mainstream and attracting a GenY audience. Though not as disillusioned as its 1960s counterpart in terms of sociopolitical messages, Generation Y seems to crave a new kind of folk – one that strays from the activist themes of its forefathers but is no less honest and simple in its approach.
The folk trend is easy to spot on the iTunes bestseller list for albums, where Mumford and Sons hold three Top 10 positions, including number one, and The Lumineers are at eighth. Not to mention the Avett Brothers whose faces are plastered on Gap’s fall ads.
Severson, a singer/songwriter from Iowa who just finished a 10,000-mile tour from Los Angeles to Nashville to New York, playing to mainly GenY audiences, said, “Craving authenticity is why folk is seeing a resurgence. Folk is a very honest style of music that allows for a lot of creative expression.” In a song he wrote for his grandfather Severson sings:
Hey old man, I’ll sit and listen, share your tales of ages past. Hey old man, please tell me a story, because you and I won’t last.
It’s hard to deny these lyrics are authentic. Severson is singing about his grandfather, asking for stories of the past that might in some way guide him through his own life before his time is up. A search for guidance is something many people crave, and such a genuine sentiment might be relatable to GenY.
Kim Ruehl, the folk music guide for About.com, thinks folk music started seeing more widespread interest after 9/11. “People wanted to connect with each other, connect with where they came from, focus on what’s simple, what really matters,” she said. “It was toward the end of the Bush administration when people my age and younger started wondering if we’d ever live in a world again where we could trust our government or each other.”
Though Ruehl disagrees with the term “new folk” as it would suggest that folk disappeared for some time, she does signal bands like The Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, Fleet Foxes, Felice Brothers and Decemberists as just a few of the modern musicians that have a lot to do with recognition of folk for GenY.
The Fleet Foxes are a band Ruehl feels definitely take influence from the folk musicians of the 50s and 60s, and their appeal for GenY is obvious. A generation with a supposed “me complex” who has been raised to think it can do anything, certainly might find resonance in “Helplessness Blues” lyrics of the Fleet Foxes:
I was raised up believing I was somehow unique, like a snowflake distinct among snowflake, unique in each way you can see. And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be, a functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond me.
Jaime Cone, author of the blog “City of Folk,” spends a lot of time following folk music in New York. At 28, she is a GenY-er who craves music that comes from the heart. Though folk music has gone on and off the public radar through the decades, she thinks it will find a new popularity with GenY. She said, “As the glitz and the glam of pop turn the younger generation off, they’ll gravitate toward searching for something more toned down and little more accessible.”
As a writer, Cone looks for meaning in lyrics. “Folk music tends to have the most introspective, powerful lyrics a lot of the time,” she said, noting the Decemberists and Iron and Wine as examples.
One of Decemberists most well known songs, “This is Why We Fight” powerfully yet simply speaks about disillusionment with aspects of modernity:
Come the war, come the avarice, come the war, come hell. Come attrition, come the reek of bones, come attrition, come hell. This is why, why we fight, when we lie awake. And this is why, why we fight.
This may be one of the more politically geared songs of new folk artists, but it’s no less simple and honest in its approach. As the tech-generation, GenY has grown up with images of war on every media outlet, and as always, music can sometimes help give insight on even the most sensitive topics.